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.

 

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.

homothetic
John Cage: Ryoanji (Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac website)

 

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.

MusicArt London http://musicart.london/

Annie Yim http://annieyim.com/

Video

Dream by John Cage from an earlier MusicArt performance

https://youtu.be/PEknsWJLp-o


Header image: Palladian Xmas (Spread) by Robert Rauschenberg 1980. Solvent transfer, acrylic and collage on wooden panel with mirror and electric light (Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac London)