When John Cage first conceived his composition, 4’33”, he couldn’t have predicted how the pandemic-enforced lockdown we’re currently living in would inadvertently create the perfect environment for it to be heard. 4’33”, after all, is arguably the American composer’s most taboo-busting piece of all-embracing zen, in which musicians or performers studiously don’t play their instruments for the time outlined by the title, while the rest of the world ebbs and flows around them.
Often misunderstood as a ‘silent’ composition, 4’33” is more akin to a form of environmental sound art. Here, the sounds of the natural world are captured in what amounts to a fleeting pause for thought that democratises the experience for both listener and artist.
This is something John Wills has taken a chance on for his independently produced podcast, The Great John Cage Project – in Lockdown. Now five editions in, Wills’ self-produced initiative has seen him present a series of recordings collected from all over the world following an open call. With some sixty recordings already heard, this has effectively opened up a global village which has never been heard in such circumstances before.
With the first edition setting out its store in the all but deserted thoroughfare of Edinburgh’s normally bustling Princes St, over an hour each Wednesday night or whatever time you choose, Wills acts as our genial guide through a series of home-made soundscapes that eavesdrop on spaces both private and public. Whether it’s the sound of church bells in a French village, birds singing in an English garden or a spookily quiet inner city, each aural snapshot has a sense of place at its heart, capturing a moment in time never to be repeated. In this way, the recordings are both document and eyewitness - or rather, earwitness - that creates a rolling aural archive of how we live now in a crucial moment of history.
The first episode of The Great John Cage Project – in Lockdown serendipitously premiered on Earth Day, the worldwide day of environmental action that falls on March 22nd. Wills explained then how Cage composed 4’33” in 1952 following his experience at Harvard University in an anechoic chamber, a sound-proofed room designed to absorb sound rather than echo it. Cage entered expecting total silence, but instead heard two sounds, one high and one low. As explained to Cage later, the high one turned out to be his nervous system in action, and the low one the sound of his blood circulating through his body.
With influences ranging from his inquiries into Zen Buddhism and the ‘white’ paintings of his contemporary, Robert Rauschenberg, Cage applied a concept of silence to various compositions before stripping things back to their purest form with 4’33”. In The Great John Cage project – in Lockdown, Wills talks of the composition being a “meditation on the impossibility of silence.”
There has been an ongoing fascination with 4’33” from the day Cage’s work was first premiered by pianist, fellow composer and regular collaborator David Tudor. This was in a New York concert hall as part of a larger recital of piano music. Since then, the piece has been treated with ridicule as much as praise. In recent times, British TV comedy sketch show, The Fast Show, lampooned 4’33” in its regular Jazz Club piss-take. On a more positive level, in 2010, a campaign dubbed Cage Against the Machine attempted to get a new rendition of 4’33” to become Christmas number 1 in order to keep the winner of The X Factor talent show of the top spot.
Almost a decade on, pioneering record label, Mute, released STUMM433, a 5 LP limited edition box set of more than fifty takes on the composition. These were recorded by a plethora of Mute related artists, with the likes of Richard Hawley, Goldfrapp, Moby and Erasure being some of the more familiar names taking part. Also featured on the record was a contribution from Sheffield-sired electronic pioneers, Cabaret Voltaire.
Like these, Wills’ approach with The Great John Cage Project – in Lockdown deformalises an action originally designed to ruffle feathers in the concert hall. Given the ongoing everyday tragedy of the Covid 19 pandemic, at moments it also lends Cage’s composition a more explicitly political edge.
In the second episode, Wills talks of remembrance, and gives a brief history of the two-minute silence. The show’s own one-minute silence is followed by Wills’ recording of a Thursday night applause for key workers, complete with the banging of pots and pans, a routine which has become a new kind of community folk ritual. The following week seemed to confirm this, when a recording from Belgrade highlighted a similar weekly appreciation for key workers. This takes things to another level, however, in a far angrier display that has become part of the city’s own response to the crisis in protest at the ruling government in Siberia.
Amidst the calm as well was the pounding industrial clangs of a Brisbane construction site, still inexplicably working through lockdown. A recording captured in the bustle of St Thomas’ Hospital in London broke the silence even more.
Beyond the works presented, one of the many joys of the podcast comes in Wills’ presentation. His is a subject more used to being delivered with either a wilfully bamboozling sense of conceptual superiority or else a patronising larkiness at what fun it all is. By contrast, there is a soothing matter-of-fact clarity to what Wills says, steeped as he is in both the history of his subject and just how much 4’33” seems to have found its time.
