John Cage Uncaged: Barbican Centre, London, 16th-18th January 2004

Here it is, then.

This isn’t going to be a review of the whole weekend for a couple of reasons. Firstly, because there was so damned much of it that I just don’t have the time, energy, will or tendons to write about all of it. Suffice it to say that a good time was had. Secondly, given the pre-event coverage, there’ll be a pretty heavy press review fallout during the coming days, a rundown of which I’ll post later in the week. And anyway this is my blog, so I’ll write about what I like.

And what I liked most was, natch, the Musicircus event, and another ‘musicircus’-type work, Apartment House 1776 for orchestra, which was given its UK premiere on Sunday afternoon.

Since this is such a venue-specific work (for convenience I’m going to keep calling it a work, but in actual fact, Cage only left a set of conceptual instructions to be realised: on this occasion, composer Stephen Montague took on the role of ‘Musicircus Master’ in realising the whole thing.), a brief impression of the space is needed. The Barbican Centre’s foyers are a sequence of balconies and spaces none of which have stairs quite where you’d expect them to be. It can be an infuriating place, and it’s always difficult to remember which level you’re on, and how to get to the level you want to be on; but for all that, it’s still a classic building, and a microcosm of the larger Barbican itself, a city within a city that is one of those postwar architectural masterpieces/disasters that London is singularly blessed with, and one notorious for how easy it is to get lost in.

Given the labyrinthine design of the Barbican foyer space, throughout which Musicircus was arranged, with ensembles and musicians placed around corners, overhead in balconies, or below in stairwells, the initial impression is like walking around a large formal garden, with surprises and new vistas at every turn. Continuing the analogy, in the same way that good garden composition is about the correct balance of filler shrubs and trees and decorative flowers, so the arrangement of musicians was orchestrated to provide effects of contrast and consonance. The overall impression is of a simultaneity of general effect and extraordinary detail. Many of the groups were of the avant-garde-improv axis, playing either music of their own, or performing scores by Cage himself and his New York contemporaries LaMonte Young and Earle Brown. But a significant number were playing music from perhaps the opposite end of the scale of comprehension – Irish fiddle music, hymn tunes, spirituals and so on. One is your sturdy shrubbery, the other your flower highlights, but here my tired analogy breaks down, since it rapidly becomes impossible to tell what is providing contrast, or relief to what. [Although, to finish off the botanical theme, special mention is due to Dr Stefan Buczacki, who excelled himself as a Cage performer par excellence with his lecture on mushrooms throughout the performance. In spite of being completely drowned out most of the time, he kept to his cues exactly, stopping mid-sentence when the stopwatches called him to, and was generally brilliant. Better than one or two more acclaimed Cage interpreters on show during the weekend …] Sometimes the background effect might indeed be the overlayering free improvisation and aleatoric compositions. In this case, naturally, the sound of an Irish folk tune or a chorus of ‘Nearer my God to Me’ might rise above the sound mass, its recognisable motifs and tunes glinting like waves on the sea. At other times, the layers of tonal melody become too much and indecipherable, and it is the noise-improv of the Electroacoustic Cabaret, say, that provides a musical focus. And there is everything in between. What is the real magic of Musicircus, and, possibly, one of the reasons Cage dreamt it up in the first place, is this continuity, in every imaginable dimension, between poles considered opposites. Up, down, left, right, avant-garde, folk, high, low, sight, sound, speech, melody … you get the drift. Cage’s grandest proposition was that everything was music, and in Musicircus there is no finer demonstration of this.

This is most obvious in the interplay of ensembles. If you stood in one place, the acoustic experience changed, as ensembles dropped in and out of the mix according to the instructions on their timesheets (see below for an outline of how the piece is put together). With this shifting of sound (and emphasis from one ensemble to another, one music to another), Musicircus acquires form and definition as a musical work. Sounds are located in time, and thus a structure is articulated. That, at base level, is music.

So, standing still but moving in time you get a sense of musical form unfolding itself, but the same effect is achieved when walking around too, since space and distance mean that some ensembles fade out while others fade in. Movement in space also generates musical form. Space and time are made equivalent, just as hymn tunes and graphic scores are.

