John Cage night – review

Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

Designed and performed by the Apartment House ensemble, and intended to accompany an exhibition of John Cage's visual art now hanging in the Hayward gallery, this concert encompassed a wide range of the composer's output, from the 1949 String Quartet to 1987's Music for Eight. The evening began, perhaps somewhat riskily, with a smooth, surprisingly brisk rendition of 4'33", his three-movement silent piece composed in 1952, which featured a considerable wind solo from the stomach of someone immediately behind me. It concluded with 0'00", in which the composer revisited the silent piece a decade on, asking musicians to "perform a disciplined action" for the duration. Their chosen action was to clear the stage, amid pleasing audience chatter and, presumably, the discreet cheers of the QEH technical staff.

The Concert for Piano and Orchestra, notorious for the near-riot at its first performance in 1958, was unusually melodious on this occasion, and seemed much more approachable than last time I heard it. Child of Tree, in which a percussionist amplifies sounds made from natural objects such as pine cones and a cactus (its spines are flicked with a needle to make a surprisingly wide range of sounds), exemplified perfectly Cage's intention of drawing significance from insignificant sound, while the sonorous and benevolently hypnotic String Quartet, on the other hand, was lovely by any standard.

For Cage, it is not what we listen to that is beautiful but listening itself. A composer's task is therefore to compose music that prompts an audience to take responsibility for the act of listening. There may be other music now that carries out this work better, but Cage's still has an undeniable and at times irresistible force, as well as a rising value in a society saturated with un-listened-to noise. Amazingly, the concert sold out. What are the chances?


Guy Dammann

The GuardianTramp

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