Out of nowhere this morning, the ghost of John Cage and his creative genius visited me at a supermarket in Bordeaux, France. I was so glad to be back in touch with the old goat. It had been a while.
But along with a thousand other shoppers jostling for Yuletide goodies, I was being hammered by “Christmas Music”, a Muzak track of Jingle Bells and Silent Night (in English) as I emptied my wallet to bring champagne and foie gras to my home.
Suddenly I heard John whisper in my ear, “Tell them to play 4’33”.” Aha, I thought, that’s the perfect adaptation of a contemporary classic with the trashy earworms we must abide year after year after year. Is there any tune as trite as “Silent Night”? “Adeste Fidelis” and — oh no — “Little Drummer Boy” ! Are there any songs as perfect for the fine hand of John Cage? Silence was his byword, his bible, his autobiography.
I have trotted around the globe for most of my life, finally landing in Bordeaux, which seemed a safe haven from tacky popular culture and seasonal music-making. But it was another disappointment a few years ago to come face-to-face with musical globalization – American tastelessness transported into the heart of Southwest France, the home of Ravel, the birthplace of the Labèque sisters piano duo, the cradle of great writing and great thinking, Mauriac, Montaigne, Montesquieu. The home of soprano Natalie Dessaye, conductor Paul Daniel, and for many years, the adopted city of Roberto Benzi.
Hélas (as the French say), the greatness of the past is being swamped by the dumber tide of the present. Those of us who yearn for a Bach cantata (why not?) cannot even switch off the trash like a smart phone, the other plague of our time. Trivality is in the air, everywhere.
It’s hard to escape the earworm at this time of year, with shopping malls and public streets bombarding us. The less you like these tired tunes, the longer they hang around in the memory cells, circling the mind like fruit flies over an orange.
The late neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote in “Musicophilia” that these awful tunes have subverted the brain, forcing it to fire repetitively. . . “as may happen with a tic or a seizure.”
Sacks quotes a patient recalling a bout of earworms. The song “Love and Marriage” took possession of the man for ten days, leading him to desperate efforts to shut it off: “I jumped up and down. I counted to a hundred. I splashed water on my face. I tried talking loudly to myself, plugging my ears.” It finally subsided, only to return when he told Sacks about it.
Funny. That just happened to me this morning while shopping.
Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. He worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his writing career. He is the author of five books and divides his time between Boston and Bordeaux.
A minute’s silence can feel like a long time when one is required to stop and focus on that time passing – as at 11am on Remembrance Sunday, for example. John Cage’s most famous and most controversial composition, 4’33”, at just over four-and-a-half-minutes, is surprisingly long when one is at a performance of it. Such is the way that this work is presented, one is required to listen, and focus on the performance just as one would any other piece of music performed in a concert.
In the last 18 months, I’ve been to three performances of Cage’s comment on what constitutes “music”, and an important example of conceptual art. The first was last summer in a performance by American pianist Adam Tendler, at which everyone in the tiny exclusive audience knew exactly what was going on (thanks in no small part to Adam’s fascinating introduction to the work – read about the performance here). The other performances have been this year, given by pianist Annie Yim as part of her MusicArt “conceptual concerts”, which combine music, words and art. Each performance has been unique, the experience determined by performer, location and audience, just as Cage intended.
Last week I attended Annie Yim’s latest MusicArt event, a Conceptual Concert in Three Acts, which drew inspiration from the creative collaboration between John Cage and American artist Robert Rauschenberg. The concert took place in a private gallery in Mayfair where Rauschenberg’s “spreads” collages were on display (full review here). Cage’s work was the final act, the finale. At this performance, I felt I came closest to the very first performance of 4’33”, and watching the audience’s reaction was rather fascinating.
