MUSIC / An artist who dared to be indifferent

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The Independent Culture
NINE YEARS ago, when he was 70, I visited John Cage in the loft conversion in Manhattan where he lived with the choreographer Merce Cunningham (but without a piano, a stereo or any evidence of musical occupation). I was shocked, as I was meant to be, by his declared indifference to The Music World. No, he never listened to the radio, or went to concerts. There had only been one musical idea since Beethoven, and it belonged to Satie. And no, he had no curiosity about what other living composers were up to: Boulez, Messiaen, Britten, none of them. I pointed out that Britten had been dead for seven years. 'Well,' said Cage, completely unabashed, 'some living composers are more dead than alive . . . and some dead ones just live on.'

This week Cage himself died, and if he lives on it probably won't be in his music, which tended toward provocatively ephemeral performance art and jokes that don't bear repetition, but in the ideas behind it. By his own admission he had no ear for harmony, no interest in the relationships between sounds from which creative musicianship derives. But he did have a feeling for the sounds themselves, and a liberating theoretical perception of how they could transcend the boundaries between art and life. According to Cage you didn't select a fragment of the world, subject it to formal disciplines, and end up with something to be revered as Art. Art was the experience of raw materials, the fabric of living, albeit in conditions that encouraged unusual intensity of observation - which is how he could write 'scores' that asked the performer to blend a bowl of vegetables in a mixer and drink the juice, or sit in front of a piano keyboard for four minutes and 33 seconds of silence. These aren't deathless works. They won't endure on CD. But in the moment of their creation they threw down a massive challenge to the way audiences evaluate sound and respond to the artifice of performance. It's for his daring that John Cage will be remembered.

An irony of passing time is that anarchic figures of the avant-garde become the new Establishment. And so it is with Peter Maxwell Davies, who made his name in the Sixties with bourgeois-baiting music theatre but has matured into the statesmanlike stature of a Northern symphonist with an increasing profile as a conductor of core repertory - like the Mozart and Beethoven he conducted in Thursday's Prom with the BBC Philharmonic.

But the key work in that concert was his own Black Pentecost, a large-scale requiem for lost values which was a pivotal piece, written in 1979 along the Mahlerian lines of an orchestral score with texts for solo voices. The words, by Orkney poet George Mackay Brown, tell a story of traditional life destroyed by the encroachment of technology and commerce. The tone is polemical, the threat portrayed in the inflated terms of an Orwellian nightmare; and the score marries together elements of the old, high-pitched Maxwell Davies and the later, more reflective model.

I'm not sure how comfortably they sit together. Nor am I sure this piece has the bite it seemed to have 10 years ago. The discourse now seems slow and ponderous. But that may be because Davies takes the tempi slower - certainly in the first section which is purely orchestral and now appears to claim a greater weight and prominence than the passages with texts. I wonder if he isn't trying to redirect the focus away from the programmatic limitations of environmental lobbying and toward an abstract universality. Certainly, there is a lot of text that doesn't commend itself to music (which presumably is why so much of it is set in flat parlando style) and more to be said for Black Pentecost as a symphony with words than as a song cycle with orchestra. Not least in terms of its survival into times when the polemic isn't fresh.

Prom premiere of the week was James MacMillan's Veni, Veni Emmanuel which sounds like a choral work but is actually a percussion concerto, written for Evelyn Glennie and performed by her with the Scottish Chamber Orchestra under Jukka-Pekka Sarastre. The title warns you of two things. One is the influence of plainsong. The other is a spiritual intention that the piece should be an image of the coming of Christ, complete with a rhythmic 'heartbeat' motif that, for the composer, represents the immanence of God- made flesh. For MacMillan is an example of the astonishing phenomenon of Christian composers whose art is designed to speak their faith in a direct, simple way - although his scores are more substantially worked, and less archaic, than, say, Tavener or Part. Veni, Veni Emmanuel is in fact quite a flashy piece, bounding through high-energy rhythmic configurations with a brilliant sense of concert theatre and plenty of exercise for the soloist. The Proms guide describes it as a 'discreet survey of contemporary approaches to Minimalism', which is not quite true. It's absolutely brazen, sampling styles with the abandon of a child in a sweet shop.

But what makes it good music is that the sampling is given coherence by a forward-driven urgency that confirms MacMillan as a masterful manipulator of large forces, and a dynamic personality with popular appeal. Like his last Albert Hall hit, The Confession of Isobel Gowdie, Veni, Veni Emanuel has the look of a Proms commission that will make it into repertory. Not many do.

Arnold Bax said 'try everything once except incest and folk-dancing'. I'd add piano duets - not just because they reek of parlour entertainment and concert kitsch but because the piano is temperamentally a solo instrument, combinable with other sounds but not its own. Unless you like the sound of churning mud. But piano duets are redeemable on rare occasions when the executants are outstanding soloists joining forces to play purpose-written repertory, not Frankenstein-like adaptations. And I heard a good example last week: the unlikely combination of Andras Schiff and Olli Mustonen duetting in a festival at Turku on the coast of Finland.

Finnish festivals are unlikely in themselves. That so many thrive in what, by European standards, is an infant culture with a small, scattered population is astonishing. They tend to be run by performing musicians who invite their friends; and in Turku's case the director is Mustonen, who invites people like Schiff. It would be hard to find two less obviously compatible pianists. Mustonen is young but crazily eccentric, with a bony physicality that sends his limbs askew as he plays. Schiff is urbane, precise and undemonstrative. But each has an astounding technical intelligence. Their partnership projects an invigorating sense of fun; and it worked best in Bartok (the seven Mikrokosmos numbers that Bartok himself enlarged for two keyboards), less well in Debussy (the original duet version of the Petite Suite), and with a magisterial, organ-like grandeur in Brahms's St Anthony Variations (which also originated in duet form).

But the piece de resistance was Schumann's Andante and Variations for the odd ensemble of two pianos, two cellos and horn, where one of the cellists was Heinrich Schiff (no relation). I had seen him the night before conducting the Deutsche Kammerphilharmonie in a blisteringly heavy-duty reading of the Dvorak Serenade. But back behind his cello, Schiff recovered his refinement and his sensitivity to scale. It's not that he's a bad conductor: in the right conditions - with, for example, his own Northern Sinfonia - he gets results. But I think I prefer him sitting down.

(Photograph omitted)