My Almost Silent Encounter with the Music of John Cage

One winter’s evening, I set off on a journey in heavy snow, across the Forth Bridge to Edinburgh. It was turning to blizzard conditions but I kept going, I wasn’t going to miss this chance – to hear a live performance of John Cage’s famous piece 4′ 33″. I made my way up the road towards the Queen’s Hall but as I reached the place, it looked closed. Surely I hadn’t got the day wrong? Then I saw the notice on the door. ‘Due to bad weather tonight’s performance has been cancelled.’ If you know the piece, you will realise why, even though I was disappointed, especially after making that trek, I was amused by the irony of it.

Here’s a photo of the score:

There aren’t (m)any pieces that require the performer to be ‘tacet’ (silent) for the whole piece! For the first performance, at Woodstock, N.Y. in 1952, pianist David Tudor indicated the beginning of each part by closing the piano lid and the endings by opening the piano lid. (!) He used a stopwatch to time the movements. Cage’s score states that it can be played by any instrumentalist(s) and that the movements may last any length of time.

Was he having a laugh? Well perhaps, but he was making a serious point too: that there is more to music than we might apparently hear. So in the ‘silence’ of the hall during those four minutes and thirty three seconds, there will be sounds to listen to and every performance will be different. (At that first performance, at Maverick Hall – an open barn-like structure set in the woods, there was the sound of the wind in the trees, of rain falling and by the third movement, the sound of the audience themselves getting restless). Once you start to notice the sounds around you, music is everywhere.

I have been so captivated by Cage’s notion of listening to the sounds of our environment as music, that I enjoy ‘Cageian’ moments all the time. Last month, I was at a local school’s ‘Summer Picnic Concert’ and as the choir sang ‘Lean on Me’, a seagull flew by, giving a screech in a different key as a boy crackled his crisp packet. Then a gentle breeze picked up, rustling the overhanging branches as the choir went on to sing ‘The Birks of Aberfeldy’ and at the end, a tiny bird chirped a little solo above the final chord. For me, it was a delightful finishing touch that made that performance unique.

And I’ll never forget a late night recital of Bach’s cello suites given by Miklos Perneyi during the Edinburgh International Festival at The Hub: the venue situated right next to the castle. Towards the end of a sublime performance, the sound of solo cello filling the hall was overwhelmed by a cacophony of explosive bangs as the fireworks went off at the Edinburgh Tattoo.

Once you start listening, every dripping tap, whirring fan, humming hoover and even hammering and drilling can take on a musical significance of its own. As I made my way back along the street, I noticed how the snowfall had muffled the city and I listened to the scrunch of my footsteps in fresh snow and the occasional shrieking of young voices. I hadn’t needed to travel anywhere to hear 4’33”. It’s a soundtrack that’s playing all the time and you can tune in any time you like. Just listen.

 

Read more like this by subscribing – scroll to the bottom of the page.

 

 

 

Yo-Yo Ma Builds Bridges with Bach

Since the great cellist Pau Casals brought them out of obscurity, with his famous recordings made between 1936 – 39, the Six Unaccompanied Cello Suites by Bach have become the pinnacle of the cello repertoire. Previously thought of as technical studies, the performance of each of these contrasting sets of preludes and dance movements makes great demands on the cellist. To bring out the character of each movement of each suite, the player must interweave melody and harmony, with dexterity in string crossing and a feeling for phrasing and rhythm. It can be physically demanding to make the music seem to sing and dance without effort. Casals studied the suites for twelve years before performing them in public, recognising them as works of great musical value, which exploit the possibilities of the instrument further than any of Bach’s contemporaries had done. “Bach was in advance of his time.” (Casals. 1956). Performance of Bach’s cello suites has fluctuated in style since Casals’ day, and from one cellist to another they can be played in quite different ways: ranging from a full-toned romantic style with vibrato, to a lighter-touched bowing style with no vibrato. Listening to the Bach cello suites can be an experience of contrasting emotions: exuberance, introspection and sheer joy. To me this music is perfection. I never tire of hearing its many interpretations. 

YOYO MA
Even my cat was transfixed by Yo-Yo Ma playing Bach!

Of course, interpretation of the Bach Suites may develop and change throughout a cellist’s lifetime and for international soloists this sometimes leads to a new recording. The world famous cellist Yo-Yo Ma has released his third recording but more importantly, he is performing the Bach in a series of concerts to highlight the need for connection between people in our increasingly divided world. Yo-Yo Ma’s aim with ‘The Bach Project’ (which began in 2018) is to perform 36 concerts in six continents. Using the ‘universality’ of this music to communicate across boundaries, Yo-Yo Ma believes that the arts provide just one way of connecting with people and deepening our understanding of one another. The need for making such connections is urgent and he is using his skills and renown as a cellist to further the conversation. Each concert is followed by a day of action to bring attention to this issue and to talk about a way forward for the future of our world.