The score of John Cage’s 4’33”
The score of John Cage’s 4’33”
As specified by the composer, the piano lid was closed and then raised to signal the start of the work – and subsequently closed and raised to indicate the separate movements (4’33” is scored in three movements). Large mirrors sited on either side of the piano allowed us, the audience, a sense of being on stage with the performers, which created an interesting and witty suggestion of “audience participation”, and reflected our reactions back to us – something I think Cage would have thoroughly enjoyed. As the piece moved inexorably through its silent bars, the ambient sounds of the gallery, the noise of the street outside (including a rather musical motorbike starting up), the constant rumble of a vibrant big city at nighttime, and the living, breathing audience all infused the performance. The audience was not the usual concert audience – many were friends of the gallery, as far as I could ascertain – and some were distinctly unsettled or confused by this “music” which was apparently completely silent (except of course it isn’t!). Ahead of me, a woman looked around anxiously, as if seeking some kind of reassurance that all was well from her fellow audience members. On the front row, someone tapped, somewhat impatiently, their ring on a wine glass, thus creating another note to complement the motorbike. There were embarrassed titters of laughter, some sighing and coughing, quickly suppressed as befits good concert etiquette. Behind me, about 3 minutes in, someone clapped, trying to pre-empt the end of the performance, but no one else joined in and the performers adhered assiduously to Cage’s directions, the work ending when the appropriate time had elapsed and the piano lid was finally closed.
This, for me, was the best performance of 4’33” I have attended so far – because it did exactly what Cage intended and proved that the work still has the power to intrigue, amuse and provoke.
“They missed the point. There’s no such thing as silence. What they thought was silence, because they didn’t know how to listen, was full of accidental sounds. You could hear the wind stirring outside during the first movement. During the second, raindrops began pattering the roof, and during the third the people themselves made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out.”
– John Cage, speaking about the premiere of 4’33”
So why is 4’33” so provocative? When John Cage conceived it, in the years immediately after the Second World War, he was attempting to remove both composer and artists from the process of creation. Instead, by asking the musicians specifically not to play, Cage allows us, the audience, to create our own “music”, entirely randomly and uniquely, by listening to the noises around us during four minutes and thirty-three seconds of “silence”, and removing any pre-conceptions or pre-learned ideas we may have about what music is and how it should be presented, perceived and received.
Presenting the work in a gallery full of Rauschenberg’s art was also significant for it was Rauschenberg’s white paintings – seemingly blank canvases simply covered with white paint – which initially inspired Cage to create 4’33” and which, like Cage’s work, rely on the ambiance of the space in which they are presented to bring them to life. There are parallels with other visual artists too, including Carl André and Marina Abramovic, both of whose work explores the relationship between artist, artwork and audience.
But perhaps the most significant aspect of 4’33”, especially in our fast-paced, 24/7 21st-century world, is that it forces us to pause, to really listen, and encourages a special kind of in-the-moment focus, common to the practice of meditation.
Conceptual Concert in Three Acts with Annie Yim, piano
Annie Yim, piano; Raymond Yiu, composer; Kayo Chingonyi, poet
Thursday 13th December 2018, 6.30pm at Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, Ely House, 37 Dover Street, London W1S 4NJ
Pianist Annie Yim is the creator of MusicArt London, a conceptual concert series which combines music with poetry and visual arts, creating interesting and unexpected dialogues and connections between the works in the programmes and across creative disciplines. Programmes include works by 21st century composers, often juxtaposed with historical masterpieces, spoken word, sound and video installations, dance and art. Her innovative artist-led concerts, often presented in collaboration with others, multiply artistic roles and dissolve boundaries across media.
Yim’s forthcoming MusicArt event, ‘Conceptual Concert In Three Acts’ on 13 December in London, features a world premiere concert-installation with composer Raymond Yiu and poet Kayo Chingonyi as well as piano music and spoken words by maverick composer John Cage. The performance takes place in the Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac London, which is showing a new exhibition of American artist Robert Rauschenberg’s ‘Spreads’ and ‘Ryoanji’, an installation by John Cage, Rauschenberg’s close friend and long-time creative mentor and collaborator. The Conceptual Concert takes its inspiration from the art and life of Rauschenberg and Cage, and pays homage to their work and joint creative impulses through music and words.
