John Cage Uncaged – BBCSO Barbican Weekend (16-18 January: Richard Whitehouse’s report)

The String Quartet (17 January, St Giles Cripplegate)

String Quartet in Four Parts

Duke Quartet

Cage and his Heroes (17 January, Barbican Hall)

Atlas eclipticalis (UK premiere of full orchestral version) with Winter Music and Cartridge Music

Loré Lixenberg (soprano)

John Tilbury (piano)

Sound Intermedia

BBC Symphony Orchestra
David Porcelijn

Constructions in Metal (17 January, Barbican Hall)

Imaginary Landscape No.3
First Construction (in Metal)
Living Room Music
Credo in Us
Child of Tree
Rainforest I
The Three Strange Angels
Ostinato pianissimo
Third Construction

Guildhall Percussion Ensemble
Richard Benjafield

Sound Intermedia

Cage and Friends (18 January, Barbican Hall)

Song Books interspersed with The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs, A Flower and Seven Haiku
Symphony No.4 – Largo
Cello and Orchestra
101 [UK premiere]

Rolf Hind (piano)

Frances M. Lynch & Nicole Tibbels (sopranos)

Paul Watkins (cello)

BBC Symphony Orchestra
Pierre-André Valade

Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: 18 January, 2004
Venue: Barbican Hall & St Giles Cripplegate, London

2002, the tenth anniversary of Cage’s death and his 90th birthday year, was marked by a continuing stream of recordings but little in the way of live performance – at least in the UK, a deficiency which made this contextual retrospective – the latest of the BBC’s ’January weekends’ – the more welcome.

Contextual because this series viewed Cage firmly, if not always convincingly, from the perspective of American music during the 80 years of his lifetime. Fine if the works themselves had been well chosen, but composers such as William Schuman and Aaron Copland have little more aesthetic connection with Cage than the mere fact of shared nationality. This may explain, given that the New York School (Morton Feldman, Christian Wolff, Earle Brown, et al) featured prominently, the absence of Stefan Wolpe – mentor to a generation of American composers, and sometime intellectual sparring partner of Cage, whose music remains regrettably ignored by the larger musical institutions. His combative, complex music from the 1950s would have made a provocative counterpart to Cage’s indeterminacy from the same period – its conviction manifesting itself readily to many of those attending an event such as this.

Perhaps the presence of Wolpe’s Symphony in a concert of “Cage and His Heroes” (alleged) would have been too much of an all-round gamble for the BBC to consider. Not that Saturday’s concert was in itself a disappointment. In particular, the conducting of David Porcelijn – one of many figures all but unknown to UK audiences – ensured that proceedings had the requisite kick. His account of Edgard Varèse’s Amériques was not exactly subtle in its delineating of the piece’s sprawling if powerfully cumulative structure, but he projected its embracing of Modernist diversity with suitably reckless abandon. Astute thinking to follow a work for 100+ musicians with one for a single performer: vocalist Loré Lixenberg emerging at audience level to enact a lively scenario to Cage’s Aria – its text approximating to befuddled Esperanto and its ’score’ a potent invitation to deceptively off-the-wall antics, as here. A combination of wackiness and unease which more than paved the way for Eric Satie’s (First World) wartime ’realist ballet’ Parade – transcending, through its barbed whimsy and proto-minimalist rhythms, the fripperies of bourgeois culture it was initially accused of promoting.

Porcelijn pointed up the music’s expressive ambiguity accordingly (though substituting sampled ’splats’ for the specified revolver shots was an instance where modern technology hinders rather than enhances), and found a coursing energy in the implacable stoicism of Carl Ruggles’s masterpiece Sun-Treader – whose craggy gestures and steely dissonance belie an intricately-woven polyphony monumental in its aspiration yet tragic in its circumscribed limits. Qualities that no one could level at Cage’s Atlas Eclipticalis – its astronomically-derived chord collection given added zest by concurrent renditions of Winter Music, John Tilbury playfully discreet in his one-pianist realisation, and Cartridge Music, a precursor of those sound-samples integral to today’s remix scene. The resulting ’triple whammy’, while it failed to provoke the near-riot of early outings, at least effected amusement on the part of certain musicians, and bemusement of that from certain audience members.

