Saturday, 12 November 2011

Cage, Stravinsky, the Long Now

"The sooner the world forgets Stravinsky the better," wrote the young John Cage to a friend, in 1935, "If he gave us the primordial, as you say, I swear it was a cheap imitation." Igor Stravinsky, for his part, was scarcely any kinder about Cage. Though the composer of the Sacre du Printemps would admit, in one of his many conversations with his friend, the conductor Robert Craft, to finding some of Cage's work "enjoyable" he admitted, finally, that "his performances are often, to me, the frustration of time itself." 

Looking back over the music of the twentieth century, it seems in hindsight that, more than Schoenberg and Stravinsky or Cage and Boulez, the two magnetic poles in terms of style and temperament were indeed Cage and Stravinsky, two composers who could never see eye to eye and for whom there seems scarcely any point of engagement or rapprochement. And it may be, as Stravinsky hints, precisely over this question of time, and of one's mode of being with regard to time, that this fundamental incompatibility is most keenly felt. 

So amongst the several concerts of late works by the late John Cage programmed in this year's Festival d'Automne in Paris, it is this pairing of Cage's Seventy-Four (for Orchestra) with Stravinsky's Requiem Canticles at the Cité de la Musique that proves the most fertile. How better, after all, to look back upon a century like the twentieth, by which we are all still so haunted, than to place side by side the means by which two of its musical titans chose to say goodbye to music? 

Cage kept on composing until his final year, completing a number of significant works in the last few months before the second stroke that killed him while preparing tea on August 11th, 1992. Of these late 'number works' from his final months, Seventy-Four is on the largest scale and is perhaps the most obviously mournful, even while treading cautiously before applying such a direct psychobiographical correspondence with a composer like Cage. Stravinsky, on the other hand, wrote his setting of the Latin requiem mass some five years before his death in New York in 1971, and already, as his widow would later claim, he "knew he was writing it for himself." 

It feels strange still to imagine the motorik sawing of the strings which open the first movement drifting up from the canals of Venice as Stravinsky's body was ferried to the cemetery island of San Michele to be buried near his old collaborator, Sergei Diaghilev. So brittle and crisply locomotive as played tonight by the Symphony Orchestra of the Südwestrundfunk of Baden-Baden and Freiburg, one can scarcely imagine it played in a city without cars. 

Only with the sudden violence of the third movement's Dies Irae can we imagine ourselves in Venice - and even then it is the macabre and foreboding Venice of Don't Look Now and Aldo Lado's Chi l'ha vista morire? A Venice of uncanny shocks around mysterious dark alleyways. As we drift into the final three movements with the Lacrimosa, we could be amongst the damp fog of the sirocco, until the postlude brings on the eerie tolling of bells, to the final chords of, in the words of Robert Craft, "death alone". 

Cage's Seventy-Four may kick off in an equally misty atmosphere, but it is a mist of a fundamentally different texture. The name of the work comes from the number of musicians: an orchestra of two pianos, two percussionists, one harp, plus strings divided into fourteen first violins, ten second violins, eight a piece of cellos and violas, and six double basses. These seventy-four musicians are further split in two - high and low - with each group being given, less a score, than a series of notes, to be played within a set of vague time-brackets, off the clock and without conductor. A performance note encourages players to exaggerate the "usual imperfection of tuning" between orchestral instruments to give the music imprecise degrees of microtonality. 

The grand orchestras of major institutions often have a bit of a problem with Cage; tending either to treat his works with an excessive solemnity that veers on parody, or a kind of jocose levity that could seem like a flip dismissal of something, as Stravinsky hinted, best regarded as not really music. Tonight's musicians from the Sudwestrundfunk are not exempt - indeed, managing somehow to commit both sins at once. Nevertheless, almost despite themselves, they manage to conjure up some wonderfully languid textures, forming a heady oneiric concoction. 

With age, Cage's opinion of Stravinsky evidently softened, for a concert of the latter's works conducted by the great man himself forms the backdrop to one of Cage's favourite stories. As Igor lays down his conductor's baton and nods his assent to the crowd's applause, a small boy turns to his mother: "That's not how it goes." This is Cage's "proof", as offered in Peter Greenaway's film, Four American Composers, that listening to recordings can only be a bad thing. The boy was wrong, Cage implies, because, almost by definition, that was precisely how it was supposed to go - because Stravinsky himself was conducting it. 

A curious sentiment to hear from Cage, perhaps; the composer of indeterminacy, of the composer's diminished authority. By contrast, at least according to this anecdote, Stravinsky is the composer who knows how his works go; perhaps the last major composer for whom there is never any ambiguity in the score. 

This is how we tend to imagine Cage and Stravinsky, it is their image in the popular imagination (think of Mads Mikkelsen's unsmiling mien in Coco & Igor), it is, if you like, Cage's Stravinsky and Stravinsky's Cage, and it is basically what the musicians from the Südwestrundfunk gave us tonight at Cité de la Musique: clipped, terse, precision engineering Stravinsky; and lax, care-free, anything goes Cage. But is this the whole story? 

Think for a moment of the relaxed lightness, the moments of doubt and ambiguity revealed here and there in Stravinsky's Conversations with Robert Craft, or those passages - there is at least one in practically every piece he wrote - where the music just seems to get carried away with itself, the levee breaks and everything suddenly bursts free of its shackles for a moment. Think of the meticulous planning and measurement David Tudor - Cage's preferred interpreter - put into his performances of Cage's works, or the millimetre-precise measurements Cage himself left by way of prepared piano instructions. 

I'd like to suggest another way of seeing this gap between Cage and Stravinsky, that returns to this question of time with which we opened in the light of another Cage composition: ORGAN2/ASLSP. This work from 1985, the second half of whose title stands for As SLow aS Possible, originally written for piano but soon changed for organ, contains a series of notes to be played, as the name suggests, "as slow as possible". The first organ performance lasted 29 minutes. Since September 5th, 2000 (which would have been Cage's 88th birthday had he not died in 1992), a performance has been ongoing at St. Burchardt's church in Halberstadt, which is due to last, in total, 639 years. 

Stravinsky once said that "Music's exclusive function is to structure the flow of time and keep order in it." Herein lies a tacit acceptance - even a celebration - of art's power to impose an artificial before-and-after narrativity on the intangibility of duration. Even as the development of Stravinsky's career betrays a most un-Orphic tendency to look back over his own (and other people's) shoulder(s) from time to time, his is basically a music which goes from A to B, from the past to the future. With Cage we have something different. 

I think ASLSP has more than a passing resemblance to Stewart Brand's 'Long Now' project, to build a clock and bury it, that would count ten thousand years. It is often argued that Brand's clock is a call to think seriously about the future. I would argue otherwise. Brand's clock is a bulwark against the future. Taken at absolute face value, the clock of the long now is designed to preserve just that - the long now, the neverending present.