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Cage in the Can: A John Cage Centenary Festival at the Sydney Opera House with Bang on A Can All-Stars

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At the Musicircus of the John Cage festival at the Sydney Opera House. Photo by Jamie Williams.
At the Musicircus of the John Cage festival at the Sydney Opera House. Photo by Jamie Williams.
Ken Thomson plays in the Musicircus. Photo by Jamie Williams.
Ken Thomson plays in the Musicircus. Photo by Jamie Williams.

John Cage: Centenary Celebration
The Studio, Sydney Opera House: 2 and 3 November 2012

Friday 2 November 7PM
‘John Cage and his American Descendants’
John CageIndeterminacy/Variations II
Florent Ghys An Open Cage
David Langsunray
Michael GordonFor Madeline
Julie Wolfe – Big, Beautiful, Dark and Scary

Saturday 3 November
1.30 PM
Lecture on Nothing’
Lyle Chan with guest panel discussion

3 PM
‘The Music of John Cage and Brian Eno’
John CageImprovisations
Robert Black – bass, David Cossin – percussion
John CageSonatas & Interludes (excerpts)
Vicky Chow – prepared piano
Brian Eno/Robert Wyatt/Rhett Davies arr. Michael Gordon – Music for Airports (1/1)
Brian Eno arr. David Lang – Music for Airports (1/2)
Brian Eno arr. Julia Wolfe – Music for Airports (2/1)
Brian Eno arr. Evan Ziporyn – Music for Airports (2/2)

4.30 PM
members of Bang on A Can All-Stars, Ensemble Offspring and others

7 PM
‘Permission Granted’
John Cage 4’33’’
Kate MooreRidgeway
Louis AndriessenWorkers Union 
Terry RileyIn C
Bang on a Can All- Stars
with Ensemble Offspring

Bang on A Can All-Stars:
Ashley Bathgate – cello
Robert Black – double bass
Vicky Chow – piano
David Cossin – percussion
Mark Stewert – electric guitar
Ken Thomson – clarinet
Andrew Cotton – sound design and engineer


Who is John Cage? Does it matter? At a certain point music must “speak” for itself, allow the musician to interpret the music and the listener to have the pure experience. It can be useful and interesting to have “background” whether historical or technical, as Mark Stewert gave a little of in his introductory spiels before he played, particularly when that information helps people with the music. But often with Cage’s music so much of the idea is in the concept, in the construction that there’s a risk that the listener thinks they’ve “got it” before a note is played. This, and the strong tendency toward cult worship of Cage, is ironic considering his is so often performer’s music. Cage’s cleverness is often overemphasized, he seems either to be taken too seriously or too facetiously, which threatens to reduce his pieces to one-liners, something he seems to have reliably avoided. His music seems more composed to help people to think on their own about music, any music, without drifting between clichés and received wisdom in a deoxygenated modern world. From sometime in the 19th century, music started to come about which anyone could listen to and appreciate intuitively without any training or “background” except maybe literacy and some emotional intelligence, whereas before the French Revolution a Baroque composer could expect a great deal more technical musical knowledge from the audience. One hopes music can transcend or make a false dichotomy intuition versus intellect (nowadays maybe more a corporate misunderstanding of Carl Jung’s types, anyway the “debate” is sophomoric). John Cage’s music, and other experimentalists’, seems often explained and even appreciated from pure intellect, whether using mathematical or philosophical or religious principles, music you “get” just from the score and it’s always trippy. Music, the thing, whatever it is, you listen to while the musicians interpret and play, in the end “paints” it own background and has to be taken as the thing in itself. Cage’s music is music because it can stand on its own, make its own background even when it comes from nowhere. Mozart’s music came from nowhere and he was no innovator. As far as we know he walked about with music coming to him, the more he wrote the more came, and to ask: where did it come from? how did he think up such music? is like asking how space or time can be infinite, how a four dimensional universe can be expanding, how can we have free will, or what happens after death.

