A John Cage Night opens the Southbank Centre’s International Chamber Music Season

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  John Cage Night: Apartment House, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London 13.9.2011 (Gdn)

Radio Music for Eight Performers
Child of a Tree for solo percussion
Concert for Piano and Orchestra/Fontana Mix
String Quartet in Four Parts
Music for Eight 0’00”

Six months in a Buddhist monastery is the kind of preparation you really need for an all-Cage concert. You must move beyond your desires – the desire for order, for structure, for logic…As you listen, the music infuses these Zen values in your mind, but if you’ve just come from work it really is in at the deep end.

That’s where 4’33” comes in. It is a much-abused work, and I can’t say I was looking forward to experiencing it again, that protracted, embarrassed silence where everybody tries to act grown up and not laugh. But this performance wasn’t like that at all. The audience, who filled the QEH to capacity (how did Southbank Centre manage that?) were obviously in exactly the right mood for a John Cage experience. The piano version was performed, by Philip Thomas, who articulated the movement divisions but didn’t go as far as to close the lid at the start of each. Instead he held his hands to the keyboard and concentrated intensely on them for the duration of each movement. It was the ideal start to the show, and the buzz in the audience afterwards was electric.

John Cage would probably hate me for writing this, but his music can be divided into two broad groups. There are the conceptual works, where some new idea really makes the piece stand out. And then there are those pieces, which are usually written for an indeterminate but large number of performers and go on for about 20 minutes. You know from the start that there is going to be no development or progression here, and that the way it starts is pretty much the way it is going to continue until it stops. Cage wrote a lot of these, so it is fair that they make regular appearances in all-Cage programmes. This evening we got two, Concert for Piano and Orchestra (over the Fontana Mix) in the first half, and Music for Eight in the second. Perhaps I just wasn’t in the zone, but neither did anything much for me.

But the rest of the programme made up for it. Radio Music for Eight Performers is a classic music theatre/happening conception. The performers each have a radio, which they move around through various Medium Wave frequencies, determined of course by the I Ching. The concrete structure of the QEH meant that they didn’t actually find many stations, despite our being in the centre of London, but the interaction of interference noises made for excellent ‘sound music’. A group of visual artists was invited to perform the work, and the fact that few of them seemed comfortable performing on the stage or taking applause added a valuable layer of surrealism to the proceedings.

Child of a Tree involves a table covered in plants, some living, some dead, and a percussionist charged with making sounds from them. I’d heard it before, played by Richard Benjafield, who did his best to create a musical performance, moving swiftly from one plant to the next and linking together, at least with his body language, each of the activities. This evening’s performance, by Simon Limbrick, was much more laid back and, it seemed to me, more in keeping with the exploratory nature of the piece. Each sound was heard in isolation, inviting the audience to savour it without worrying too much about the context or relevance.

String Quartet in Four Parts is a wonderful work. It is written in the kind of non-repetitive minimalism that would later find its fullest expression in the music of Morton Feldman. And as in Feldman, everything here is quiet, the notes are often presented in isolation, and everything has a sense of being very, very important. The performance had plenty of atmosphere, but there were problems with the details. This was the only work of the evening where synchronisation mattered, and it wasn’t always quite right. Also, the restricted number of pitches means that intonation must be absolutely spot on, and when it’s not it really stands out. In fairness, the problems were minimal, but obvious nonetheless.

In all, though, the concert was a success, and the huge audience was certainly stimulated by the various musical and philosophical ideas they were presented. The event was the first in Southbank Centre’s International Chamber Music Season 11/12, and if nothing else that demonstrates an admirable open-mindedness about what constitutes chamber music. It also ties in with an exhibition of Cage’s paintings at the Hayward Gallery. That finishes at the end of the week (18 September), so do go and see it if you get the ‘chance’.

Gavin Dixon