Particularly poignant was the performance beside the US/Mexican border. Yo-Yo Ma said “… in culture, we build bridges, not walls”.

There are four concerts still to go: one in the USA, two in Australia and one in New Zealand.

Find out more at The Bach Project

Find out too about Yo-Yo Ma’s ongoing  Silk Road Project which began as a group of exceptional musicians from different cultures performing music together in a unique collaboration (Silk Road Ensemble) and has grown to encompass education projects with the aim of creating a world that values our global cultural riches and brings people together to share, collaborate and make connections.

Source: ‘Conversations with Casals’ by J.Ma Corredor. Translated by André Mangeot. Hutchinson. 1956.

Thank you for the Music, Mum

I had a wonderful mum who filled my childhood with music and happy times. This article and playlist are a tribute to her on what would have been her 88th birthday.

I have often seen queries online from parents wondering how to get their child to like classical music. My mum introduced me to music in a subtle way so that I was a fan before I knew it. She had the answer and this is what she did.

It began with dance. Trained as ballet dancer and teacher, she knew the repertoire that would have my sister and me twirling round the living room. Tchaikovsky: music from ‘Sleeping Beauty’, ‘Swan Lake’ and this Waltz from the ‘Nutcracker Suite’. I loved the sound of the harp swirling up and down, the bubbling clarinet notes and then when the sweeping melody on the strings came, I was spinning with joy.

Track 1: Waltz from ‘The Nutcracker Suite’.

As children, Mum protected us from scary, nasty things so we had no idea that the story behind this next piece involved frightening trolls. In the Hall of the Mountain King from the ‘Peer Gynt Suite’ by Greig had us stepping around the room on tiptoe, hiding behind the settee, jumping up and then getting more and more boisterous as the music increased in speed and volume.

Track 2: In the Hall of the Mountain King from the ‘Peer Gynt Suite’.

Music that made us laugh was a also big hit and we thought this Clog Dance from the ballet ‘La Fille Mal Gardée’ was very funny – especially the bit that sounds like slipping on a banana skin and then later, when the sound of the clogs tapping seems to get all mixed up.

Track 3: Clog Dance from ‘La Fille Mal Gardée’.

When she became a primary school teacher, Mum had responsibility for music and dance at the school my sister and I went to so we experienced the music at home and at school. Walking into school assembly we were accompanied by music such as Holst’s ‘The Planets’ or Prokoviev’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’.

Track 4: Jupiter from ‘The Planets’.

Track 5:  The Knights’ Dance from ‘Romeo and Juliet’.

Her friend and colleague was a drama specialist and together they put on school plays. Musical soundtracks were drawn from Stravinsky’s music for the ballet ‘Petrouchka’ or ‘The Firebird’, Britten’s Sea Interludes from ‘Peter Grimes’ or Kodaly’s ‘Hary Janos Suite’: music that had character and captured the imagination or had exciting rhythms and/or enticing melodies.

Track 6: Danse Russe from ‘Petrouchka’.

Track 7: Sea Interludes from ‘Peter Grimes’.

Track 8: Hungarian Dance from ‘Hary Janos Suite’.

Mum directed the school choir and when we went in for a music festival singing This Little Babe from Britten’s ‘A Ceremony of Carols’, I remember having to concentrate hard when the music went into two parts and marvelling at the sound created by the echoing effect of this canon.

Track 9: This Little Babe from ‘A Ceremony of Carols’.

The structure of music interested Mum and when she taught dance she was also teaching us to listen. To the second movement of Bartok’s ‘Concerto for Orchestra’ (known as the ‘Game of Pairs’), she asked our class to dance in twos, choosing which instrumental line to follow: you could be the bassoons, the oboes, the clarinets, the flutes, the pizzicato strings, bowed strings, trumpets or trombones but could only move when your instrument was playing.

Track 10: Movement II. Giuoco delle coppie from the ‘Concerto for Orchestra’ by Bartok.

Mum loved discovering new pieces and when we listened to the Nine Lessons and Carols from King’s College, Cambridge, she was always excited to hear the latest addition to the repertoire. When she first heard the Shepherd’s Pipe Carol by John Rutter, she loved the bit where the beat changes and then changes back again. She bought the music and next Christmas we were singing it at school. One year, we went to Cambridge, to the Chapel at King’s College to hear the service. The music was wonderful: the harmonies, the descants and the organ playing. And after all that uplifting music, we came out into the twilight as the snow was beginning to fall. It felt magical and remains a special memory.

