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The sound of America

The BBC Symphony's 'John Cage Uncaged' brings the composer's world to London in a whirlwind weekend.

January 25, 2004|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

London — "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.

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