• Silence is Relative

Listening to the adventurous and surprisingly fulfilling radio experience of tonight’s John Cage Prom, I’ve been reminding myself of my own encounters with him and his music.

Back in the 1970s, when I was teaching at Queen’s University, Belfast, I performed Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes. This was a challenging proposition, not least interpreting his requirements for the preparation of the piano.  His list of inserted items was one of found objects, so I followed suit, using bolts, nuts, and other items that came closest to his own treasure hunt thirty years earlier.  Hence, as is clear from the photo above, plastic rawl plugs and the rubber feet of music stands, cut in half.  It was a memorable evening, at least for me, as the pitch relationship between keyboard and soundboard was contrary to custom and practice!

Later, in the early 1990s, when I was working at BBC Radio 3, I went to New York for the ‘Bang On A Can’ festival. Through my friends Julia Wolfe, Michael Gordon and David Lang, who founded the festival in 1987, I had an opportunity to meet Cage. His gentleness of spirit was legendary, and so it was on that occasion.  The only other composer who has come near to this, in my own experience, has been Jonathan Harvey.  Both have a profound spiritual and philosophical understanding that makes my interest in Zen Buddhism mere dabbling.

The encounter with Cage that made the most impact took place when I was much younger, when I was an undergraduate.  With my fellow student Jolyon Laycock, I made a trip down to London to spend an afternoon with John Cage and his longtime collaborator, the pianist David Tudor.  The venue was a large theatre, now the multi-screen Odeon Cinema, in Shaftesbury Avenue.  We sat in the Gods, looking down on Tudor operating ring-modulation equipment in the pit and a quasi drawing-room on stage.  There were two rows of small pictures, one above the other, in identically sized frames hanging across the stage and with an armchair in front.

On came Cage, book in hand.  Silence.  He sat down and began to read.  Within a minute, Tudor started to apply ring-modulation to Cage’s voice and soon the text became unintelligible.  We were participating in a happening with John Cage.  It felt as if we were in the vortex of contemporary music and culture.  I have no idea how long the event lasted – maybe two hours?  I remember the audience becoming increasingly agitated, shouting, whistling, throwing their programmes in the air.  It was mayhem, in which Cage and Tudor, cool as cucumbers, did what they set out to do.  Then, without warning, Cage got up and walked off.  The end.

Or so I thought.  We emerged onto Shaftesbury Avenue at rush hour.  But such had been the torrent of sound inside the theatre that I heard no traffic noise.  There was silence at that moment.  Although this impression was transient, its aesthetic significance was profound.  And I remain eternally grateful Cage for this simple gift of enlightenment.

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