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Cage: music uncaged

Robert Lort

Robert Lort is a Brisbane-based writer and RealTime mentoree.

Music for Fourteen, Musicircus Music for Fourteen, Musicircus
photo Rebecca Cunningham
Musicircus—a festival of music for John Cage brought together a prodigious number of performers to perform an equally prodigious 20 Cage pieces across one day at the Brisbane Powerhouse, proving a test for both audience and musicians alike. Through the integration of sounds taken from our daily milieu, Cage endeavored to make music where “sounds are just sounds” and “people are just people”, unencumbered with psychological and theoretical allusions.

Musicircus was organised by Rebecca Cunningham and modelled on the first version of the event staged by Cage in 1969, where numerous musicians, ensembles and visual artists were allocated space to perform simultaneously in a large hall. There were no scores, focal points, formalities, admission charges or performance fees. The Powerhouse generously supported this rare opportunity to hear Cage pieces in performance, allowing musicians and audience to become acquainted with the composer’s complex, unique and unconventional methodologies. In accordance with the Cage ethos, as each performance began and ended the next, unannounced, had already begun in another space.

Telephones and Birds (1977) was performed by Cunningham and Miranda Sue Yek, triggering bird sounds recorded onto a laptop and a list of phone numbers that were responded to by answering machines. The selection of bird tracks and numbers was determined according to the I Ching through the chance process of flipping a coin. The use of the I Ching, characteristic of Cage’s compositions, makes each performance unique, while the eloquent simplicity opens the performance to unpredictable encounters and asynchronous tempos. This relinquishing of ego-dependence renders the very fabric of the pieces free of judgment and conditioned aesthetics.

For Roaratorio, Irish Circus on Finnegans Wake (1979), a particularly virtuosic piece in the Cage oeuvre, the composer laboriously listed the sounds from 626 locations in James Joyce’s novel, recorded them, and painstakingly converted the book’s text into spoken word. The Powerhouse performance used the original recordings of Cage’s distinctly engaging and affable voice, combined with the original ambient sounds and Irish music to elicit a kaleidoscope of visionary sounds as Jan Baker-Finch, a eurythmic dancer, engaged in a gestural flux to the dynamics of the language.

Here and there across the day Zane Trow read randomly from Cage’s various writings, overlapping with screenings of 2 important films on the composer: From Zero (directors Frank Scheffer and Andrew Culver) and I Have Nothing to Say and I am Saying it (director Allan Miller). A key event in the afternoon was Music For... (1985), which here was Music For Fourteen, an Australian performance debut. For comparatively conventional instrumentation, the piece offered extremes of playability, including long passages of single notes and challenges to the physical limitations of the performer through parts generally regarded as impossible to play.

Cartridge Music (1960) was performed by 2 players, each selecting, according to the I Ching, a map of irregular shapes which was overlaid with transparencies determining actions and timing. Dispensing with modified record cartridges, the performance was updated using highly sensitive microphones with one performer making music with mushrooms (another John Cage obsession), the other with a vessel of water, each applying the actions of splashing, mashing, tearing and stirring, resulting in an unstable rummaging and delicate melange of vibrating timbres.

Variations IV (1963), for “sounds or combinations of sounds produced by any means with or without other activities”, was performed in the Powerhouse lift by Joe Musgrove, Scott Sinclair and Andrew Thomson using laptops, electric toothbrushes and an assortment of electronic toys rollicking in screeching feedback.

At the eclectic and avant-garde end was a performance of one of Cage’s later pieces, Four4 (1991), by Petar Gocic, Markos Zografos, Kahl Monticone and Joel Stern. Proving Cage’s enduring ability to astound and confront an audience the performance incorporated a tricycle, toast making and violin playing with bread crusts.


Musicircus—a festival of music for John Cage, Brisbane Powerhouse, December 11, 2004

Robert Lort is a Brisbane-based writer and RealTime mentoree.

RealTime issue #65 Feb-March 2005 pg. 43

© Robert Lort; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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