Track 11: Shepherd’s Pipe Carol by John Rutter.

Music was like an exciting discovery with Mum. She told us about her music teacher at school in Hendon, London, taking her to orchestral rehearsals with great conductors and how she was told to listen to the bass line or middle parts and not just follow the tune. She revelled in the clever compositional techniques like the melody in Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini which, towards the second half of the piece, is turned upside down and made into a new melody.

Track 12: Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini by Rachmaninov.

Or the two tunes played at the same time in the last movement of the St Paul’s Suite by Holst.

Track 13: St Paul’s Suite.

She loved the music of English composers: Purcell, Holst, Vaughan-Williams, Walton and Britten, having heard many of their works in concerts, during the vibrant cultural resurgence of post-war Britain. She talked of the excitement of attending concerts at the Festival of Britain at London’s Southbank. I found a programme that she had kept from one of the first performances of Britten’s opera Billy Budd from 1951.

Perhaps in that spirit of the Festival of Britain, there wasn’t any elitism about this musical education: she felt that everyone should have access to great music. She told me about a boy in school who’d asked her: “Where do you find all this music?”. He’d never heard anything like it at home.

Track 14: The Cuckoo from ‘Folk Songs of the Seasons’ by Vaughan Williams.

Track 15: Popular Song from Facade by Walton.

But we were exposed to an eclectic mix too. We sang along to Pinky and Perky on the TV, and had records of the soundtracks from musicals we’d seen at the pictures: we sang along to  A Spoonful of Sugar from ‘Mary Poppins’, My Favourite Things from ‘The Sound of Music’ and I could have danced all Night from ‘My Fair Lady’.

Mum had the record Time Out by Dave Brubeck and we loved listening to that and a record of the jazz trumpeter Dizzie Gillespie. And we loved The Swingle Singers especially when they sang Bach.

Track 16: Allegro from Brandenburg Concerto no.3 by Bach: The Swingle Singers.

My sister and I went for piano lessons, (our brother resisted and taught himself the guitar and drums) and so Mum hardly got a look in at the piano but when she did, this is the piece she used to play: Mouvement Perpetuel by Poulenc. It sounded lively and jolly to me as a child. I didn’t notice the rather dark undertone that I hear when I listen to it now.

Track 17: Mouvement Perpétuel by Poulenc.

When I went secondary school, Mum encouraged me take up the cello – from the back of her wardrobe she took the cello she had been given as a 21st birthday present and said I could learn to play it. So I did, without realising what a gift that was and how it would become my instrument and a major part of my life.

When I was 15 Mum took me to a performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion in Manchester Cathedral. The timbre of the orchestra and solo singers was startlingly beautiful in that resonant acoustic and when the chorus joined in it was such a glorious sound I was quite overwhelmed. I remember hearing a viola da gamba for the first time and wondering what it was, realising it wasn’t a cello, although it looked similar. I loved its raw sound. At the end of the first half we went home for tea and then Mum asked me if I’d like to go back for the second half. I couldn’t understand why she was asking me, of course I wanted to go back for the second half. Speaking to her years later I was telling her what a powerful effect that music had on me and she said I had been really quiet and she didn’t know if I had liked it or not! I think I had been completely spellbound.

Track 18 – 19 From the St. Matthew Passion by Bach

A few years later Mum was lecturing in education with responsibility for dance at a college of education, working in the field of contemporary dance and we had moved to a cottage in Lancashire. Music was our evenings’ and weekend’s entertainment: we listened to Mum’s records of Copland’s Rodeo, Shostakovich’s Jazz Suite and Satie’s Gymnopodies (in a version for classical guitar).

Track 20: Buckaroo Holiday from ‘Rodeo’ by Copland.

Track 21: Dance 1 from ‘Jazz Suite’ No.2 by Shostakovich.

Track 22: Gymnopodie no.1 by Satie.

She continued to play music that made us laugh. We thought the beginning of Divertissement by Ibert sounded funny with its clashing chords on the piano.

Track 23: Divertissement by Ibert.

As a teenager I started to collect some records of my own: Sibelius Symphonies, Elgar’s Cello Concerto with Jaqueline du Pré as soloist and Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos.

My love for music led to a career in music but more importantly, immense joy from the music I have heard or played and continue to do so. It’s because of Mum’s enthusiasm for music and the way she carefully nurtured an interest during my early years that music became central to my life.

The last piece in this tribute is by Mum’s favourite composer: Ravel. This music is full of poignancy for me as it arouses a complex range of emotions beneath its apparent simplicity.

Track 24: Adagio Assai from the Piano Concerto in G by Ravel.

To hear all the music in full go to my playlist: Thank you for the Music, Mum.