This sense of space as a musical function remains with you as, after the performance ends, you nose around looking for a quiet corner to sit and write. You still feel the building articulated as regions of greater or lesser sound, as areas of contrast, the rhythm of stairways and lobbies. The musical memory of the place has become painted on its walls.

Apartment House 1776 is another ‘musicircus’-style work, in that it involves small groups of musicians playing independently against one another, within the confines of a larger scheme. This time it is to be performed within the confines of a single stage, and there is a fully composed score, rather than loose instructions. About a dozen groups of 1-4 instruments (all members of the London Sinfonietta) were dotted around, and in addition various recorded folksongs were played over the concert hall’s PA.

As its title suggests, Apartment House 1776 was composed to mark the bicentennial of the American Declaration of Independence in 1976. It’s actually one of several works Cage was commissioned to write for the occasion, and at least one other has an overtly political aspect. Lecture on the Weather features 12 American men who had become Canadian citizens (and as a result avoided the draft) to read extracts from the work of transcendentalist poet Henry David Thoreau. In the case of Apartment House 1776, the political edge comes through the choice of music materials Cage employs, and the nature of musicircus itself. In the mix of music played amongst the musicians on stage are 44 early American choral pieces, which Cage has distorted through chance operations, removing some notes and extending others. In doing this, Cage says, he retained something of their 18th-century flavour, but without the sacred reference. These are incorporated within a gumbo of 18th-century melodies, civil war drumming and Moravian church music. Over the PA system were played recordings of Protestant, Sephardic, Native American and African American songs. It doesn’t take much thought to realise that you are being presented with a musical cross-section of American history and society.

In his treatment of this music, however, Cage achieves something quite remarkable. As the different musical elements are layered on top and alongside one another, in the fashion of the big Musicircus, each element in its turn is both elevated and equalised. Since each element (aside from the important exception of the distorted hymns) is played straight, and given dignity and presence within the sound, at one time or another (times selected, naturally, through chance operations and not the taste of the individual), there is a curious effect of privileging everything at once. The piece becomes a joyous, eloquent celebration of the American ideal put to paper in 1776.

Cage’s method does have an equalising effect – this was at the core of much of his philosophy – but it is a mistake that the individual elements are brought down to the same level. Cage’s genius – and why, in fact, the ego of the composer (wherever that might be) is still crucial to his music – is to elevate these elements above everything else. All sounds may be created equal, but the ones Cage asks you to play are more equal than others. Thus 4’33” isn’t constantly playing as ambient background Muzak to our lives: the opposite is true, and it is only playing when we (or another performer) decides when it is to begin and end. It is actually the least ambient work in history, since it only begins when someone starts to listen to it.

Because Cage, in all his works, has selected sounds, or arranged them in a form, or given them a frame, they become something they weren’t otherwise. Anything might be music, but only at the point at which someone decides that it should be, and then only until they stop. The whole compositional principle behind Musicircus might be boiled down to this pair of decisions: when to start, and when to stop. Everything in between takes care of itself.

Maybe, in the end, this all just pedagogy, lessons in aesthetics, philosophy in action, politics and history as musical metaphor. I’m not sure if my reading here helped this, who can say. But even if this is all Cage’s efforts, the efforts of Stephen Montague and a Barbican full of musicians come down to, it seems to me that the lessons are still as important as they have ever been (the American sat next to me sniggered throughout Apartment House 1776), and their execution here was as exuberant, compelling and committed as you could possibly wish.

Musicircus: list of performers

This list is taken from that handed out on the day: I’ve added hyperlinks where I can find them and reordered it to give some idea of where everybody was in relation to one another; for each level of the Barbican centre, I’ve listed the performers in rough order of position from the Silk Street corner to the Curve Gallery. (Sorry, can’t find a decent plan of the Barbican for those who don’t know it.) This was all done from memory, and there are a handful of performers who I didn’t see – apologies to them, and to any groups I’ve mistakenly put in the wrong place. Corrections – in the comments box or by e-mail – are all welcome!