The specially composed concert-installation inspired by the work of Rauschenberg and Cage focuses on dialogues – musical and spoken, historical and contemporary, space and time, visual and aural interactions. Intended to be cumulative and cyclical, this new composition comprises unexpected combinations of influences and traditions, uncovering themes in Rauschenberg’s Spreads that have been incorporated into our process.
– Annie Yim
In Rauschenberg’s work content is often ambiguous. His ‘Spreads’ series comprise wooden panels to which he variously applied acrylic paint, paper and fabric collage, solvent-transferred images, coloured or mirrored plastics and everyday objects such as fans, pillows, buckets and lights, and thus blurred the distinctions between different media such as photography, painting, printing and sculpture by combining them all in one work. Taking inspiration from Rauschenberg’s artistic process and collaborative spirit, together with his exploration of layering, fragments, memory, resonances and integration, Yim and her co-collaborators interweave music and words, blurring the boundaries between traditional roles of musician, composer and poet. Like Rauschenberg’s work, these “sound events” suggest several narrative outcomes or associations to the listener or viewer.
Cage too blurred and pushed boundaries. An iconoclast like Rauschenberg, he challenged preconceived notions of how music should be presented in performance and questioned what actually constitutes “music” and “sound”. His Winter Music, dedicated to Robert Rauschenberg and included in Annie’s concert, utilises musical collage, chance and indeterminacy, leaving decisions about the presentation of the music to the performer. His infamous 4’33”, which concludes Annie’s programme, was directly inspired by Rauschenberg’s White Paintings, whose seemingly “blank” canvasses change depending on the light conditions of the rooms in which they are hung. 4’33 is, in effect, an “aural blank canvas”, reflecting the ever-changing ambient sounds surrounding each performance, and onto which performers and audience may place their own interpretation and responses, complementing Rauschenberg’s contention that an artwork is incomplete without the presence of the viewer (or audience). The audience will be invited to participate during Annie’s performance of 4’33”, further confirming Rauschenberg’s assertion.
Conceptual Concert in Three Acts
Presented in collaboration with MusicArt, Thursday 13th December 2018, 6.30pm at Galerie Thaddeus Ropac, Ely House, 37 Dover Street, London W1S 4NJ. Admission free.
This week I fulfilled a long held wish – to attend a live performance of John Cage’s infamous and iconoclastic ‘silent’ work 4’33”. The performance was part of a special visit to a recording studio at City University to see how Edition Peters create content for the innovative and high-spec Tido Music piano app. This involves a filmed masterclass where the pianist (in this instance Adam Tendler) sets the work in context, with information about its creation and critical reception, and advice on practising the music, together with a live performance (more about Tido Music here). The decision to include 4’33” in the Tido Music library is entirely due to the work’s extraordinary and for some, controversial, place in twentieth-century music – and for pianist Adam Tendler the work should be regarded as a “standard” of piano repertoire.
Ever since its premiere given by David Tudor on August 29, 1952, in Maverick Concert Hall, Woodstock, New York, as part of a programme of contemporary piano music, the piece has courted controversy and opprobrium, its detractors claiming it is not “real music” or that the work is some kind of joke. Some audience members felt cheated or angered by the performance, saving their loudest, most uproarious protests for the post-concert Q&A session. “Good people of Woodstock, let’s drive these people out of town!” someone reportedly shouted after the concert.
So why is 4’33” so controversial? When John Cage conceived it, in the years immediately after the Second World War, he was attempting to remove both composer and artists from the process of creation. Instead, by asking the musicians specifically not to play, Cage allows us, the audience, to create our own “music”, entirely randomly and uniquely, by listening to the noises around us during four minutes and thirty-three seconds of “silence” and removing any pre-conceptions or pre-learned ideas we may have about what music is and how it should be presented, perceived and received. The work is an example of “automaticism”, and was, in part, Cage’s reaction to a seemingly inescapable soundtrack of “muzak”.
