Tuesday 25 September 2012

John Cage meets Stewart Lee

John Cage:  Indeterminacy
Stewart Lee, Tania Chen, Steve Beresford, Alan Tomlinson
Battersea Arts Centre, September 23 2012

Stewart Lee, Tania Chen and Steve Beresford
Even now, a century after his birth, John Cage’s art feels brilliantly fresh. I say art, because although you’ll see him described as a composer, his exploration of sound was genuinely genre busting, exploding the idea of what music could be. While his European contemporaries were dryly dictating the terms of a new avant-garde order, Cage charted the outer limits of music with a wide eyed wonder, seeing all that was remarkable in the commonplace and the overlooked. And we’re still travelling in his wake, astounded that his big ideas could have been expressed quite so pithily.

While much of the archaeology of high modernism has been brushed aside, people flock to John Cage as to no other twentieth century experimentalist, revelling in the humour at the heart of his output. Cage’s works dare us to giggle, either in joy or disbelief. And so it seems natural that a comedian should have taken quite so strongly to Cage’s work; that’s just what stand-up Stewart Lee has done, locating Cage’s natural wit with his own laconic delivery for this touring event, caught by Devil’s Trill at Battersea Arts Centre.

Lee takes the role of the reader – originally performed by Cage – in Indeterminacy, a series of autobiographical one minute stories read at random to an accompaniment of improvised noise. Cage’s tales are expertly turned – sometimes funny, sometimes poignant and occasionally baffling – but their length determines the delivery, having to last one minute no matter how many words they contain. The composer’s friends and colleagues are brilliantly drawn: the almost chronically unimpressed David Tudor; the existential disappointment of Morton Feldman; the gnomic wisdom of Dr. Suzuki. They all sound great fun. Lee’s deadpan, almost bored style only heightens the comedy. The slow retort of mushroom expert Guy Nearing, on having his mistake picked up by the young Cage (“There are so many.....Latin names.....rolling around in my head.....that sometimes.....the wrong one comes out”) could have been written for Lee.

And then there are flashes of the philosophy of Cage’s world view. He recalls a juke box playing at a swimming pool: “I noticed that the music accompanied the swimmers, though they didn’t hear it”. And so the improvisations of Tania Chen and Steve Beresford, played mostly on musical toys, form an apparently random but often eerily synchronous counterpoint to the text. Sometimes they obscure it, rendering Lee’s commentary a different brand of noise.  

Before all of this, Beresford and Chen take to two pianos to improvise wildly. On this occasion, their first improvisation ranged widely and recalled two other great American mavericks - Charles Ives and Conlon Nancarrow; their second was a terser, frantic affair. Cage’s fascination for extending instrumental techniques is demonstrated by Alan Tomlinson, following the composer’s diverse instructions in the Solo for sliding trombone – only some of which involve the mouthpiece. Tomlinson raised hoots of delight from the Battersea audience as he barked through his instrument like an angry dog, and that’s what Cage-the-comic would have wanted.   

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