Perhaps a little like Mozart after his death and to the present day, John Cage has become viewed as an eccentric genius becoming more and more enbarnacled with anecdotes and myths, out-of-context quotations and his own private jokes. The names on their own are enough to strike awe (albeit as well as other feelings) into the hearer before a note has been played. In addition, unlike Mozart, Cage has become somewhat hip. With all this baggage how are we supposed to hear and to listen to Cage’s music? Well, just chuck the baggage overboard and take it out for a sail, which is pretty much what Bang on A Can All-Stars have done. While taking a serious approach and almost always shedding self-consciousness they play John Cage. They are less interested in irony, sardonic jokes and more interested in humor, wit. While everybody’s asking what music is (what a personal question, it’s almost rude!) we might as well ask what a musician is. Is it an artist who happens to like to make sounds? Or is it an artist whose ideas come from within and in between the notes of pieces of music and express themselves, or create as artists, in sound? Is sound even ultimately music’s essence? Music is no more made of sounds than poems are made of words. Language is sound (before it was written) which says things and so becomes social, but ideas exist before or in between languages, and, as Robert Graves said, ‘poems are made of poetry.’ It is interesting and telling I think that so much of modern music seems to remove itself from the verbal, articulate dialogue of earlier music, of the concerto in its original, even when it uses words, spoken or sung, they are used almost as nonverbally as is possible or listenable.

Indeterminacy/Variations II had as much talking as playing on musical instruments or objects, but the spoken, muttered or shouted Indeterminacy stories form no dialogue or monologue, or even story, and the closer you listen to them while the musicians speak over each other or make sounds over each other, the less sense they make for being mundane, anecdotal or out of context. Yet there is a close rapport in the group and a sympathy if not responsiveness between the musicians comes across. They seem comfortable with each other on stage. This rapport is more obvious in some of the other pieces, especially Kate Moore’s Ridgeway and Louis Andriesson’s Worker’s Union as well as the other non-Cage pieces on the first night’s program, including Florent Ghys’ Cagesque An Open Cage which uses a recording of the man himself speaking some of his writings over played snatches of sounds and music and speaking. The programs were in fact mostly contemporary composers which Bang on A Can All-Stars likes to play rather than Cage himself, of which there were only the four pieces, though it was a good idea to mix up the programs rather than try for three all-Cage sessions in two days. The group was founded by David Lang, Julia Wolfe and Michael Gordon to play music which didn’t fit into the usual genres and give a home to new composers’ music who are trying to bring together rock and jazz and classical music. They didn’t play some of their weirdest repertoire, and some of the pieces were to me sounded self-similar. At times the group seemed a little more like artists who like to make (big) sounds, at times it got painfully loud, at times some of the music seemed more fun to play than to listen to. That could go for Cage himself though, as in his Improvisations and his percussion bias (as many moderns seem to), but however much fun it is to play or to listen to it is worth hearing since Cage performances can be few and far between here and it at least makes a change, even gives new perspective on other music. In a festival or biennale not everything has to be equal, or good, or liked by everyone.

Bang on A Can All-Stars play at the Sydney Opera House. Photo by Jamie Williams.
Bang on A Can All-Stars play at the Sydney Opera House. Photo by Jamie Williams.

Bang on a Can All-Stars has character as a group, there was something of a sense of roles in Variations II and whether they leap into a piece with great energy like in Worker’s Union, which was as if listening from underground to a play going on above you put on by dinosaurs, or work up in a gradual crescendo like in sunray. Like these, many of the non-Cage pieces have a strong rock pedigree(?), or jazz style, especially when heard in the loungey Studio, the little theatre under the Opera House, but are more sophisticated than most rock, I’d say. With more subtlety, though energy too, was Vicky Chow’s interpretation of excerpts from Sonatas & Interludes for prepared piano, though it would have had more subtlety unamplified. The piano could be very liquid like a 19th century Erard in some notes, or more percussive, but still strange, even ethereal, never trying to be a drum set. The beauty of the Steinway piano, maybe even its redeeming virtue, is that it leaves a pianist many options to make it sound as they need it, even if it means preparing it. Her playing showed a pleasure and musical understanding which carried across to the audience. Improvisations, here played on bass and percussion, was more evasive and diffuse, though had a certain pulse through it.

At the Musicircus. Photo by Jamie Williams.
At the Musicircus. Photo by Jamie Williams.

