Musicircus, Tate Modern, London <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

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The Independent Culture

The circus came to Tate Modern. This being the Tate, and the circus being John Cage's Musicircus, however, no clowns were sent in.

In fact, despite all the antics going on, some of which were part of quite separate events for children, this three-hour extravaganza was, as a whole, more than a mite subdued. Whether that also made it less Cagean is more difficult to establish.

Cage's idea, never written down as a score, was simply to assemble a lot of different groups of musicians playing different music. Nothing says that it has to be highly cacophonous, or structured using chance operations. Yet determining by chance who plays when means that's surely implied, not only by Cage's own practice but by the circumstances.

Richard Bernas, curator of this Musicircus, devised a performance that was tasteful, cool and shapely. He usedaround 60 musicians, both professional and student. I enjoyed, for instance, the realisations of La Monte Young's single perfect-fifth piece, echoing up and down the escalators, and topping and tailing the three hours in the Turbine Hall.

That was surely too neatly structured to have been placed by chance, though. So, too, seemed the positioning of the extended, exquisitely manicured offerings from the 17 female electric guitarists of Marina Rosenfeld's Sheer Frost Orchestra. Whatever Musicircus is about, it isn't about focusing on one performance at a time, about attention seeking, or about putting performers in competition with one another. At times, the Tate event felt rather like that.

There were lots of pieces by Cage himself. You could sit in the Turbine Hall and listen to percussion music from Atlas Eclipticalis. Or experience, at the top of one escalator, the sonic force of Rob Worby and friends creating, as you watched, a new version of the tape composition Fontana Mix. Or follow Linda Hirst up those escalators as she surprised passers-by with the declamations of Cage's Aria.

This Musicircus may not have had the energy and sheer fun of past performances. But its rather guarded, even conventional mayhem still created its own atmosphere in these very special conditions.

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