A Bit of an Education

24 Sep 2012 in Music, Outer Hebrides, Showcase, Visual Arts & Crafts

A PERSONAL response from Ian Stephen to the John Cage centenary celebration Silence and Transmission at An Lanntair.

YOU KNOW the story of the emperor who paraded through the streets in his new invisible clothes. You’ll also know, for sure, about blank or apparently blank canvases. And most of us have heard of the timed period of silence – a work for any performer on any instrument, by John Cage, born a century ago.

BUT THE famous or infamous work, 4.33, is only one example of the inventive proposals of a man who also wrote and painted. I remembered that I possessed a work by Cage – part of Alec Finlay’s astonishing “Folios” series. You subscribed and, for a fiver a time, received a white envelope every few months. Inside, it could be a folded map, a booklet, or indeed just about anything that would easily fit. Once, it was some pages of language by Cage. And this centenary performance included storytelling with a difference, as well as the timed period where anything but silence happened.

John Cage

John Cage

I work with Peter Urpeth – an inventive improviser on piano and percussion as well as a writer. He’s also a friend. I declare that standpoint and the fact that I have no real background in John Cage’s work, or indeed contemporary music at all.

But this probably puts me in line of the majority of the local audience for the centenary event. Looking around An Lanntair on Thursday (20 September) I could see many new faces, and suspect that some people travelled many miles to experience what would happen. The whole work has also been recorded and will be part of an international relay of the celebration. But I could also recognize many people, who had come, like me, because they were curious. If someone is passionate enough to make the links needed to carry-through an event on this scale, there must be something that got under their skin.

I trusted the An Lanntair website for the start time but it started half an hour earlier. You might think that this was part of the script – staggered arrival of people to an arts event – but I’m afraid it wasn’t. But somehow this random factor fell into the spirit of the night

There’s a lot of humour, implicit throughout. OK, I missed the silence that wasn’t. But Peter’s description of it, later, told of a relationship between him on stage, as a performer with the expectations and reactions of the audience, also players. He said there was more than one wave of laughing.

So what seems to have happened is a willingness to allow the inclusion of chance.

As I’m typing and thinking, I look up now and again to see the two large drawings installed in my living room but also made as a series of three for a publication. These are by the artist David Connearn who had a show in the old An Lanntair, that was like an installation of music.

Publication by David Connearn

Publication by David Connearn

He draws one line after another, within set parameters, with different thicknesses of pen or in different materials. Connearn also made a drawing, in gravel, in a courtyard in Dublin. This could only be documented from the air before it was raked to something that was nearer nothing – a less-designed fall of the stones. As each line of these very fine ink drawings, in my house, follows the one before it, there is a chance difference – that could be the result of tension in the artist’s hand or it could be a tendency suggested by the paper itself.

The same artist has also made a print by blind-embossing, which looks like nothing on paper, until you catch an angle to see that again it is a meticulous and brave attempt to follow a proposition in line. I feel that this is significantly different from the minimalism in the recent show of works on paper by Calum Innes at Ingleby Gallery. (And why, by the way, have we not seen the work of either artist in the suitable gallery space of An Lanntair?)

Innes is known for removing the paint he has placed on his medium. However, there seems to me a common element though one artist is concerned with line and one with colour. That is the allowance of chance to enter. There could never be complete control in the removing of paint from a page and the ability to work, responding to the movement of these substances, seems to me a bit like a musical improvisation. The titles often suggest sequences – numbered variations.

Chance re-occurred all through the John Cage performance. Five performers tune five radios to pre-determined frequencies, but, according to Peter’s very clear and detailed notes, the score permits additional variations, left open. And of course there is no control over what arrives, along the frequencies. I thought of the radio-hams I’ve known, with dreams of transmitting from Rockall or simply noting the call-signs come from afar. These guys are attuned to the static or interference or other sounds which occur between the morse blips or the spoken voice.

So why could you not do this at home? Just listen to the tuning of a radio or sit to watch paint dry on the boat-parts I’ve just coated. Well, I could, but there’s always something else to be done.

Before the concert, I’d asked Gerry Loose, one of said tuners and a poet and writer by trade, to tell me why he’d come a long way to take part. He said he thought Cage was very playful. One of his pieces was scored for “toy piano”. Gerry said he shared Cage’s fascination with the relationship between control and chance.

Raku landscape by Alison Weightman

Raku landscape by Alison Weightman

This suggestion brought me back to a workshop led by the ceramic artist Alison Weightman. She has adapted the meditative process of raku firing to use of a blowtorch and oildrum. But the timeless and placeless works also involve an element of chance. She is never completely certain how the chemistry of the glaze will fall.

Gerry described an exhibition of Cage’s paintings, where again, there were variations in the way they were displayed so you approached from different angles. Cage and Loose also share a passion for collecting wild mushrooms. When once asked if this could be dangerous, Cage replied that statically there was more chance of being killed by a lion.

So you could see the work as an incentive to look rather than see and to listen rather than hear.

And this indeed give me a way into interpreting the experience of the celebration. My only slight discomfort was that it seemed a bit serious when the men on stage were glancing at their scores and turning the dials. This was broken for a moment when a very fine piece of fiddle playing came through just when we were all ready for a cheery note.

And when John Cavanagh read, this was indeed a performance. A bit of a coup – engaging a vastly experienced broadcaster used to striving for the continuity that suggests a completely dependable professional and calm broadcasting corporation. But John later said how challenging it was, to read the stories of Cage, with a huge variation in the number of words, to the same timing of one whole but single minute. Later, he alternated readings from the current Stornoway Gazette and Fishing News between the contributions from the radio-tuners. Here, you really did get a sense of a playful though thoughtful proposition. Each page was cast aside and fell where it did.

Peter Urpeth and Ian Stephen in a previous project at An Lanntair (photo Mhairi Law)

Peter Urpeth and Ian Stephen in a previous project at An Lanntair (photo Mhairi Law)

Just when my concentration was being tested, we were given a piece which placed the entertainment factor up front. Peter had been paying regular visits to the Bethesda charity shop and buying LPs to a formula which will ensure that the playing of them, to Cage’s score, is indeed random. The first performance was over in our neighbouring city, New York, in 1952, with of course a different range of recordings available for sampling. It was performed with a dance-piece by the choreographer Merce Cunningham. In this performance Andy Mackinnon contributed a film, assembled without hearing the piece of music.

“The score is block-graph, where each square equals three inches of tape. In total there are eight tracks, made from the 42 selected records.” Cage used the I-Ching to create a chart for the original work. It was astonishing how often it all appeared to be synchronized.

And there were thee short bursts of energy and skill when Urpeth on piano and Stuart Wilding on percussion, betrayed the fact that they have a long-standing working relationship – responding to each other but in a way that could never be exactly replicated. With all that experience and skill open to the musicians, it really is an act of dedication to keep it all under restraint, to serve the purpose of the evening.

That purpose was indeed a celebration – a little bit of an exploration and a bit of an adventure. I can’t remember feeling bored but I do remember being ready for something pleasing or humorous – and usually that arrived.

An Lanntair are to be congratulated on trusting Urpeth and his team to carry out their vision and one of their own staff, Jon Macleod, took part. Balanced programming has to transcend personal taste. Even if I had not found something to engage me, I think I’d be glad that Stornoway was playing a key role in an international programme to celebrate a guy who has provoked so much discussion.

© Ian Stephen, 2012