When Wills talks of how The Great John Cage Project – in Lockdown highlights “the impossibility of silence,” as “a gentle reminder to embrace our surroundings” and how “4’33” isn’t about listening to nothing. It’s about listening to everything,” he isn’t being airy-fairy or consciously beatific. As a musician whose career began playing drums with 1980s/’90s sonic alchemists, Loop, before moving on to the more drone-based Hair and Skin Trading Company and more recent song-based excursions with Pumajaw, Wills understands the power of making a big noise.
By opening up the endless possibilities of what 4’33” can be, however, Wills’ podcast becomes a slow-burning counterblast to the stampede of online artistic activity that has risen up since lockdown to an at times overwhelming degree. Wills recognises too that his increasingly expansive compendiums of everyday exercises in aural psycho-geography aren’t the only means of getting back to nature in an infinitely quieter way.
In one show, he mentions Pauline Oliveros, the American composer and accordionist, who first introduced ideas of deep listening and sonic awareness to the world, in which people tune in to the sounds around them with a focus and alertness that is aural equivalent of sorts to John Berger’s notions of visual consciousness outlined in his book, Ways of Seeing.
Oliveros made her first ever UK performance in Glasgow, when in October 2005, she took part in Instal, the Arika organisation’s annual festival of ‘Brave New Music’ held at the now closed Arches venue. Playing alongside trombonist David Dove, director of the Deep Listening Institute, the pair utilised a specially installed eight-channel PA. This allowed them to work in three dimensions with the unique acoustic properties of the cavernous venue created from a previously derelict railway siding beneath Glasgow’s Central Station.
In terms of environmental interventions, Arika’s adventures in sound beyond indoor venues has taken them to less chartered territory. In 2006, Resonant Spaces saw saxophonist John Butcher and sound artist, field recordist and composer Akio Suzuki perform in six non-venues across Scotland. These included Smoo Cave, Tugnet Ice House and the ancient Stones of Stenness. Using the sonic properties of each, Butcher and Suzuki created a series of one-off responses.
Arika did something similar the following year with Shadowed Spaces, which took audiences into the hidden nooks and crannies of urban areas. There was the site of an abandoned office block in Dundee, a disused railway turning circle in Aberdeen, the former Abbeyhill Railway Station site in Edinburgh, and others in Glasgow, Cumbernauld and Newcastle. With the involvement of psycho-geographer Denis Wood, performances by drummer Sean Meehan, saxophonist Tamio Shiraishi and percussionist Ikuro Takahashi took place in each space.
Antecedents to Shadowed Spaces include the percussive sturm und drang utilised by Test Department in the 1980s in deserted factories. The move to outdoor spectacles this begat with Test Department member Angus Farquhar’s NVA Organisation saw them revive the May Day Beltane Fire festival atop Calton Hill in Edinburgh en route.
Shadowed `Spaces was a precursor of sorts to Scrub Transmissions, the occasional series of urban occupations currently being undertaken in Manchester by Julie Campbell. Better known as Lonelady, Campbell’s two albums of jittery inner-city dispatches, Nerve Up and Hinterland, transform everyday alienation into a sub-Ballardian mesh of neo-punk-funk.
Scrub Transmissions sees Campbell cement an mp3 player into the fabric of a wall or other structure at the end of a city walk. Downloadable maps and instructions guide those taking part with their own headphones to the installation. Once here, they plug the headphones into the mp3 player, which plays a recording by Campbell on a loop until the batteries run out. The third edition, DEMON, is currently accessible, and features Lonelady covering Bound by Silence, a song by early ’80 Liverpool group, Pink Industry. Once the batteries die, it leaves behind a piece of detritus that has lost its function to the elements, but which creates its own intangible archive.
While rooted in the Situationist idea of the derive - drifting through a city to create a psycho-geographic map of an inner landscape as much as a physical one - Scrub Transmissions relates as well to other sense-heightening walks. At the end of 2019, the Talbot Rice Gallery in Edinburgh hosted French artist Myriam Lefkowitz’s Walk, Hands, Eyes (Edinburgh). An experience which has been applied in different cities across the world, Lefkowitz has trained guides lead participants through the city streets with their eyes closed. Those taking part experience sounds and smells while temporarily blind, putting their trust in their guide to transport them safely throughout their route.
In some respects, The Great John Cage Project – in Lockdown too might similarly be best experienced with eyes closed, albeit from the luxury of your living room sofa. This does not suggest passivity, however, and, as with Oliveros, deep listening and sonic awareness, it invites a concentrated approach.