(Starting outside the Bistro)
COMA [Contemporary Music for Amateurs] Northwest Duo, voice, flute
Iain Morrison and Karen Larkin, voice, toy glockenspiel
Royal Academy of Music Composers’ Ensemble, radios
Feathers of Lead (Jr. Guildhall), strings, Tessa Montague, leader
Crazybaby, ‘cell phone symphony ensemble’, dir. Ned Bigham
Odile de Caires and Polly Edgington, pat-a-cake
Fortytwo::, toy instruments
Cardboard Citizens New Music Ensemble, dir. Reynaldo Young
BBC Symphony Chorus (40 voices), dir. Deborah Miles-Johnson
Pete Cooper’s Irish Band

Ground Floor

(Starting from the Silk Street Entrance)
Sophie Cox [I think], front of house, voice [from COMA Voices London]
Ian Mitchell and Friends, mixed ensemble
Harrow Symphony New Music Ensemble, dir. Bashar Lulua (I’m really not sure this is in the right place)
Three Strange Angels, percussion ensemble
Buruk Ensemble
Cat and Fiddle Band, fiddles and accordion
John Tilbury, prepared piano
John Paul Jones, 6-string bass guitar and Kyma
Trinity College of Music Composers’ Ensemble, dir. Dominic Murcott
Michele Fuirer, sound sculpture
Gavin Bryars, double bass
Yoko Ono [and unnamed singer], upright piano
Youth Orchestra of Hammersmith and Fulham with Artists from Lady Margaret School, ensemble, blackboards, magnetic letters, balloons etc., dirs. Tim Steiner and Alexandra Julyan
London College of Music and Media Interactive Performance Group, dir. Philip Mead (not sure I’ve got this one right either)
Kingston University Écooter, music theatre ensemble, dir. Howard Frederics
Professor Stefan Buczacki, mycological lecture and mushroom display
Hugh Davies, amplified plant materials
Tzy-Tau Wey, Chinese erhu [didn’t appear, as far as I know]
BBC Symphony Chamber Choir, 10 singers, dinner party


Piano Circus, 6 electric pianos
Judith Kogan, harp and scarecrow with labels
Hard Sell, mixed ensemble, dir. Dave Smith
Toby Montague and Katy Cummings, chess game

Stalls floor

(Starting from by the Theatre Box Office)
Oren Marshall, 5 antiphonal tubas
BBC Symphony Chorus, 60 voices, cond. Stephen Jackson
Electroacoustic Cabaret, Boghorn, Treadle Fret Saw, monoharps, toilet plunger, trombone, electronics, loud shirt
COMA London, mixed ensemble, dir. Gregory Rose
Nick Skinner, Hammond organ
Ruth Young, flute and shakuhachi
Julie Yount Morgan, voice
Monica Acosta, Sara Cluderay, Tom Shorter, cloakroom attendants, voices [from COMA voices London]
BBC Symphony Chamber Choir, 10 voices, dinner party (wedding reception)
The Oxford Improvising Orchestra, mixed ensemble

Toilet steps

Fourplay (Jr. Guildhall string quartet)

Gents toilets

Tom Fox, tuba

Lower stalls floor

Guildhall Percussion Ensemble, dir. Richard Benjafield

Wandering/spread throughout

Emma Diamond and the London Contemporary Dance School, choreog. Emma Diamond
Gregory Rose, voice
John Cage, in interview with Stephen Montague, 1982, PA system
Kathy Hinde, videos and projections

Didn’t see, so not sure where they were

Nancy Ruffer and Nicholas Holland, flutes and cello
Joe Harrop, folk fiddle

[Mouseover texts are taken from the programme notes to the festival. Where I couldn’t find a relevant link, I let Google decide for me.]

6 thoughts on “John Cage Uncaged: Barbican Centre, London, 16th-18th January 2004

  1. Thanks for this review! I wish I had been there, it sounds amazing. I wrote about the original musicircus in my dissertation some years ago. I write a sound art blog, and will reblog this.

  2. What’s up, constantly i used to check website posts here early
    in the daylight, since i like to learn more and more.

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