Sunday evening’s Cage and Friends was a lower-key affair all round. The first half saw the Barbican platform turned into a theatrical space in which sopranos Nicole Tibbels and Francis M. Lynch utilised selections from Cage’s Song Books to put on a Samuel Beckett-meets-French and Saunders routine, with pianist Rolf Hind the unwitting ’fall guy’ in proceedings. Entertaining, at times highly so, but at 45 minutes too long to consistently maintain interest, and with the feeling that the protagonists might come up with a similar revue were they to jettison Cage’s text and substitute a Jackie Collins novel instead. The highlights came when the trio minimised their antics to give limpid renderings of Seven Haiku and two of Cage’s loveliest vocal items: A Flower and The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs, each of them opening a window of acute serenity out onto a scene of generalised mayhem.

After the interval, Pierre-André Valade directed a complementary triptych of orchestral works that encapsulated much about the weekend. It would be good to hear the quirky amalgam that is the late Lou Harrison’s ’Last Symphony’ (No.4) complete, for its opening Largo is a gorgeous evocation of Pacific rim environs that works Asiatic influences effortlessly into its musical contours. The hermetic intensity of Morton Feldman’s Cello and Orchestra (the first in his ’ … and Orchestra’ series from the 1970s which constitutes the most significant re-evaluation of concerto form since Bartók) came across the more keenly, Paul Watkins integrating the ’solo part’ into its stark surroundings with commendable poise. Cage’s 101 (for that number of musicians) ended the concert almost as a recessional – luminous textures punctuated by scintillating skeins of percussion and framed by primal-sounding brass fanfares. Less distilled than that of Feldman, Cage’s orchestral sense comes into its own in his last decade: a time when his composing became more provocative through being more intrinsically musical.

Absorbing as both of these concerts intermittently were, they felt (inevitably?) less cohesive than the two smaller-scale events (Cage would likely have detested the epithet ’chamber’) your reviewer attended. Saturday late-evening saw “Construction in Metal” – taking in such Cage classics as the Varèsian First Construction and uproarious Third Construction (the piece that accorded the conch shell iconic status), the proto-Americana of Credo in Us, the prescient low-fi of Living Room Music and the environmentalism of Child of Tree: a miscellany that confirms its composer as the liberator of percussion bar none. Also included were Rainforest, David Tudor’s groundbreaking ecological soundscape, the percussion-piano template that is Henry Cowell’s Ostinato pianissimo, and the engagingly theatrical antics of Peter Garland’s Three Strange Angels. Demanding by any standards, but with Richard Benjafield directing the Guildhall’s Percussion Ensemble with his customary flair, and Sound Intermedia injecting a little acoustic alchemy with their ’sound design’, the performance riveted from start to finish. Admirable too that the musicians requested applause be withheld until the end of the sequence. Would that higher-profile performers and concert promoters followed suit.

Saturday lunchtime had given us “The String Quartet” – or at least, two of Cage’s string quartet works (his ’quartet’ for the medium has yet to receive the requisite attention), in well-prepared if slightly frigid performances by the Duke Quartet. In a (presumably unplanned) gesture, which Cage would have appreciated, the pieces were played in reverse order to that advertised. Thus the hieratic gestures of Four were followed – after an interlude of two traditional items for shakuhachi, poetically rendered by Kumoijishi Reiho – by the quizzical seasons-traversal (in the order Summer to Spring) of String Quartet in Four Parts, which finds Cage’s balletic and meditative impulses inextricably linked. A pity that such qualities were lost on those in the audience audibly fuming about the programme reversal. Perhaps they need to ’get a life’ inside the concert hall as well as out?

After all, there is as aspect to Cage which makes it wrong to be too pious in the face of his playful anarchism. The overnight (Saturday/Sunday) performance of Satie’s Vexations in the Barbican Conservatory, its 840 repetitions undertaken by a relay of varyingly well-known names, was – in the words of one punter – “quite relaxing, especially for those who felt like kipping there for the evening”. And the “Musicircus” event in the Barbican foyers, masterminded by Stephen Montague and with its 340 performers taking in everything from a lecture on mushrooms (on which Cage was an expert) to a free-form set by former Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones, offered up a sonic mélange which more than sustained itself through two 45-minute sets.

And if one thought to spy Cage himself among the throng – well, where else would the composer who “made the world seem safe for creativity” have felt so much at home?

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