'In 1990, when I was Chief Executive of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, we put on a series of modern music concerts, under the title Musica Nova, the originator of this series being Sir Alexander Gibson. We were greatly helped financially by the City of Glasgow, which had been made City of Culture that year.That previously unpublished reminiscence comes from an unlikely source. Former EMI producer and orchestra manager Christopher Bishop is best known for his recordings of Elgar and Vaughan Williams with Sir Adrian Boult, of Sibelius and other composers with Sir John Barbirolli, and of early music with David Munrow. But while managing the Philharmonia and later the Royal Scottish National orchestras he commissioned and programmed much contemporary music and his EMI producing credits include Messiaen, Webern and Koechlin as well as Britten and Shostakovich.
Among the composers featured was John Cage. I well remember meeting him at the airport, and taking him to Glasgow University. Cage was a great specialist in mushrooms, and on seeing some rather sad specimens growing on a patch of grass in the university precincts, he said ‘Ah! That’ll do for lunch.’ He invited me to join him, but I was cowardly enough to decline. I regretted this later, since, as the concerts progressed, I found he was one of the most delightful and engaging musicians I have ever met. His brilliant music made a great impact on the Musica Nova audiences.'
John Cage's interest in botany was reflected in his music and I was prompted to share that anecdote from Scotland by the release of a new CD which includes his Child of Tree and Branches I & II for amplified plants. These are on a new disc of Italian born and US resident Simone Mancuso playing solo percussion works for wooden instruments which also includes pieces by Salvatore Sciarrino (b1947) and Giacinto Scelsi (1905-1988).
The three pieces for amplified plants are of particular interest as I heard Branches I & II in a rare concert performance at the John Cage happening in Bruges in 2008, which is where the two photos above were taken. This new disc from the Italian Stradivarius label is very welcome, but I have to express some reservations. The playing time of the full price CD is 46.40" and this includes Silences I, II & III which last for 11.00". The cover, seen below, somewhat misleadingly suggests the three silences are separate Cage compositions. In fact, as explained in the accompanying notes by Benjamin Levy, they are the silences of duration determined by the I Ching that are stipulated when Child of Tree and Branches I & II are performed sequentially.
But the problem with the silences is more than a typographical one. Benjamin Levy's note highlights John Cage's preoccupation with environmental sounds, a preoccupation which was expanded by the composer himself in an interview with Peter Dickinson recorded for the BBC in New York in 1987:
John Cage - It's the presence in those sounds of non-intention and the awful presence of intention in music that makes the non-intentional ambient sounds more useful. By more useful I mean less irritating.The problem is that during Silences I, II & III on Simone Mancuso's new disc nothing happens. It may be because the silences were recorded in the same acoustically isolated studio (Gizmo in Silver Springs MD) as the Cage percussion tracks. Or it may be, as I believe is the case after listening on monitor quality headphones, that the three tracks, which comprise a quarter of the discs short playing time, are simply blank. Whatever the reason, surely this is not what John Cage intended?
Peter Dickinson - Do you mean more attuned to somebody's spiritual development?
JC - All of that - more possible to live affirmatively if you find the sound of the environment beautiful. Irish musicians had a contest of heroes and the question was , "What is the most beautiful sound?" The one who won the contest said the most beautiful sound is the sound of what happens.
Surely it would have been closer to John Cage's intentions if the 35 minute sequence had been recorded in a single patched take. This would have captured the non-intentional sounds of the percussionist rearranging his exotic performing materials and the engineer repositioning the microphones during the silences between the three works. But maybe I am wrong; guidance from the Cage authorities among my readers on how silences should be performed is welcome. Meanwhile there is a chance to hear Simone Mancuso's new CD, without the silences, in my Chance Music programme this Sunday (Oct 3), full details are below.
On Sunday October 3 I will be playing Simone Mancusco's performances of Salvatore Sciarrino's Il legno e la parola (a world premiere recording) and Giacinto Scelsi's Maknongan in their versions for marimba plus John Cage's three pieces for amplified plants on Future Radio. The stipulated silences are clearly not feasible in a broadcast, so I have adopted the following solution. Each of the five percussion works will be followed by a prelude or fugue from Book I of the Well-Tempered Clavier played on the piano by Bernard Roberts. The Bach preludes and fugues have been selected by chance using dice; proof that my method outweighs my madness comes in the form of the timings of the chance selection from the 48 plus the percussion works neatly fitting the length of the programme slot.
Even without the silences broadcasting the works for amplified plants presents a technical problem due to the very low level of parts of the recordings. I have consulted with Tom Buckham, the station's ever rotating manager, and we are fairly confident the silence detector is not going to kick in and take me off air. But the programme is being presented live on Sunday and, as ever, anything could happen. Whatever the outcome Future Radio should be praised for backing projects which nobody else would dare to, including the complete Alvin Curran Inner Cities and Gnawa trance ritual broadcasts plus, of course, the Jonathan Harvey interview and other adventurous experiences.
* Podcast of this Chance Music programme is now available here.
** The following instruments are used by Simone Mancuso in his performance of John Cage's three pieces for amplified plants. Branches with leaves, bamboophone (invented by Simone Mancusco), bamboo wind chimes, bamboo xylophone, pod rattle, water gourds, cacti (spider and golden barrel)), and shells from dried plants.
*** The John Cage interview quoted above is transcribed in the invaluable CageTalk edited by Peter Dickinson (ISBN 1580462375).
**** Amusing to note that Silences I, II & III can be bought as MP3 files at a cost of 79 pence per track.
Also on Facebook and Twitter. The Stradivarius CD of solo music for wooden percussion was bought at FNAC in Perpignan. CageTalk was supplied as a requested sample. Header photo is (c) On An Overgrown Path 2010. Any other copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk