The sound of America

Times Staff Writer

“What are you here for?” the immigration official at Gatwick Airport asked.

On my landing card, I had written “journalist” as my occupation, and I told him I was a music critic and would report on the BBC Symphony’s annual “Composer Weekend” at the Barbican.

“You don’t mean to say that you’ve come all this way for four minutes and 32 seconds of silence?”

“Actually, it’s four minutes and 33 seconds,” I corrected.


“Oh, I’d heard that there was more than one version of the piece, and I like the shorter one,” he said with a laugh.

Next came the cab driver, who also knew about the BBC Symphony’s performance the night of Jan. 16 of John Cage’s “4'33",” as did the receptionist at my hotel. A cheeky item about the controversial silent piece could be found tucked in among news of the latest sex scandals in the Sun. The tabloid’s pop critic thought it “far more enjoyable than the last Gareth Gates album.”

In my room, I turned on the TV and there was conductor Lawrence Foster explaining to two incredulous hosts how difficult it is to keep a full orchestra quiet for four minutes and 33 seconds.

Every January, the BBC Symphony devotes a single-minded weekend to a modern composer. Beginning on a Friday night and running all day Saturday and Sunday at the Barbican Centre, it involves orchestral and chamber concerts, solo recitals, films and talks. BBC Radio broadcasts everything, and television generally picks up a concert or two. In 2001, the composer was John Adams. Last year, it was Mark-Anthony Turnage. Schnittke, Janacek and Ives have been others.


This time, the event was “John Cage Uncaged: A Weekend of Musical Mayhem.” And if “4'33" " was, sonically, the least of it, the most of it was a “Musicircus” that spilled over three floors of the Barbican’s lobby areas and into its art gallery and a men’s room.

Cage, born in Los Angeles in 1912, is known for having changed the idea of what music can be. Shortly after studying with Arnold Schoenberg at UCLA, he realized that silence is as important as sound in a composition and that all noises are musical. He became a pioneer in percussion music -- his “Third Construction” from 1941 is now a classic, the most performed work in the percussion ensemble repertory -- invented the prepared piano (in which household objects such as screws and nuts are inserted within the instrument to give it new percussive sounds) and devised various ways to compose using chance operations.

For Cage, who settled in New York in 1942 and remained there until his death 50 years later, music’s function was to focus the attention. “4'33",” for instance, was never intended as an act of Dada. Written in 1952 for the virtuoso pianist David Tudor, it demonstrates to an audience that music does not exist in a vacuum. There is no such thing as silence, Cage insisted. Music, like life, takes place in an environment of ambient sounds, and “4'33"” is the exercise of becoming aware of, coming to terms with, learning to love, the ambience. In a larger sense, Cage was a social philosopher often more popular for his celebrated writings than for his music. But the two are not separable. If we can accept that no sound is inessential, perhaps we can grow more tolerant in other ways as well.

“Mayhem” was misleading. Cage’s mission was musical coexistence.

The “Musicircus” is a perfect example of Cage’s art of the all-inclusive. A sort of happening devised in 1967, it is an invitation for musicians of radically different stripes to be themselves and perform simultaneously (with individual stop and start times chance-determined for each performance). At the Barbican blowout, there were 344 performers, among them the BBC Symphony Chorus and Chamber Choir, the bassist and composer Gavin Bryars, Tom Fox (the “tuba in the toilet”), ex-Led Zeppelin bass guitarist John Paul Jones, various British new music ensembles and soloists, schoolchildren, dancers, Irish fiddlers, a mycologist reading a scientific paper on mushrooms, a cellphone “symphony” and the startling Cardboard Citizens New Music Ensemble (who are all homeless).

The two 45-minute Saturday afternoon performances of “Musicircus” were mobbed. Families came with small children. Some brought picnics. For once, getting lost in the imposing, confusing Barbican lobby was fun.

Audiences all weekend were large, enthusiastic, interested, absorbed and looking for a good time. The media attention was significant. Perhaps Italy’s media-mogul president was distracted recovering from a reported face-lift, but his TV network was on hand. The BBC televised the opening concert, which ended with “4'33",” and showed some of it on BBC America. For the radio broadcast, the BBC turned off its emergency system, which cuts in with music whenever there is sustained silence.

Newspapers were full of letters to the editor. Though many of them were tired -- “4'33" " is nearly 52 years old -- I liked one in the Telegraph, where a correspondent wondered if the score might not be extended into a full-length work and played in shops, pubs and public places. Cage couldn’t be avoided; he even popped up in a weekend motoring column.


Britain’s relationship with America is complicated these days, but here was public money -- the BBC is supported by licensing fees paid by TV and radio owners -- lavished on American culture. In fact, the point of “John Cage Uncaged” was to show something wonderful about the America from which Cage sprang and the America in which he worked. Concerts included not just Cage but a wide range of 20th century American music.

To some in the British press, this represented a distinct lack of nerve on the part of the BBC, more evidence that its once aloof classical wing is on an increasingly populist mission. The televised opener included Foster conducting such un-Cagean music as William Schuman’s “New England Triptych,” Copland’s populist groundbreaker “El Salon Mexico” and George Antheil’s rhapsody-in-bluish “Jazz Symphony.” But it also featured Henry Cowell’s cluster-happy Piano Concerto, which had the normally reserved British audience bursting into wild applause.

Letting Cage down

But for this mostly grateful American visitor, it wasn’t so much lack of nerve as lack of trust in Cage that slightly marred the weekend. There were many extraordinary performers on hand, but some felt the need to sex up the music, to add a little something extra, and that got them into trouble. .

In “4'33",” for instance, Foster fiddled ostentatiously with his score and stopwatch, and he jokingly wiped his brow after the first of the three silent movements (for some reason he changed their order). But the respectful audience was unusually quiet (too quiet!) and loved it, and feeling the tension of nearly a hundred silent virtuoso players proved an extraordinary experience. The only other work on the program was Cage’s 1947 ballet “The Seasons,” subtle, audience-friendly music in a careful but indelicate performance.

The Dutch conductor David Porcelijn was responsible for some fine performances and some troubling ones. He led the BBC Symphony in straightforward readings of Varese’s noisy “Ameriques,” Satie’s boisterous “Parade” and Carl Ruggles’ choleric “Sun-Treader.” He conducted the London Sinfonietta in a tidily played Concerto for Prepared Piano by Cage with an impressive Dutch soloist, Ralph van Raat.

But in Cage’s “Atlas Eclipticalis,” in which each orchestral part is different and based upon astronomical star charts, some players mugged it up. Part of the problem here was that “Cartridge Music” (with its loud scratchy sounds of amplified phonograph cartridges) was simultaneously performed, sonically dwarfing the instrumentalists. Porcelijn prepared a disgracefully dull version of Cage’s “Apartment House 1776,” a composed musicircus based on marches and hymns from the Revolutionary War era. All its amazing theater was lost when the soloists meant to represent Native Americans, Sephardic Jews, “American Negroes” and Protestants were prerecorded.

Elsewhere there was more theater than needed. An otherwise fabulous and funny soprano, Lore Lixenberg, got a little carried away in “Aria”: Crunching potato chips is fine, pigging out on them isn’t. A performance of excerpts from Cage’s “Song Books” -- a celebration of Thoreau, Satie and anarchy -- went beyond the fringe and turned into a skit.


At the other extreme, things got awfully solemn in a nearby church Sunday afternoon, when the BBC Symphony Chorus sang American arrangements of hymn tunes interspersed with selections from the Sonatas and Interludes for a pallidly prepared piano. Beautiful string quartet performances by the Duke Quartet, also in a church, were tied together with traditional Japanese shakuhachi music, for some pretentious reason. Student percussionists late Saturday night, adrenaline flowing, strung Cage percussion pieces into a maddening nonstop hourlong rush.

There were finds. A wonderful young violinist, Clio Gould, was soloist in Earle Brown’s “Centering.” An up-and-coming pianist, Nicolas Hodges, played an exquisite late-night recital that included Feldman’s “Piano.” A young French conductor, Pierre-Andre Valade, was responsible for a touching performance of the first movement of Lou Harrison’s Fourth Symphony and a ravishing account of Cage’s “1O1" with the BBC Symphony.

Indeed, this “1O1,” a lush 12-minute late work written for the Boston Symphony, closed the remarkable, if uneven, weekend, with trust reestablished. And that is not something that can be said about all aspects of American-British relations these days.