Neither composer nor artists seemingly have any control over or impact on the piece; the piece is created purely from the ambient sounds heard and created by the audience. In this way, the audience becomes crucial: this aural “blank canvas” reflects the ever-changing ambient sounds surrounding each performance, which emanate from the players, the audience and the building itself. Maverick Concert Hall, where the work was premiered, is partially open to the elements, and thus the audience at that first public performance could hear the “accidental” sounds around them: birdsong, the wind in the trees, rain on the roof, and the sounds of the audience members themselves. This of course was one of Cage’s intentions for the piece – to prove that the absence of musical notes is not the same thing as silence.
Cage was not the first composer to conceive a piece of music consisting entirely of silence: examples and precedents include Alphonse Allais’ 1897 Funeral March for the Obsequies of a Deaf Man, consisting of twenty-four blank bars (Allais was an associate of Eric Satie, a composer whom Cage much admired), and Yves Klein’s 1949 Monotone-Silence Symphony, an orchestral forty-minute piece whose second and last movement is a twenty minute silence. And there are examples from the world of visual art too: American artist, friend and occasional colleague of Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, produced a series of white paintings, seemingly “blank” canvases, which change depending on the light conditions of the rooms in which they are hung, the shadows of people viewing them and so forth. Like Cage’s work, Rauschenberg’s canvases are brought to life by their viewers and the venue in which they are exhibited (I saw one of Rauschenberg’s White Paintings at a retrospective at Tate Modern, together with other works dedicated to his friend John Cage, and the canvas really does shift and alter depending on the conditions of the room in which it is displayed). There are parallels with other visual artists too, including Carl André and Marina Abramovic, both of whose work explores the relationship between artist, artwork and audience, the limits of the body, and the possibilities of the mind.
On another level, Cage was challenging – and exploiting – the conventions of traditional concert hall etiquette. By programming a work to be performed at a prestigious venue, with high-status players and conductor, the audience’s expectations are heightened long before the performance begins – think of the excitement and anticipation generated when Simon Rattle, Daniel Barenboim or Jonas Kaufman come to town.
Cage was also experimental – he liked to try new things and challenge conventional ways of doing things. For him art was “a sort of experimental station in which one tries out living.” I am sure he felt the audience’s reactions – curious, puzzled, angry, intrigued, amused – to 4’33” were as interesting as the concept of a silent piece of music.
“They missed the point. There’s no such thing as silence. What they thought was silence, because they didn’t know how to listen, was full of accidental sounds. You could hear the wind stirring outside during the first movement. During the second, raindrops began pattering the roof, and during the third the people themselves made all kinds of interesting sounds as they talked or walked out.” – John Cage, speaking about the premiere of 4’33”
Later in his life, Cage stated that he played 4’33” every day, and the notion of incorporating 4’33” into one’s daily practising regime is very appealing, never more so in our noisy, fast-paced, always connected modern world. The work was composed, in part, as a reaction to “muzak” and the “background noise” that seems to invade every corner of our lives. I’ve become more and more aware of this when I am out and about. There is music everywhere and it’s becoming increasingly intrusive – it’s in bars, cafés, restaurants, shops, leaking from other people’s headphones, even my bank, often at a volume which precludes comfortable speech or hearing, and which invades our conscious, creating unwanted “earworms” or aggravating my tinnitus. It seems that there is some unseen force which requires us to have a soundtrack for every moment of our day. In contrast, 4’33” impels us to to take time out to listen, and really listen. And it encourages a special kind of in-the-moment focus, common to the practice of meditation.
