Review: John Cage Prom + preview of BBC Radio 3 Cage Centenary

The BBC Scottish Symphony orchestra play Christian Marclay's Baggage
Photo Credit: BBC/Chris Christodoulou
© BBC/Chris Christdodoulou


Prom 47 - John Cage Centenary
(SW7 and Royal Albert Hall, 17th August. Review by Rob Edgar- with preview of Radio 3 Cage Centenary programming)


The prom began with a Cage inspired musical walk around South Kensington. Prior to the walk we had been given instructions to download a playlist consisting of music written and recorded specifically for the event, a highlight being Dai Fujikura’s I Dreamed on Singing Flowers. It was a nice idea on a pleasant afternoon.

The night was a long one (including the walk almost 6 hours) and presented some pretty challenging music but as Cage himself said “The first question I ask myself when something doesn't seem to be beautiful is why do I feel it's not beautiful? And very shortly you discover there is no reason.”

Cage’s music has a real sense of discovery about it and he was very much a pioneer of new forms, compositional techniques and devising new sounds. In 101, the Scottish Symphony Orchestra under the direction of conductor Ilan Volkov played a piece where Cage gives the performers only little fragments of melody and it is up to the player to decide how long to play it.

It is interesting how Cage plays with our preconceptions of what music is. But What About the Noise of Crumpling Paper is a piece written for pieces of wood, metal and bubbling or pouring water. After 15 minutes of this it becomes hypnotic. It was the same in Branches where the music and sound came from cacti and other plants. When you next hear the sound of a clarinet or violin, it sounds as though you are hearing it for the first time.

Robyn Schulkowsky playing a cactus in Branches
Photo Credit:© BBC/Chris Christodoulou

The piece that really worked was Cartridge Music and Atlas Eclipticalis with Winter Music, a combination of three different pieces from Cage’s indeterminacy period. We heard them superimposed over each other. It was for orchestra, an eclectic mix of everyday objects and four pianos. Despite the chance-based nature of this performance, it did genuinely sound like there was order in the chaos (and of course there could not have been); lines would make their way from the orchestra and would sound to be picked up by the pianos. At one point there was a tenth played in the brass which was immediately reiterated by Christian Wolff on the piano. Quite by chance.

Volkov’s programme really split the audience down the middle; especially noticeable after the interval was the steady trickle of people leaving the hall. Cage may have seen them coming - or going - in his Lecture on Nothing when he said “I am here and there is nothing to say. If among you there are those who wish to get somewhere, let them leave at any moment.”

BBC Radio 3 will be continuing Cage’s 100 year birthday celebrations with a series on Cage running from the 15th-22nd of September. Highlights include conductor Richard Bernas and sculptor Antony Gormley on Sunday 16th September detailing Cage’s considerable influence on the non-musical world. HERE IS THE BBC's PRESS RELEASE

The Programmes will be:

Music Matters: Saturday 15th September:
Tom Service examines how Cage’s music developed throughout his life.

Hear and Now: Saturday 15th & 22nd September:
Conductor Ivan Volkov leads the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in performances of Cage’s works including The Concerto for Prepared Piano.

Sunday Feature: Sunday 16th September:
Conductor Richard Bernas looks at Cage’s influence in disciplines beyond music with guests including Angel of the North sculptor, Antony Gormley.

Late Junction: Tuesday 18th – Thursday 20th September:
Anne Hilde Neset explores the world of John Cage through his music and writings, and the work of those he inspired. Highlights include Aphex Twin’s take on the prepared piano.

How To Prepare a Piano – Saturday 22nd September:
Pianist and comedian Rainer Hersch learns first-hand how to prepare a piano and composes his own work for the instrument.

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