MUSIC / Rattling Cage's bars: Keith Potter reports from Anarchic Harmony, a festival of John Cage works

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The Independent Culture
'Anarchic Harmony', a major festival of John Cage's work just concluded in Frankfurt, showed yet again that his music and ideas seem to be taken seriously in Germany in a way that they are not in Britain, or in his native USA. German ensembles small and large lavish care on his scores. The Frankfurt festivities - like the Cage premiere in Cologne which coincided with their close - employed orchestras disinclined to play the games that many professionals play with Cage's often dislocated sounds.

103, the work premiered in Cologne by its Radio Symphony Orchestra, is scored for 103 unconducted players; it was rehearsed by Arturo Tamayo. The work lasts 90 minutes and was presented simultaneously with a film called One11 - both belong to a series of late works with numbered titles. The music consists mostly of soft, even luscious, beds of sustained chords penetrated by single, sharp stabbing sounds. Instrumental families are sometimes separated in function, but often mixed too. The film, made with the assistance of Andrew Culver, Van Carlson and Henning Lohner, is black-and-white and severe, slowly casting shadowy clouds and shapes like fingers across a bright white background. I tried listening analytically, then letting the sounds wash over me; I tried concentrating on the film, or shutting my eyes and ignoring it. But the enthusiasm of the near-capacity crowd baffled me.

'Anarchic Harmony' had been conceived by Stefan Schadler and Walter Zimmermann in celebration of the composer's 80th birthday. An astonishing quantity of Cage's large output was performed over the course of some three weeks, itself forming part of 'Frankfurt Feste '92'. This in turn contained plenty of other new music, including a ragbag evening of Frank Zappa performed by Ensemble Modern that apparently cost a small fortune.

The major Cage event in the final days was a rare performance of all 32 Freeman Etudes for solo violin, which conjure increasingly fiendish difficulties for Irvine Arditti, for whom Cage completed the last 16 in 1990. Lasting 100 minutes on this occasion and drastically limited by comparison with 103, they nonetheless proved a much more rewarding experience; perhaps the manifest challenges to the player helped. As often with Cage, the discontinuities of these three-minute Etudes rarely focus on anything for long enough to observe a shape. On the other hand, I frequently felt that Cage was gluing sounds together which in the past would have seemed entirely unrelated. Arditti's virtuosity and stamina were the more compelling for being placed in the service of music which, despite permitting the listener's occasional indulgence in what Cage called 'taste and memory', remained resolutely Cageian in its resistance to selfish display.