John Cage sells out – updated with live report

There were no tickets to be had for the John Cage concert at London’s Queen Elizabeth Hall, and the queue for returns snaked down to the river. The QEH holds 1100 seats. That’s a lot of Cage fans.

The concert featured the chart-topping 4’33”, together with the String Quartet In Four Parts, Radio Music, Music For Eight, and the Concert For Piano And Orchestra, performed simultaneously with Fontana Mix.

There is an ongoing exhibition of Cage sketches and drawings at the neighbouring Hayward Gallery. Linked story here.

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  • John Cage Night was fascinating. The QEH was packed, and buzzing with excitement, indicating that Cage has, to some extent, crossed the threshold from the avant-garde into, if not the mainstream, at least widespread public consciousness. His notoriety hinges to a great extent on 4’33” – an entirely ‘silent’ work – which began the concert. I experienced a range of emotions during 4’33”, finding it tense at first, then restful, and, towards the end, almost unbearable. For so short a piece to provoke such a range of feelings validates its existence as music, not mere gimmick. Similarly, Child of Tree – using plant materials including a cactus – was not pretentious, but strangely relaxing.

    Having written the programme notes for John Cage Night, I was particularly interested to observe the audience’s response as the evening unfolded. Cage’s subversive nature proved contagious; his music invites controversy even now. The first half of the concert was good-natured. Some coughed pointedly during 4’33”, or laughed during Child of Tree or Radio Music – for eight radios – but the atmosphere was one of enjoyment. Yet the tone shifted after the interval, a shift ushered in by two members of the audience emulating Cageian antics by sitting on the stage and addressing the audience. One man returned to his seat, the other was asked to leave.

    The next two pieces stretched audience patience to breaking point. Cage’s String Quartet in four parts captivated at first, but many became restless towards the end – and instead of the stillness which should have greeted its close, one audience member clapped abruptly even before the last note was played, as though willing the music to end. Another groaned audibly throughout the second half, as if in agony. It seemed that Cage’s own impishness had given the audience permission to ‘misbehave’, to flout the conventions of the concert hall, as Cage himself had.

    This rebellious attitude continued as numerous audience members pointedly walked out before the end of Music for Eight, the penultimate work on the programme. Cage’s sometimes astringent sonorities and chance operations were, it seems, too much to bear. The exodus continued during 0’00” – which lasts only a minute. Not even curiosity as to the nature of the ‘disciplined action’ required in this piece (in this case, packing up the stage) was enough to keep these people in the Queen Elizabeth Hall. I hope the musicians of Apartment House gathered how much their performances were enjoyed by most of the audience. As for those who walked out, one can’t help feeling that the strength of reaction Cage’s music had provoked in them, though impolite, would have made him laugh.

  • One point (for Joanna). You write that the (minimal, really) disruption came from a license to “flout the conventions of the concert hall, as Cage himself had”. I think the point is rather that Cage used the conventions of the concert hall to flout received ideas about listening and music. If the convention of people gathering in a room to listen quietly together wasn’t a stable and long-standing one, these kind of pieces would be impossible

  • There were so many “minutes of silence” on Sunday, Septermber 11th that the Cage estate received thousands of dollars of royalty checks.

    • No they didn’t, this comment is not even funny, it is lame…….. 4′ 33″ is a piece of music, not an appropriation of something else. It is a not a ‘silent’ piece, silence doesn’t exist.

  • It’s widely believed that Cage was a sort of anything-goes person or composer. He wasn’t. Although he accepted many kinds of result, at times he was very precise about how to get there, or at least how to travel along/off the path(s).

    As for clapping abruptly to force a piece to end, that’s an old one, isn’t it! It happened, I believe, in the Concert for Piano and Orchestra in the famous 1958 event recorded by George Avakian — and nowhere near the end.

  • Many thanks for the comments. I agree with Guy’s distinction, and would add that with any disturbances it’s worth bearing in mind Cage’s specification in the performance instructions for 0’00”: “the performer should allow any interruptions of the action.”

  • I agree with Guy’s distinction, and would add that any disturbances should be viewed in the light of Cage’s specification, in the performance instructions for 0’00”, that “the performer should allow any interruptions of the action”.

  • Thank you Joanna – we didn’t get programmes (I guess they sold out!) so I would love to see your notes. We weren’t aware of any irritation amongst the audience, just a fantastic reception and really concentrated listening. The two pieces I was in required such intense brain effort that any distraction would have been a problem. Yes, I heard that some guy sat on the stage, but I didn’t see that, and yes someone clapped noisily at the very end of Music for 8, but we’d all finished as far as I could tell!. Thanks to everyone involved in making this event happen ~

  • Thanks Andrew, this is very pleasing. I should emphasise that I’ve no wish to exaggerate the level of disturbance for the purposes of sensationalism, but simply found that where I was sitting – near the exit and behind the groaner – the cumulative effect of what were, individually, only minor actions, left a marked impression. My neighbour was incensed on your behalf, so it’s good to know that you remained unperturbed! Certainly people were marginally more uninhibited than the usual QEH crowd; but generally, yes, this manifested itself positively – the laughter was warm – and I believe the night was a real success. Thank you for a very enjoyable and memorable concert. I’ll let you know when I’ve posted up the programme notes on my website.

  • I’m curious: how would one go about evaluating the music of John Cage? It sounds old-fashioned, I’m sure, but while Cage is a fascinating figure and I have read his books with interest, it is his music I am unsure of. His aesthetic seems designed to short-circuit any critical comment–and I don’t mean critical in the sense of ‘negative’. Merely challenging conventions does not seem a sufficient goal for a piece of music. Provoking reactions is well and good, but I remain doubtful about the musical content.

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