The Proms: Cage et al, Ligeti, Berio, Xenakis, Andriessen, Harvey, and Vaughan Williams
Maybe the BBC didn’t pull out all the stops to celebrate the John Cage centennial, but they did pull out quite a lot of them. August 17 was Cage day at the Proms. In addition to a mammoth-length concert mostly of his music in the evening presented by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra (who only the night before was playing an all Vaughan Williams concert–more about that later) and the chorus Exaudi along with conductor Ilan Volkov and a cast of almost thousands, including such super-stars of the avant garde as Joan La Barbara, John Tillbury, Aki Takahashi, and Christian Wolff, they staged earlier in the afternoon a “Music Walk.” The Music Walk involved guided group walks around the area of South Kensington in the general vicinity of the Albert Hall, where along the way ten composers and sound artists, some in collaboration, including Alwynne Pritchard, Ian Dearen and David Sheppard, Dai Fujikura, John Woolrich, David Sawyer, Tansy Davies and Rolf Watlin, Claudia Molitor, Alvin Curran, Jose Cutler, and Judith Weir were present for playings over mp3 players of their music at specific sites.
Periodically one met groups of people carrying placards with pictures of Cage or of mushrooms. The composers were at their assigned sites holding placards which said “I am…(whoever they were);” in some cases — that of Dai Fujikura, for instance, who seemed to be having a picnic with his family — they were just present, in others there were other non musical elements which involved the composers: Alvin Curran sat on a platform in the loading dock of the Albert Hall seeming to be having a sort of television interview with somebody, which we didn’t hear because we were listening to his piece; David Sawyer had a skit in which he was dismembered and presented at the end in a bag; Joe Cutler swept the street in front of the Royal College of Music while somebody threw crumpled-up pages of his score down at him from one of the rooms in the College, and so on. There were several groups, none of which visited every site; the group I was in heard/saw Curran, Fujikura, Sawyer, Cutler, and Weir. All of the groups converged at the Serpentine Gallery for Weir’s music, which accompanied a model of the Albert Hall floating in the pond in front of the building. After that the composers led everybody in a march back to the Albert Hall and the main concert.
The concert itself was, as I said, a massive affair. Since it had not been clear to me that it was going to be about four hours long, I had made plans for later and as a result, wasn’t able to hear the second half of the concert, which included the Concerto for Prepared Piano and Orchestra, Branches, But what about the noise of crumpling paper..., and a quartet improvised by David Behrman, Takehisa Kosugi, Keith Rowe, and Christian Wolff. I was very sorry not to have heard the Concerto.
I did hear the first half which included two of the number pieces, 101 (1988) and Four2 (1990). The number pieces are from the last several years of Cage’s life and their titles are the number of performers (or the number of parts) involved in the piece. Where there are more than one piece for the same number of players, a further arabic numeral indicates which is which. The most important feature which all of these pieces share is there use of “time brackets,” which specify usually a general time range during which an event, usually a single note, occurs (but can some times indicate a very specific time for others). 101 is obviously a big orchestra piece; it is about twelve minutes long, in three general sections, and it sounds gorgeous, or at least it does when given the kind of focused and devoted performance that the BBC Scottish Orchestra (without a conductor) gave it. Four2 is a much shorter (seven minute) piece for four part chorus, which was sung by Exaudi with the different voice parts at different doors of the hall; four me it seemed a much less interesting piece. Those two pieces were separated by performances of Experiences II (1948) , an unaccompanied vocal piece setting Cummings sung beautifully by Joan La Barbara, ear for EAR (1983) in which she was echoed by members of Exaudi, and Improvisation III (1980) for a number of people playing boom boxes, again placed at various doors of the hall. The program note pointed out that Cage, who spent most of his career trying to write music which would not show evidence of his super-large ego (an impossible project) and which were about the agency and discipline of the performer, did not really approve of improvisational music–jazz, for instance– which he considered self-indulgent and decadent. Later in his life, just as he found ways to come to terms with harmony, which he didn’t like, he also found a way to come to terms with improvisation. In this piece the players selected at random, for a pre-determined length of time, parts of cassette recordings which they all have.
The one piece on the first half not by Cage was Baggage by Christian Marclay. A sound and visual artist, rather than a composer per se, Marclay wrote a work in which the members of the orchestra played their instrument cases, after which they unpacked the instruments and played the final work on the first half, Atlas eclipticalis (1962), which was billed as being performed simultaneously with Cartridge Music (1960) performed by David Behrman and Takehisa Kosugi, and Winter Music (1957) performed by John Tilbury, Frank Denyer, Aki Takahashi, and Christian Wolff on pianos. Behrman and Kosugi were positioned in the center of the prom arena area and the four pianists where also in the arena at the edges; the orchestra was on the stage. Actually most if not all of Cartridge Music happened before the other two piece began. Atlas Eclipticalis, which is based on astrononimcal charts, and can be for any number of players up to 86, which what happened here, is a wonderful piece. The performance of Atlas eclipticalis and of Baggage confirmed what was already clear from the performance of 101, that the orchestra was whole-heartedly participating in the project, and bringing to it the same skill, concentration, sensitivity, and devotion that they would to any other music, and the results were really wonderful and inspirational to hear. Two other impressions came through: that the Albert Hall, which sometimes can be problematic acoustically, works very well with pieces that work with its particular space, and that the English (or the BBC, or at least the organizers of this concert) seem to like their Cage on the anarchic side: this concert did not include such works as The Seasons, Apartment House 1776, or the Suite for Toy Piano, or any others which are like them in being more organized. Nonetheless, the whole concert was a joy.
