Now they know how many cacti it takes to fill the Albert Hall. Last night’s marathon John Cage Prom finished up, over three hours after it had started, with a wonderfully cactus-heavy performance of Branches (1976). Played by Robyn Schulkowsky and 20 more musicians scattered broadly around the hall, Branches involved copious amplified cactus-plucking as well as plenty more soft sounds thoughtfully extracted from a range of natural, foresty items such as sticks and twigs. Cage, who only asked for a “pod rattle” and “at least one (preferably several)” cacti, would surely have smiled even more broadly than usual.
The lavishness of this realisation typified the sincere and smiling attitude of the evening as a whole. It isn’t possible within a coherent review of this length to account for it all, as the performances and performers were far too numerous and varied – but this was absolutely the right approach to Cage, whose compositions are extremely numerous and varied, and the best possible sort of hundredth anniversary tribute.
The evening was headed by Ilan Volkov, in his capacity as principal Guest Conductor of the Scottish Symphony Orchestra, but in fact Volkov only conducted three of the eleven pieces played, and the BBC SSO played in only four (the opening 101 requires no conductor). This was very much a team effort – and what a team it was, with the orchestra getting the mood completely right, and guests including the ever-excellent vocal ensemble Exaudi and numerous renowned Cage performers including pianist (and composer) Christian Wolff, pianist John Tilbury (soloist in the Concerto for Prepared Piano tonight), and electronic musician Takehisa Kosugi.
Volkov and his fellow organisers had done a great job in programming the evening: they managed to capture the scope of Cage effectively, which is no mean feat. The early Experiences II, sung movingly by Joan La Barbara, caught Cage in ecstatic simplicity mode with its simple, soft melodic lines. The two “number pieces”, 101 (1988, for 101 instrumentalists) and four2 (1990, sung by Exaudi), showed Cage as the cheerful controlling anarchist, giving the performers license to place their music wherever they like, within specific time brackets. And the longest piece of the evening rendered him superimposer as well as composer: Cartridge Music (1960), in which David Behrman and Takehisa Kosugi played with various objects near some microphones, overlapped with the orchestral Atlas eclipticalis (1962), which happened at the same time as the many-piano work Winter Music (1957). Confusing, yes, but still – like the other works – a beautiful space with music in it; somewhere to be calm, never confusing to listen to, no matter how long the pauses or how quiet or odd the noises. Cage is the master of the un-awkward silence.
There was also room for two non-Cage works: Christian Marclay’s new piece Baggage, which asks the orchestra to fiddle with their instrument cases and works very well, and an improvisation billed as Quartet by Behrman, Kosugi, Wolff and Keith Rowe. This was, for me, the one bad trip of the night, sonically denser than most of the Cage works and simply not as calm in effect. In three-and-a-half-hour Cage concerts, calmness really is everything. But this didn’t detract from the overall tone fo the evening, which was glowingly serene.
There’s a growing trend in Cage commentary to try to reclaim him as a composer, not just as a creator of brilliant and challenging ideas, as he is sometimes viewed. For me, this misses the point. Yes, his music is incredibly high-quality – but he is more than a composer. An evening like this proves that he doesn’t just make wonderful music; he makes you listen and think in new ways. Cage’s contribution is not only to music, but to everything – and that’s something to celebrate.
Volkov has curated a programme that reflects the
composer’s iconoclastic thinking, fertile imagination
and arresting humour. John Tilbury, who has for
decades been associated with Cage’s work tonight
plays the exquisitely beautiful Concerto for Prepared
Piano and Orchestra. Cassette players and plucked
cactuses are just two examples of the blindingly
original yet almost
naively simple thinking
that saw Cage – wittingly
or otherwise – upturn
practically every musical
rule in the book.
Royal Albert HallKensington Gore
London Greater London United Kingdom SW7 2AP