Priming the air with sound: A series of concerts will accompany 'American Art in the 20th Century'. Iain Gale reports

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The Independent Culture
ONE sunny summer afternoon in 1952 at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, something happened. The first 'Happening', to be precise. Organised by the composer John Cage, it consisted of pieces of Cage's own minimalist music performed against the backdrop of paintings by Franz Kline and Robert Rauschenberg. The event recalled the use in 1909 of Russian artists by the impresario Sergei Diaghilev to create stage sets and costumes for his Ballets-Russes. But, taking as its basis the Zen principles common to both Cage's philosophy and contemporary American art, the composer's vision went far beyond the idealistic cross-fertilisation of his Russian predecessor. It created a genuine dialogue between the art and the music.

Now, 40 years on, Cage's influential experiment is echoed in a series of concerts in London which seek to enliven our understanding of the RA's current show, 'American Art in the 20th Century'. The not-quite-Happenings have been put together by the American conductor Richard Bernas, who has performed in art galleries across the USA and has always appreciated what he calls 'the gallery mentality'. Bernas has chosen works by American composers who have close associations with the visual arts - in particular John Cage and Morton Feldman. 'Cage had a very intense relationship with Rauschenberg, as Philip Guston did with Feldman, who said that he wanted to 'prime the air with sound' in the same way Guston 'primed the canvas' with his colour.'

Although the cultural exchange between American composers and artists was at its most intense from the early Fifties to the late Sixties, it continued to develop in the work of Cage until his death in 1992. As recently as 1989 he worked with Jasper Johns and the dancer Merce Cunningham on a piece for the Tate, Liverpool. Feldman, whose whole understanding of music is based on a sense of colour dynamics, wrote several complex four-hour pieces dedicated to Guston and in 1971 completed Rothko Chapel, a 24-minute tribute to the painter, scored for voices, violin and percussion. He was later to write of it: 'Rothko's imagery goes right to the edge of the canvas and I wanted the same effect with my music.'

Bernas has tied together music by Feldman, Cage and other American composers with three 'Counterpoint' works by Steve Reich, whose new piece of 'music theatre' The Cave, a joint project with video artist Beryl Korot, was given its New York premiere last week. Bernas describes Reich's 'Counterpoint' series as 'almost Colour Field music. They're very dense patterns layered on to each other - like very thick pigmentations. And you also get an optical effect - the idea of the Bridget Riley wavy line which is actually made up of still straight lines.'

Reich himself, although personally acquainted with such artists as Richard Serra and Sol LeWitt, is more cautious: 'I don't make the analogy between painting, sculpture and music. Music moves in time. What Cage and Feldman were doing was very important but I want more than just a backdrop for my music.'

In effect, there will be no visible backdrop for the concerts. Bernas's original plan to stage them in the RA itself has had to be abandoned owing to prohibitive insurance costs. The venue will now be a nearby vacant office space - the closest Bernas could find to a New York loft. The lack of immediate contact with art is not as much of a disaster as it may seem. Visitors to the exhibition will only have to wander across Piccadilly to reach the venue, and, with the images still fresh in their mind, will be able to make the associations hoped for by Bernas.

Works by Guston and Rothko on view at the RA will make an interesting prelude to Feldman's Why Patterns and Jasper Johns's painted numbers and targets might well inform Cage's The Seasons. Perhaps even Reich's complex, multi-layered 'Counterpoints' will be enhanced by prior exposure to Stella, Serra and Le Witt. Audiences should, however, beware the temptation to manufacture literal connections, and would do well to remember Cage's caveat when asked to define the art-music relationship: 'Why do you always ask about the relationship or connection between us? You can't say what the relationship is (between art and music) except by saying they're both here, together.'

Almack House, 28 King St, St James's, SW1 at 7pm on 20 and 27 Oct and 10 Nov. Details and tickets, pounds 6, from 071-497 9977