REVIEW: Tania Chen, Steve Beresford, Stewart Lee - John Cage’s Indeterminacy at Cafe Oto

Left to right: Tania Chen, Steve Beresford, Stuart Lee at Spitalfields.
Drawing by Geoffrey Winston. © 2012. All rights Reserved

Tania Chen, Steve Beresford, Stewart Lee - John Cage’s Indeterminacy
(Cafe Oto, 26th April 2016. Review by AJ Dehany)

John Cage’s Indeterminacy (1959) is published as ninety story cards to be read out loud in a random order. By turns thoughtful and banal, funny and sad, the cards form an unconnected batch of anecdotes and digressions, parables and paradoxes, with a lot about Buddhism and mushroom husbandry.

Cage is famed for generating music using ‘chance operations’ and then scoring these. Here there is no score. The ‘indeterminacy’ is not in the composition but the performance. More than you’d expect even from Cage’s work, there can’t be two alike performances. In 1959 Cage recorded it with David Tudor (the pianist who gave the first performance of 4’33”). Tudor mixed up elements from earlier recordings while Cage read, and neither could hear each other.

Six years ago, free improvisers Tania Chen and Steve Beresford and comedian Stewart Lee revived Indeterminacy for live performance. Compared to the last time they presented it at Cafe Oto, Lee’s signature deadpan delivery has warmed a little, and, while Chen and Beresford’s employment of toys borders on whimsical, this is to express a point.. Rather than trying to earnestly mimic Cage and Tudor’s ‘deaf’ recording method, they exploit a crucial ambiguity about whether they’re supporting or working against the text, and whether any of it is serious. Not unlike the outlandish sound effects on Spike Jones records, a comedy of disruption is set up.

They don't just play it for laughs but the laughs come easily. Each of the forty randomly chosen cards has to take a minute to read, regardless of length, resulting in comic variability of pace. The text jumps from between philosophical kōans and ruminations on mycology. At a table festooned with an eye- and ear-popping jamboree of brightly coloured toys, Chen and Beresford generate every sound from silly to scary.

At times Lee is drowned out by the racket of Beresford letting wind-up toys loose on the strings inside the piano or Chen releasing air slowly and squeakily from a balloon. Cage and Tudor’s 1959 recording revelled in the drowning. Cage explained that “a comparable visual experience is that of seeing someone across the street, and then not being able to see him because a truck passes between.”

An interesting meta-disruption occurs when a metal barrel at the back of venue clatters to the ground. Chen and Lee look up. There’s an audience laugh and a break in the spell, like a sonic heckler. Contrary to what one might think (and unlike in 4’33” where the experience centres on the ‘noises off’) performances of Cage are really about the interaction between the performers and the composition rather than on the whims of chance operations or metal barrels. Tensions between composition and improvisation are magnified, and sometimes we’re not sure whether to furrow our brow or laugh out loud. Cage’s comedy of disruption forces us to think for ourselves.

This concert was recorded by BBC Radio 3's Hear and Now, and will be transmitted on Saturday 25th May at 10pm

 LINKS: Review of Chen, Beresford and Lee in works by John Cage from 2011
Review of Indeterminacy at  the 2012 Spitalfields Festival

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