As too does Touch: Isolation, a series of new recordings by artists associated with Touch, which for almost forty years has curated and created a series of impeccably realised audio-visual artefacts that bridge ambient and experimental compositions. While many of these have been released on record or CD, Touch doesn’t regard itself as a record label per se. Releases by artists including Philip Jeck and Chris Watson have nevertheless made waves, with sounds from the natural world sculpted into often beguiling immersive experiences.
Touch: Isolation is a subscription-based initiative in response to lockdown, which twice a week over two months sent out brand new tracks on Bandcamp by Touch artists. Like The Great John Cage Project – in Lockdown, these offer little sonic snapshots of where we are now. While the pieces showcased by Touch: Isolation are more ‘composed’, the epic ambience running across its twenty-eight tracks creates a similar experience.
Perhaps the nearest neighbour to Wills in this context is Chris Watson, the BAFTA-winning sound recordist who has become a key collaborator of David Attenborough on his spectacular nature documentaries. Watson’s own albums include Weather Report, which, when released in 2003, saw him move away from what up until then had been unmediated found-sound recordings to creating compositions from the wildlife and their immediate habitats.
It perhaps should come as no surprise that Wills and Watson worked together on Turn of the Tides, an ambisonic audio installation at St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall as part of the 2017 Orkney Music Festival. Like Wills, Watson has roots in more out-there experimental sounds. He was a founder member of Cabaret Voltaire, who did their own take on 4’33” on the STUMM 433 box set. Like Wills too, hearing Watson talk about sound and the sonic world is a joy, with passion for his art pouring through his gentle Yorkshire tones.
Accompanying each piece downloaded as part of Touch: Isolation is a quote from American anthropologist Edmund Carpenter, best known for his work on tribal art. “Auditory space has no favoured focus,” says Carpenter, talking about the space awareness of Inuit culture he refers to as Eskimo. “It’s a sphere without fixed boundaries, space made by the thing itself… It is not a pictorial space, boxed-in, but dynamic, always in flux, creating its own dimensions moment by moment”.
Carpenter’s quote is taken from Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer’s book, The Soundscape, subtitled Our Sonic Environment and the Turning of the World. First published in 1977, Schafer’s book looks at the evolution of sound and its place in the world as the environment is overtaken by external intrusions that include airports and factories.
In his identification of sonic pollution, Schafer offers up ways to engage with sound in a healthier way through soundwalks and other ways of deep listening. He also writes of 4’33” and Cage’s nod to Walden, Henry David Thoreau’s nineteenth century book outlining his experiences while living in a woodland cabin. As Schafer notes, ‘the author experiences in the sounds and sights of nature an inexhaustible entertainment.’
Schafer later refers to Cage’s experience in the anechoic chamber, and his conclusion that “There is no such thing as silence. Something is always happening that makes a sound.” As originator of the term ‘soundscape’, Schafer’s ruminations are well worth listening to.
One could apply such notions too to the work of Michael Begg, the East Lothian based experimental composer, who has frequently absorbed the natural world into his work. This has included Fragile Pitches, a sound installation drawn from the landscape around Edinburgh and moulded by Begg and fellow traveller Colin Potter into a 90-minute sound installation performed at St Giles’ Cathedral during Hogmanay 2010. More recently, Begg has generated work using data streams, and in January 2020, performed with cellist Clea Friend at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh as part of the NOW exhibition that featured work by Katie Paterson.
Since lockdown, Begg has released two recordings as part of his new Witness series. These ambient pieces use software programmed to track live satellites themselves charged to record activity on Earth in real time. For the second piece, The Weather Engine, Begg talks of wanting to “make a kind of fingerprint from moments in the days of lockdown.” As a starting point, he uses the idea that “time has become deranged. The days slip into each other, moments repeat themselves whilst other events seem to hang perpetually in limbo.”
Begg also recently took part in Lockdown Vexations, a globally sourced response to Erik Satie’s 1893 composition, Vexations, in which the French minimalist composer instructed that the theme of his work penned on a solitary page of manuscript should be played 840 times.
The Lockdown Vexations performance presented to coincide with the 154th anniversary of Satie’s birth on May 17th 2020 took contributions from seventy-seven isolated performers, and lasted more than twenty-six hours. This is a step on from the first ever full performance of Vexations, which lasted more than eighteen hours. The live event was organised by John Cage in New York in 1963, a decade after 4’33”. Several pianists took part, including David Tudor, the original performer of 4’33”.
