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Cage and more Cage

July 6, 2012

25th June 

I’m sitting on the train feeling very tired and completely inspired. EXAUDI has been paying homage to John Cage this week, which means four completely different concerts in four days: two at Spitalfields and two at Aldeburgh. I think we covered most of his work for multiple voices – not many more pieces I can think of!

On Tuesday, Jon Bungard and Mandy Morrison, with animateur Sam Glazer, led children from two Tower Hamlets primary schools in a Cage-inspired performance in Spitalfields.

On Thursday, we performed a late-night concert, again at Spitalfields, in which we sang Four2, The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs and A Flower (both of these with Amy Moore), Four Solos and Hymns and Variations. Great music all: Four Solos doesn’t get done much now that Electric Phoenix are no more, but it’s a total romp, and our quartet of Mandy, Lucy Goddard, Jon Bungard and Jimmy Holliday gave it everything. For me, Hymns and Variations is a desert-island piece, one for the ages. I love everything about it, the felicity of the connection Cage makes with the past (Billings hymns), the transparent technique (random erasing of notes and equally random extending of those that are left), the perfect matching of technique to aim, the subtle yet overwhelmingly beautiful shifts of tonality between plain old C major and plain old F major, the endlessly nuanced dynamics roughing the surface just enough: the sheer exquisiteness of sensibility in every part of the composition. The man was a genius.

It’s a bugger to sing, being nearly half an hour of senza-vib isolated notes with infinitesimal dynamic gradations, all in the simplest tonality where a few Herz either way can seriously derail the tuning, and (being amplified) every tiny scuff or blip of sound is magnified. Just as well that the occasional bit of dirt makes it all the more human and all the more poignant, as it would otherwise be a heart-breaking labour of constant imperfection. As it is, once you’ve rehearsed it to a certain level – the tuning fixed, the dynamic levels set and secure, the vowels learnt, the overall sound and sensibility understood by everyone and the way single sounds connect physically to each other (because you have to, even if they are all conceptually monads, and there is no ‘logical’ connection to them) homogenised across the ensemble – once this is done, there is nothing left to do but sing the piece, and hope for the best. We were fortunate in St Leonard’s Church to have a helpful acoustic that just gives everyone a bit of confidence – and I think it went well! I sincerely hope we get more chances to do Hymns and Variations, as more people need to hear this masterpiece than the paltry (but enthusiastic) crowd that turned up on Thursday…

So then, on to Saturday, and Aldeburgh, where we mounted two performances of Cage on the same day. The first was our Musicircus, into which was inserted our new, improved and expanded version of Song Books – the Cage piece that just keeps on giving (we’ve still not done all 90 of them, not by a long chalk). This was an unalloyed joy. I admit I was worried (being the Curator of the overall event) that the plan of meshing these two pieces, and of doing a Musicircus in a series of interconnected spaces rather than one big top, might be both inauthentic from a Cageian point of view and not very effective. Hell, I wasn’t even sure if Musicircus works as an event at all. From my perspective these fears turned out to be unfounded, as it was really a wonderful show. The four electronics setups for Song Books (the excellent team from UEA – Seb Fosdal, John Kramarchuk, Jon Gatiss and Greg Hobson, along with sound artist Bill Thompson) were dispersed through the spaces, and around them we had a Peruvian band, a several folk acts, a country-western duo, string quartets and duos, a koto, Jordi Savall, Pierre-Laurent Aimard (in Fluxus mood), Tamara Stefanovich, film with live electronics, Zoe Martlew (a one-woman Musicircus), Colin Matthews playing Vexations, and of course all sorts of EXAUDI goings-on from the Song Books (the singers were Juliet, Amy, Tom, Jon Bungard and Jon Saunders). There were also drinks, cake, bunting, balloons and even sunshine. It was exactly what I like to think Cage wanted – an anarchic harmony, fun and wonderment round every corner. I don’t feel I can take much credit for it coming off – it was made by the performers and the audience, all of whom got immediately into the spirit intended – but I can say that I’m very very glad it did!

If that wasn’t exhausting enough (it was, more than), we’d also agreed to do a Pumphouse gig in the evening. The Pumphouse is a really nice venue, a very intimate building on the outskirts of Aldeburgh, and seems to be where some of the most interesting things in the whole festival take place. We brought three singers, Bill Thompson, the artist Sam Belinfante and me. The programme had tribute pieces from Bill, Sam and me, and Cage’s Living Room Music, Variations IV, Ear for EAR, The Wonderful Widow and A Flower again (this time with Juliet), a fragment of Indeterminacy and Radio Music. It seemed to go down well, Sam and Bill’s work was lovely, and I enjoyed myself as much as I’ve done in any concert for a long time. There will be more Cage shenanigans this year for us, but I doubt they will top the memory of these past few days. It’s been really glorious.

Thank-you, John!

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