Brian Viner: Why there's no such thing as nothing in the sound of silence

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The Independent Online

High culture and low culture collided spectacularly in the Welsh Marches on Saturday evening, when the American composer John Cage's controversial silent "composition", Four Minutes, 33 Seconds, received its Herefordshire premiere not 50 yards from a boisterous May Bank Holiday Fair, where cider-fuelled youths were daring each other to down another bottle during a turn on the waltzer.

Happily, the small town of Leominster proved capable of cheerfully accommodating both cultural expressions simultaneously, although whether Cage, right, who conceived his piece in 1952 to show there is no such thing as silence, that there is always some ambient sound, would have wanted a distant cry of "Fuck off, Tazzer" floating into the consciousness of his audience, is open to question.

The concert, which also included Cage's Clarinet Sonata and Stravinsky's Three Pieces for String Quartet, took place in Leominster's neo-classical Lion Ballroom, and was performed in front of a faintly bemused audience of about 100 by the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, an offshoot of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. The group has been conducted by its distinguished patron Sir Simon Rattle but there wasn't much need for Rattle during 4'33".

A rattle, on the other hand, might have added something. The group entered the room, took their seats, raised their instruments purposefully, lowered them again, then sat doing nothing for precisely four minutes, 33 seconds, except once turning over a blank page of music to reveal another blank page.

An elderly man in the front row looked on with the indulgent smile of the faintly bemused. It's not often that the avant-garde comes to Leominster.

Still, as an exercise in showing there is always ambient sound, the thing worked triumphantly. Apart from the unequivocal suggestion to Tazzer, there was throbbing music from the fair and piercing shrieks from those who had paid to be propelled into the air on Morris's Power Shot, a kind of bungee jump. Inside the Lion Ballroom, meanwhile, your correspondent's stomach rumbled thunderously, a man dropped a programme, and a woman coughed repeatedly.

It is to Cage's enduring credit that he turned the persistent cough, the perennial blight of a classical concert audience, into a sound everyone was reasonably pleased to hear, just to have something to listen to.

Even in the most intellectual echelons of the classical music world, however, to say nothing of the Lion Ballroom, there is considerable ambivalence towards Cage, who died aged 79 in 1992. The French composer and conductor Pierre Boulez hit a resonant note when he said he loved Cage's mind but didn't like what he thought.

After Saturday's concert, Hilda Stainrod, a local resident, seemed to agree with him. "It went a little over my head," she said. "I find the 20th century rather heavy going."

For another concert-goer, 4'33" would have been more enjoyable without the clicks of The Independent photographer's camera. It had been an annoying distraction, he said, which unleashed a pseudo-existential argument in which I advanced the proposition that Cage would have approved of the clicks; surely, background noise was what 4'33" was all about?

"But it wasn't in the background, it was in the foreground," protested Disgruntled of Leominster.

I emerged into the evening to find another pseudo-existential argument raging between a family beside the Hook-a-Duck stall on Broad Street. "Mum, you owe me 50p," wailed a child. "Your mum don't owe you nothing," barked his father.

I debated for a while whether to show them the notes on 4'33" in the BCMG programme, which read: "Nothing. But there is no such thing as nothing. The word is already something. Try to imagine nothing without the word or the concept of nothing."

Instead, I went home for some supper and to watch Match of the Day.