There are plenty of other things to listen to during lockdown. Some are constructions that manipulate air rather than let it be. Since lockdown, even getting a whiff of such spaces outside of a fleeting moment of allotted exercise time is a tantalising proposition. Nevertheless, like The Great John Cage Project – in Lockdown, despite the painful circumstances that sired them, they navigate space in a less clamorous world that is being preserved.
Glasgow-based club and record label Optimo have put together a series of five Tranquillity Mixes to soothe the stresses of such uncertain times. Meanwhile, over on Resonance FM, the original online sound art radio station, the weekly show, Bad Punk, presents a woozy late-night collage of sound and spoken-word. This is pulled together by sooth-saying Geordie visionary Johny Brown, whose work with The Band of Holy Joy has provided an alternative conscience of the nation(s).
One of Brown’s key collaborators on Bad Punk is Edinburgh born actor Tam Dean Burn, who makes frequent appearances on the show. This included playing artistic provocateur Bill Drummond in The Cherry Blossom Quartet. This series of five (not four) fantastical auto-biographical plays were penned by Drummond’s alter ego Tenzing Scott Brown and adapted for radio by Brown. Each play was broadcast live over the course of a week in 2017, and was accompanied by improvised soundscapes from assorted artists.
In 2005, Drummond introduced the concept of No Music Day after growing disillusioned with the artificial notion of recorded music and the overload of electronically reproduced sound it produced. Drummond wrote a series of sixty word-based scores for an ad hoc global choir called The17, which he gathered in various places and at various times between 2003 and 2008.
The first of these scores opened with the words ‘Imagine waking up tomorrow morning and all music has disappeared’. Others invited those taking part to drive around listening to the sounds in their car or climb a mountain listening to the sounds in their head. Like 4’33”, The17 and No Music Day was a form of emptying out, erasing the clatter and leaving something else that you’ve maybe never listened to before.
Since lockdown, Drummond published a new piece of writing in April entitled Wait. Wait is a poetic meditation on the art of waiting, as Drummond reminisces on his nine-year-old self waiting for sparlings to return to the River Cree. This becomes a much bigger evocation of wisdom and experience that takes a bird’s eye view of Drummond’s own life.
On the face of it, Wait has nothing to do with lockdown. But in its expanse, and its sense of space and time to engage with past, present and possible futures in a more natural world than the one most of us are used to, it has everything to do with it. Like The Great John Cage Project – in Lockdown, there is something Proustian at its heart.
It’s there too in Yesterday, Georgina Starr’s contribution to this year’s online edition of Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art. Dating from 1991, Yesterday is a two-minute cassette recording of Starr whistling the tune to the Beatles’ song, Yesterday, in the corridor of Slade School of Art. Hearing Starr’s recording thirty years on is to eavesdrop in on a fleeting moment of a life captured for posterity, and which has now become a sense memory of a more innocent age and a reminder of what came before and after.
The Great John Cage Project – in Lockdown is destined to do something similar. The rolling collection of works gathered by Wills will be included in the Coronavirus Sound Archive and subsequently gifted to the British Library Sound Archive. While this is important in itself, it needs to go further. The Great John Cage Project – in Lockdown is a glorious mash-up of psychogeography and sociology, anthropology and art, and says as much about the human condition in socially distanced times as it does about the wider world it inhabits.
Under no circumstances must such an essential encyclopaedia of here and now be filed away in academe or allowed to gather dust with little or no human contact. Listening to it, really listening to it, is to commune with a living, breathing thing, where radio silence is anything but. These recordings gathered in The Great John Cage Project – in Lockdown are a part of us. They are part of the world beyond. They need to be heard where they belong. Out there.
The Great John Cage Project – in Lockdown is broadcast every Wednesday night 9-10pm. An archive of all the recordings can be heard at https://anchor.fm/greatjohncageproject
Touch: Isolation – www.touchisolation.bandcamp.com
Details of Resonant Spaces and Shadowed Spaces can be found at www.arika.org.uk
NVA’s archive can be found at www.nva.org.uk
Details of Scrub Transmissions are at www.lonelady.co.uk
Michael Begg’s Witness 1 and 2 can be heard at www.omnempathy.bandcamp.com
Details of Lockdown Vexations can be found at www.satievexations.art
Optimo Tranquillity Mix – www.soundcloud.com/twitch/jd-twitch-tranquility-mix-1
Wait by Bill Drummond can be read at www.caughtbytheriver.net/2020/04/wait-bill-drummond/
Yesterday by Georgina Starr is part of Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art 2020 online, and can be heard at www.glasgowinternational.org
MAP, May 2020