BBC Prom 47: John Cage Centenary Celebration

BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra/Ilan Volkov

Royal Albert Hall, 22 August 2012 4.5 stars

Andre de RidderWhatever one might say about the stodginess of Proms programming, it is undeniable that giving over a full evening Prom to a celebration of John Cage in his centenary year was a brave and commendable move from the BBC and Roger Wright.

Even more commendable than this basic fact - which may after all have been accomplished with hedging of bets and fallings between stalls - was the full bore nature of the programme, devised and (where necessary) conducted brilliantly by Ilan Volkov,
Principal Guest Conductor of the evening’s orchestra, the BBC Scottish Symphony.

Volkov’s programme included highlights from across Cage’s long and fruitful composing career, doing a good job of balancing variegated Cageian resources, even if proceedings could have done with being trimmed down by half an hour or so at least.

The programme featured longer pieces, such as the Concerto for Prepared Piano and Chamber Orchestra and the melange of Cartridge Music with Atlas eclipticalis and Winter Music, alongside various late or shorter pieces (101, Branches, Improvisation III, FOUR2, ear for EAR, But what about the noise of crumpling paper…, Experiences II), and a couple of curios; Christian Marclay’s fun and congruous rough choreography of an orchestra ‘sounding’ their instrument cases, Baggage, and the ill-balanced improv of David Behrman, Christian Wolff, Takehisa Kosugi, and Keith Rowe. (Kosugi clearly wanted to pull the others into steamy and seedy electronic territory, a place, with the possible exception of Rowe, they seemed especially keen not to visit.)

Though the evening gave us the chance to contemplate anew and, in doing this, to celebrate the rich conceptual contributions of John Cage, it would, of course, be remiss not to mention the music.

Although some of the evening’s performances got a little lost in the large space, not least John Tilbury’s otherwise fluent soloistic part in the Concerto, many others utilised the set up of the Royal Albert Hall to great effect.

Exaudi gave gorgeous, crystalline readings of ear for EAR and FOUR2 (the first with an as-ever resplendent Joan la Barbara), spread around four of the entrances to the ground floor stalls, in a similar fashion to the arrangement for Improvisation III.

The many instrumentalists of But what about the noise of crumpling paper…  and Branches, meanwhile, were arrayed around the ground floor (as were the soloists and some of the concertante performers for the aforementioned three piece melange), and the balconies, of the hall. Such spatialisation of the performing space both dramatised the processes of each piece, and implicated the audience themselves in some of the decision making, lending each piece a participatory feel that suited them well.

In a purely ‘musical’ sense (whatever that might mean), the highlights for me were 101 and But what about the noise of crumpling paper…. The first, opening the concert, winds out a burning, Central Park in the Dark-like string chord underneath gesticulatory brass interjections, for a narcotic twelve minutes. The latter, coming amidst a slightly less stellar second half of longeurs (the improv, whose slightly troubling programme note from Keith Rowe should probably not go unremarked!) and straightjacketed chance compositions (such as the Concerto), felt like a liberation, where sounds could be the strange attractors they so want to be, and musical discourse could dissemble so gloriously as it did. This piece, with its tiny, tumbling percussion sounds and its obscure physical gestures, felt like a ritual undergoing profanation. A ritual-absented-purpose, beyond the strange purposes of the aesthetic.

With these late pieces Cage the hardliner anti-improvisationalist softens, allowing much more spontaneity and grace into the sounding moments of his music. (I never quite got what the problem was with self-expression anyway.) And they proved the highlights of the concert: sound, even when it is transcending self-expression as best it can, has its own reality, its own set of attractions and repulsions, even if these often need to be mediated to some degree by human hands. Restricting these elective affinities as Cage sought to in some of his mature works only leads to a diminishment of artistic merit.

Besides the delicious pleasure of attending such a sustainedly Cageian Prom in the cavernous Albert Hall, Volkov must really be given credit on two counts for assembling the personnel he did. Generally speaking, the participation of artists such as Christian Wolff, Takehisa Kosugi, and David Behrman (the first of whom gave Cage his first copy of the I Ching), all old associates of Cage, gave the evening some sense of a creative mandate. So too did the presence of Cage specialists such as John Tilbury and Aki Takahashi, and such consummate performers as Exaudi.

More personally, it was a pleasure to witness so many stalwarts of the underground and experimental music scenes performing, from John Butcher to Dylan Nyoukis and Karen Constance, the Bohman Brothers, and more besides. It may not have been quite the celebration Cage would have wanted, but it was a celebration in the spirit of his work, messy, unpredictable, arrogant, misguided, and often beautiful as it was. 

By Stephen Graham

Photo: Robyn Schulkowsky performs Cage's Branches for Amplified Cactuses and Plants (Chris Christodoulou)