Monday, 5 July 2010

John Cage: Indeterminacy at Shoreditch Church

A third concert review, and I hope to do a couple more next week if I get the chance. This concert was a nice one, and picked up on strands of musical thinking exhibited in the previous two in an interesting and slightly unexpected way.

After a slightly blustered journey from Old Street (had to break out the A-Z as my knowledge of this area is shamefully poor), arrived at the truly beautiful church and greeted with a nice glass of red. The concert began a little late (seems in the hot weather, people rock up late for concerts, something I don't really ever do); nevertheless it began with some bravura. Richard Thomas's startling and inspired performance of 57:30 for a String Player (1953) was a real treat. You can see his cello accompanied by the heavily branded edition peters landscape part (I always think it's rather stupid to have landscape parts; though it did allow for some theatrical page turns). There was a certain intense hilarity inherent in this opening string music, something that became a theme for the rest of the concert.

The music from Suite for Toy Piano (1948) that followed felt very much like filler to me, though it had its charm. I do understand Cage's motion towards chance as a determinant for his compositional output - some of his earlier, semi-improvised compositions (as I feel sure this one was) are quite weak. These pieces also had some of the elements of structured silliness or charm shown in the earlier work, though the music for toy pianos is (of course) more evocative of innocence.

Next came the well-known Solo for Sliding Trombone (1957-8). This is performed quite a bit and there isn't much I need say about it save for the interesting 'functionality' this particular performance had. Alan Tomlinson's meticulous setting up of the table for his mutes, the music stand, the part, and his chair spilled over into the musical performance (despite his spoken disclaimer that the preceding activities were not written in the score; they probably are implied on some level). Cage's music seemed to have the same 'functional' quality that his setting up of his apparatus had - but a mysterious functionality understandable only to some higher authority. I got the feeling that if he didn't parp his mouthpiece into the harmon mute at the particular point that he did, something else might have been adversely affected, and (like an employee) the play would have to 'compensate' somehow. Again, the silliness invoked by this piece had a distinctly structural feel to it - like someone being instructed to play. This was in marked contrast to the A band's performance the previous night - it seemed that no one was instructing them to play, not even the concert organisers.

After a protracted period of (perhaps improvised) silence, Richard Thomas played a further cello piece. Though maybe a little weaker this time, it was nevertheless fascinating to hear this music in combination with the sounds from outside - notably the usual friday-night spats between men and women on the street. This was followed by a performance of 0'0" (1962), realised by the iPhone ensemble (I wonder whether they do other performances, and what they perform). This, again, picked up on the structured silliness of earlier pieces. This time, I felt it was a bit forced and perhaps a little embarrassing. Tania Chen's lunatic tap dancing combined with snippets of radio and the sounds of the world cup (I think), as well as another ensemble member's brushing and straightening of her hair, seemed a bit much for me. It looked to me rather like undergraduate performance art, somewhat unconvincing.

After the interval, we returned to a ten-minute realisation of Music for Amplified Toy Pianos (1960), a very beautiful work, and a little short (I felt) at the length that it was. An extra 5 or 6 minutes would have been perfect to fully articulate the atmospheres generated, but in a long programme like this it might have been unsuitable. This performance also lacked some of the silliness present in previous works - instead it was purely tranquil, articulating well Cage's mantra that music should 'sober and quiet the mind, thus making it susceptible to divine influences'.

But lastly we came to the moment most audience members had probably been waiting for. Comedian Stewart Lee has been a supporter of experimental music over the years, and his sense of comic timing and understanding of the domain was a obviously an advantage in tackling Cage's Indeterminacy (1959). Lee's somewhat clinical approach - sitting at a desk, with each story on a card - had a poignancy to it. There was something of the archivist about Lee's performance (and a tangible absence of Cage himself); but Lee was not cold, he had great warmth and humility. Though often Tania Chen and Steve Beresford's interruptions didn't perhaps interrupt as much as they might have done (and occasionally one got a sense of the awkwardness apparent, with Lee waiting for interruptions that didn't materialise), the performance had a charm and polish to it. I especially liked the Richard Buhlig story (including Cage waiting for 12 hours outside his house), one of the particularly wordy stories taking quite an effort to read in one minute. Thirty minutes was also a good length of time for the work, as enough variety was introduced without lapsing into indulgence.

A good evening overall, though the concert did have its low points. The humour inherent in Cage's work was emphasised - which seems to make sense, seeing as Indeterminacy is one of Cage's most humorous and accessible works. It's interesting to me that because Cage himself was such a warm person (and that his writings and interviews became so widely disseminated), his more austere works often found difficulty amongst even learned auditors - it's easy to understand why. Maybe Stockhausen and Boulez understood that, if one desires to work as a serious modernist, one probably ought to be a bit humourless. Though the public persona might suffer, people might be inclined to take as read the seriousness of the work without any dissonance in understanding.

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