Most people know two things about John Cage’s 4′33″, performed last night at the Proms – and both of them are wrong. First, they think they know how long the piece lasts – 4 minutes and 33 seconds – when in fact the score stipulates the piece can last as long as the performer(s) want, adjusting the title to reflect the actual length of the piece. Second, they think it is a ’silent piece’ when in fact it is full of sound, it is just that none of the sounds are notated by the composer. In this performance the sounds included the humming of the lighting rig, coughs and sneezes from the audience and, near me, the sound of a couple stroking each others faces.
Nonetheless, it is a piece whose fascination never seems to wane. Part of its success lies in the performers approaching it with the same concert etiquette as any other piece. So here the players tuned up before playing and turned the pages of their music between the ‘movements’. The conductor indicated the beginning and end of the music with conventional ‘beginning’ and ‘ending’ gestures. And the piece does create an atmosphere of highly concentrated listening, beyond that of normal concert attention.
Another rarity on the programme, again as much an item of conceptual art as music in any strict definition, was Ligeti’s Poème Symphonique, in which 100 clockwork metronomes are set going at different speeds, the piece finishing when the last metronome winds down. The 15 minute duration of the piece splits into three types of aural experience: the first is a generalised buzz in which individual beats are undetectable; next is when the clicks become patterned into waves of sound, ebbing and flowing; the last section is when there are just a handful of metronomes left, and the polyrhythms of the separate tempos come into focus. This is true minimalism, a single process worked out in its own terms.
The other items in the London Sinfonietta’s late-night Prom were Berio’s entertaining Sequenza V (for trombone), Phlegra by Iannis Xenakis – whose appeal still escapes me, Jonathan Harvey’s tape piece Mortuos plunge, vivid voco, which was stunning in the cathedral-like acoustic of the Royal Albert Hall, and Louis Andriessen’s driving De Snelheid.
Music for both head and heart, concert and art installation in one, performed with the Sinfonietta’s usual rigour.
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