This intensity of listening and engagement with the work was very evident at the Tido Music performance by Adam Tendler. The performance took place not in a conventional concert hall but in a small performance space at City University. The audience was very small – just Tido and Edition Peters staff members and I, no more than 15 of us. The excitement and anticipation of the performance began before we entered the room, much in the same way as it would if one was at Wigmore Hall or the Proms. The pianist was seated at a gleaming Steinway D which stretched before us like a sleek black limo. On the music desk was the score and a stop watch. After a very interesting, articulate introduction to the piece (for the benefit of the Tido Music app content), Adam was invited by the film crew to begin when he was ready. A palpable ripple of expectancy vibrated around the room, a couple of people primed their smartphones to take photographs. I had expected to be able to hear the ticking of the stopwatch but it was not audible at all. Instead I heard the hum of the air-conditioning, the stomach gurglings of the person sitting next to me, someone stretching their legs. And all around me I could sense everyone else listening very intently, focusing, engaging. It was a remarkably intense experience, an intensity which made 4 minutes and 33 seconds feel much longer than it actually was in real time. When the performance ended, there was an audible collective sigh and the sense of the tiny audience releasing, unwinding, relaxing, before the applause came.
The actual performance began when Adam lowered the fall board of the piano and started a stop watch on the music desk. He sat almost motionless at the piano, but there was no sense of him disengaging from the performance or relaxing. He might not be playing any notes on the instrument, but he was still performing a piece of music. And this leads to another fascinating concept which 4’33” provokes: the idea of performance and the pianist’s presence, gestures and body language during performance.
In a conventional piano recital, the audience’s reactions are largely led by the sounds the pianist makes. But physical gestures and body language are important too (some performers seem to allow exaggerated body language to obscure the music; I’m no fan of this kind of pianistic histrionics). From the moment the performer enters the stage, we are engaging with them via their body language – and vice versa. A bow, for example, is the performer’s way of greeting and acknowledging the audience, just as we applaud to demonstrate our acknowledgement and appreciation (for what we are about to hear and what we have heard). How the pianist comports him or herself at the piano can be crucial to our relationship with both performer and music, and stage presence and bodily gestures create an important channel of communication which can hold the audience captive during a performance. Through gesture the pianist can control audience reactions to the performance – the most basic being the lifting the hands away from the keyboard to indicate the end of a piece.
The issue of “what to do between pieces” came up at the recent Diploma Day event, at which I gave a brief presentation on basic stagecraft. A couple of people (adult amateur pianists who were preparing for performance diplomas) told me that they “didn’t know what to do between the pieces” in their diploma recital programme – i.e. how they should comport themselves, or what body language was appropriate. I explained that it very much depended on the music which had gone before and what was to follow in the programme. Some pieces lend themselves to more space or silence between them while others encourage the performer to segue from one to the next. Understanding this ebb and flow of a concert programme and the need to create space and silence within it is crucial to shaping the narrative and energy of the entire concert. Thus, if one wishes to prolong a sense of stillness or meditation after, say, a performance of Takemitsu’s Rain Tree Sketch II, one might simply sit quietly at the piano, head bowed, hands resting lightly on one’s knees, allowing the memory of the sound to resonate in the audience’s consciousness, after the physical sound has decayed.
When there are no audible notes, as in 4’33”, the pianist’s presence is even more crucial. If the pianist were to slouch at the piano, or stare around the room, pull faces, or study his finger nails, the presence would be lost, along with any sense that this was a “performance”. Thus to be successful, 4’33” demands the performer to be fully aware, in the moment, present and engaged – and that’s no mean feat when one is not actually required to play the instrument before which one sits. This makes 4’33” perhaps the hardest piece to perform convincingly.
I learnt a lot about performance and the performer’s “presence” while watching and of course listening to Adam Tendler’s interpretation of 4’33”. It has made me consider even more intently notions of public performance, stage presence and body language, and with this in mind, I will close this article with a quote from Adam himself:
Cage eliminates the details of notes, rhythm, tone, and leaves the performer with the basics of presence. It means the handling of (again traditionally) a piano lid, a clock, and a body—fingers, legs, torso. We use these parts of our body as instrumentalists, of course, but 4’33” isolates them, zooms in on them. It puts a microscope onto the passage of time and how our body—the thing that performs— behaves in that time.
I can’t tell you the number of times I have attended a fine, accurate, acceptable and perfectly usable performance from a musician who has never actually learned to sit.
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