What is possibly Cage’s most famous/infamous work, 4’33”, which was not on the Cage Day concert, was included on a late night Prom given by the London Sinfonietta, conducted by André de Ridder, on August 14. There is some question about exactly what 4’33” is or is supposed to be. I’ve long disagreed with the “you put a frame around it” school of thinking, which is that all the ambient sounds happening during the course of a “performance” are the piece. It seems to me that that notion flies in the faces of Cage’s recurring insistence on the agency and responsibility of the performer (even though Cage did at various times seem to endorse that way of thinking about it). In any case, this performance confirmed my usual experience when I’ve been present at performances of it, that the point is the concentration of the players and their projection of silence or the attempt at silence; ambient noises seem to me to me as much a part of the piece as they do in a Mozart sonata. The performers in this case, the whole band with de Ridder conducting, were concentrated and dedicated, and their effort was met more than half way by the audience, which was particularly attentive, even for a Proms audience, whose the level of serious attention is always very high.
The concert began with Poèm symphonique by Ligeti, another famous work which one hears about a lot more than one hears. This is the piece for 100 metronomes, and one rarely encounters it because not only is it hard to find 100 metronomes anyway, with wind up metronomes being almost as extinct as serpents or ophicleides, finding that many of them is virtually impossible (this gets to be an authentic performance problem). There they were, though, beating away. They were started about 15 minutes before the concert was supposed to start, though, so the audience (both in the hall, but maybe more importantly on the radio) were spared or prevented, depending on how you want to think about it, from the full experience of the piece. We did, though, get the last 8 or so minutes, of it, when metronomes begin to wind down and stop and the rhythmic texture begin to be ever more thin and ever more differentiated, finally becoming a duet between two of them, with the one little metronome that could winning out in the end. The whole effect of the piece is at the same time rhythmically fascinating, slapstick, and tragically serious. It was followed by another work exploring clowning in its comic and tragic aspects, Berio’s Sequenza V for trombone, which was performed in costume and rather brilliantly, with all the requisite pathos and hilarity by Byron Fulcher.
Louis Andriessen’s De snelheid (which means ‘velociy’) received its first Proms performance; It is a piece for three groups of instruments, which play different melodic patterns against a grid of constant and accelerating rhythmic patterns articulated by percussionists in each group. In this performance is seemed like a rather soft egg. It was proceeded by a performance of Jonathan Harvey’s Mortuos plango vivos voco, a tape piece whose source material is the sound of the biggest bell in Westminster Cathedral and the sound of the singing voice of his son, who in 1980 when the piece was made, was a chorister in the cathedral’s choir. It is a very beautiful and effective piece which works extremely well in the large expanses of the Albert Hall. Before both of those piece was Phlegra by Xenakis. Phlegra was the site of the Olympian god’s victory over giants who had been born in full armor as the sons of the earth goddess Gaia. It is harshly exuberant and lively and very effective. Xenakis wrote that the piece is concerned with ‘the construction of textures and their organization on a higher level;’ I have to say that the more of Xenakis’s music I hear, realizing that it has all sorts of fancy stochastic organization going on in it, it ends up sounding to me like Greek folk music, and that seems to me to be a good thing.
Ending up was a live remix of the concert by Matthew Herbert; it was supposed to involve everybody’s cell phones, and they did contribute to it, but I think not in the way it was supposed to. Tom Service, who was introducing the whole program from the stage in an overly jolly manner, seemed to be intent on trivializing everything he could about the concert and obscuring any information possible, including the directions for audience participation in the remix. It is possible that he thought that the concert was full of difficulty and obscure music and needed help to go over well with the audience, but the music spoke incredibly clearly and eloquently for itself and needed no external aid to being either enjoyable or comprehensible.
The night before the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra played the Cage concert they joined their regular conductor Andrew Manze in performing Vaughan Williams’s Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Symphonies. Manze is on a mission to bring about recognition of Vaughan Williams not as a parochial and sort easy listening “cow looking over a gate” composer, but a serious composer of his time, no more insular and no less modern than, say, Bartok or Janacek. The Fourth and Sixth Symphonies are certainly prime evidence for his modernist tendencies, the Fifth being a foil to those two, since it has a timeless stylistic quality to it. I love Vaughan Williams music without any sort of bashfulness or apology, but I’ve always had some trouble with the Sixth Symphony. In this concert, played like modern music, it made me think that maybe it time to think about it again. The performances of all three of the pieces was loving and devoted; the Fifth, especially, simply glowed.