The diceman cometh

26th March 2004 at 00:00
Journalists may find experimental music an easy target for ridicule, but a recent John Cage event proved that musicians and students find insight and pleasure in the philosophy of an innovative composer. Helen Lowe reports

Chance can be a fine thing, and the Youth Orchestra of Hammersmith and Fulham exploited it to the full during the BBC Symphony Orchestra's John Cage Uncaged weekend at London's Barbican Centre in January. Their own Cage-inspired piece, "Snapline Variations", was improvised to accompany visual artworks being created simultaneously by GCSE art students from Lady Margaret School in Parsons Green. The performance was part of the weekend's "MusiCircus", itself an expression of Cage's revolutionary ideas about music, involving more than 300 performers, individually or in groups, in simultaneous performances of a whole range of musical genres at various stations throughout the Barbican building.

The MusiCircus also used Cage's fascination for chance sounds and events, and his interest in collaboration between musicians, dancers and visual artists. During the 45-minute event, the audience strolled around, listening - or not - to each performance.

The chance operations were determined by throws of the dice - actions that ranged from putting on a mask to offering fizzy "flying saucer" sweets to the audience. The length of time for each action was also determined by throws of the dice, and the many levels of dice-throwing meant there were millions of different elements of chance. As 14-year-old artist Jenny Ulrick says: "The chance aspect was fun, yet made it harder to create a really tight performance. I enjoyed doing performance art, rather than the traditional things we usually do in art."

For most members of the youth orchestra, this was their first experience of experimental music, and there was general agreement that it widened their idea of what music is. Recorder player Brittany Glossop, aged 15, of Shene International School, says she is now "more likely to listen to experimental pieces, because I have been taught how to listen and interpret them".

Improvising was also a challenge for most of the performers. "I learnt to relax and go with the flow. That is something I greatly benefit from," says 16-year-old Henrietta Haspeslagh, of Godolphin and Latymer School. And percussionist Michael Wells, aged 15, of St Benedict's School says: "For me as a drummer, the whole piece was really fun."

John Cage (1912-1992) was famous for his inventiveness, creating countless ways of making sounds and persuading audiences to listen. In what could be thought of as a summary of his philosophy, he said: "I can't understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I'm frightened of the old ones."

"Snapline Variations" is an exciting combination of art and sound, of composed and improvised music, and of episodes of Cage's famous "silences", with the performers, statue-like, holding their positions at the conductor's command. Another of Cage's innovations was to use children's toys as musical instruments. The students responded to this idea by bringing all sorts of sounds into their performance - among their favourites was a singing dog in its basket.

The project was part of a long-term partnership between the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Hammersmith and Fulham Music Service, local schools and the community. "This has been an exciting opportunity for professional musicians from the BBC to work alongside musicians from our local community," says Lincoln Abbotts, learning manager for the BBC Symphony Orchestra. "Musicians taking part have had the chance to broaden their musical knowledge and experiences as our players adapt their skills to engage and reach out to new audiences." The initiative is part of a nationwide programme in which the BBC's six performing groups are developing their own outreach activities.

Several workshop sessions were held in the weeks leading up to the "Uncaged" weekend, with workshop director Tim Steiner guiding the musicians, while artist Alex Julyan worked with the art students. Six members of the BBC Symphony Orchestra helped with the development of improvisation techniques. The project started with artists and musicians meeting to agree a structural framework, and then creating their material in separate sessions, bringing it together for the first time at the performance.

Alex Julyan finds Cage's approach to collaborative work particularly exciting. "This is a fascinating time to be working with art and music.

Practitioners are still finding ways to truly collaborate so that one art form is not simply a backdrop to the other, but they become integrated."

The Lady Margaret art students were enthusiastic participants. "Far from having to persuade them to perform, I had to limit their performance to give it some shape and structure. They were open to everything and found the use of chance operations liberating as a way of making work and generating and developing ideas," says Alex Julyan.

During the creative sessions, the musicians discussed the nature of sound and silence with workshop director Tim Steiner. "We talked about the philosophy. We discussed "4'33"" (Cage's piece in which a silence lasting 4 minutes 33 seconds is "performed" by one or more musicians). I asked them why Cage would have written such a piece. They were extremely insightful and open," he said.

Whatever you think about Cage's music, his silences - often derided in the popular media - stimulate discussion. Artist Abigail Scott, aged 15, says:

"If you just sit down and hear the sounds around you it's really something quite special." Brittany Glossop thought the music was there for a reason, "but so were the silences and both of them played an equally important part in the piece".

Clarinettist Sophie Meeking, of Godolphin and Latymer School, found the silences "relaxing", while others felt they created tension and suspense, not just for the players, but also for the audience. "They want to hear what is next in the piece if it just stops in the middle," says Henrietta Haspeslagh.

For artist Jenny Ulrick, the silence was like a "blank piece of paper". For the performance of "Snapline Variations", it was a blank blackboard, and much chalk was used as each artist in turn - at the throw of the dice, of course - gave visual shape to the improvisations of the musicians.

For the players from the BBC Symphony Orchestra, it was also a learning experience. A number of them talked about how they really had to engage with the principles of Cage in order to explain it to the students; and through their role as mentors some really strong friendships were formed.

John Cage's music still succeeds in raising the temperature of musical debate. Perhaps Brittany Glossop has a point when she says: "John Cage was more of a philosopher than a composer; he went against everything that was normal."

The 45-minute performance was full of spontaneous humour and emotional and physical energy. I was left with a buzz of excitement and the feeling that I had participated in a unique and historic event.

The BBC Symphony Orchestra is Future activities include: lApril 27 - a performance of work inspired by Luciano Berio at the Royal Festival Hall, involving GCSE students who have created a piece fusing live performance with digital technologieslMay 4-6 - a three-day residency for the BBCSymphony Orchestra at Hammersmith Town Hall.

Contact Lincoln AbbottsTel: 020 7765 0909

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