The festival was generous and intense for a two day affair especially given the intensity of playing of the group, with also the Musicircus filling in the early evening between the last two concerts, a free, inclusive affair Cage first put on in 1967, in which anyone could play or perform anything, scattered around the Western Foyer of the Opera House. The little festival could have been stretched out to a week with some more of Cage’s own pieces, and more breathers for the musicians, though. The group also plays quiet music with much sensitivity for an amplified group, as in the beginning of Ridgeway, an original take for a piece on, as Kate Moore puts it “searching for identity and place,” or the first half of sunray.

The textural pieces like In C or also, to some extent anyway, For Madeleine, or Big, Beautiful, Dark and Scary, or Ridgeway, benefit from the rapport of the group, their experience and above all their ability to hear each other. Though an amplified sextet, they listen to each other intently and pass signals with a look or subtler gesture and there is a certain resonance, physical and figurative, between the musicians. Even Brian Eno’s “ambient” Music for Airports with its meandering inertialess non-melodies, flaccid formlessness, becomes warm blooded and gains something like a soul when performed live by living human beings like these ones — one can see more soloistic playing, Ken Thomson’s clarinet playing standing out especially, but maybe then it ceases to be “ambient.” No one in the audience took up Mark Stewert’s suggestion to get up and walk about, but listened more or less intently for an hour. For me Music for Airports is more nothing than 4’33’’. They are opposites in a way — 4’33’’ is anything rather than nothing. Rather than emptying one’s brain, the silence fills it, or rather allows it to fill. There is nothing more irritating than having to hear to a sound you don’t want, and there sure are a lot of them in this day and age. 4’33’’ leaves intact the infinite possibility of a blank staff. What will a blank page rolling out of the paper mill end up receiving? How many possibilities are there? In all music there are restrictions or rules whether conscious or otherwise, whether the choice of a sonata form, imitation, a fugue, a harmonic plan, a set rhythm or dance, a program, a key, or to use serialism, a symbolic system, or a subliminal numerological pattern, as J. S. Bach took on himself, though probably just to challenge himself to see if he could compose in under the conditions, rather than truly believing the numerology, all these restrict the possibilities yet the composer can still write freely. But the music of course doesn’t come from the paper, even in 4’33’’ there will be noises, sounds, ideas, movement in the larger sense even if there is no motion, as in ballet when stillness can be as full of meaning as motion, as full of tense muscles, quivering invisible movement, or as full of ideas, or just contemplative silence. The original semi-outdoor performance of 4’33’’ in Woodstock made more sense. No one would go to a stuffy concert hall to compose music or to write. Ideas of one’s own are more likely to come in silence, and more likely to come outdoors, walking in nature, or in a personal place of one’s own choosing or arrangement, like a studio.

Ashley Bathgate, Ken Thomson and Vicky Chow of Bang on A Can All-Stars. Photo by Jamie Williams.
Ashley Bathgate, Ken Thomson and Vicky Chow of Bang on A Can All-Stars. Photo by Jamie Williams.

Whether music comes to the the composer from silence, from nowhere, from the muse, or from somewhere else unknown, where does a musician’s interpretation ultimately come from? This is in a way an even more mysterious question, at least more complicated since there are more egos involved. The creative act of interpretation, whether equally, more or less important than “The Score,” though actually there is no importance competition here, is what we go to the concert hall to hear, rather than some slavish mechanical churning out of music, which can never be a composer’s intention. Music is a performing art and the composer never has absolute control over the creation, always leaving to or sharing with others part of the creative act; one of every composer’s intentions is that the piece be played from time to time. Like Monteverdi or the other Baroque composers, though Cage took it to an extreme, Cage left scores underspecified, left major decisions to the musician, to the farthest extent he thought possible, ultimately relying on the musicians’ training and creativity. But musical notation can never specify all aspects of the music — even the four elements of music, pitch, duration, timbre and volume are not everything — and all composers leave something to the performer, even if a more mysterious, synthetic, left-brained decision of general interpretation. In this way musicians of Cage’s music cannot hide behind the score — or even the stopwatch — however trippy the concept, there is still an expectation as you go into the concert hall and wait for the musicians to come on stage that something creative with humans beings will happen. As musicians come around who never heard Cage himself interpret his own music, his music will continue to evolve, even to compose, without his physical presence.

"String quartet electronic muscle stimulation" — at the Musicircus. Photo by Jamie Williams.
“String quartet electronic muscle stimulation” — at the Musicircus. Photo by Jamie Williams.

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