'In the Bird Cage': Cage Night at Beethovenfest

Pwyll ap SiônWed 19th September 2012

Beethovenfest devotes a night of events to celebrate John Cage's centenary

‘Cage’ may follow ‘Beethoven’ in the great composers’ alphabet of all time, but I can’t think of much else they share in common. After all, when Cage claimed that sounds should be sounds and not vehicles for manmade theories, he saw Beethoven’s music as the main cause of this confusion. Cage argued that Beethoven’s music was all about self-expression, whereas his music was all about letting sounds be themselves.

Chalk and cheese, so to speak, so imagine my surprise when this year’s Beethovenfest, now in its 13th year, decided to dedicate a whole day to the American maverick, who would have celebrated his one hundredth birthday on September 5 this year. Dubbed ‘In the Bird Cage’, eight events took place on September 15 along the museum mile in Bonn (the birthplace of Beethoven), featuring around 50 performers and culminating in a performance of the composer’s paean to simultaneity, Musicircus (1967). Films and videos of Cage’s work with dancer Merce Cunningham and artist Robert Rauschenberg were also shown.  

The Musicircus event epitomised the openness and inclusivity that lies at the heart of Cage’s philosophy. Everyone, from festival director Ilona Schmiel to a number of school and student groups, plus a circus-band troupe and members of the audience, all took part in this joyful musical jamboree. It could so easily have descended into chaos and banality, but the performance actually exuded a real sense of collective purpose. Here was a fitting ‘Ode to Joy’ for the 21st century. Surely Beethoven himself would have approved.

The Musicircus event took place in the main foyer of the city’s Art and Exhibition Hall and was just one example of the way in which Cage’s music has been used to develop alternative ways of experiencing this year’s festival. Very few performances were held in standard concert spaces but, of those that were, an absolute gem of a concert featured pianists Pierre-Laurent Aimard and Tamara Stefanovich. Boulez’s early piano music never sounded so compelling.

Of the performances outside the traditional concert space, the best took place at the Haus der Geschichte (House of the History) foyer in a programme for quintet comprising accordion, cello, piano, violin and voice. ‘Cage specialists’ such as Steffen Schleiermacher (piano) and Stefan Hussong (accordion) took part, and the concert worked exceptionally well on both musical and spatial levels. The stylistic range of Cage’s music was evident, from the simple, Satie-esque Nocturne for violin and piano (1947), via the theatrical and often amusing Song Books for solo voice (1970), to the complex, virtuosic Études Boreales for cello and piano (1978), and ending with the still evanescence of the late number piece, Five (1988). 

Less convincing were the events held at the gallery space of the Art and Exhibition Hall. Anselm Kiefere’s dark, sombre paintings – powerful enough in their own, disquieting way – rather took away from the humour that we normally associate with Cage’s happenings, which were performed on this occasion by Ensemble Spinario and the Mitglieder des Freyer Ensembles.

The festival’s principal theme this year has been ‘Art has a mind of its own’, and it’s certainly one that suggests comparisons between Beethoven and Cage. They both altered the course of Western Music through the force and originality of their ideas despite being misunderstood during their lifetimes. They both drew inspiration from nature and both turned weaknesses into strengths: Beethoven’s deafness led to bold harmonic innovations, and Cage’s lack of feeling for harmony forced him to explore rhythm and timbre instead. Festival director Ilona Schmiel points out that ‘Cage and Beethoven always did what they wanted to do’, and hopes that audiences at the festival might start to listen to Beethoven through their experiences of Cage rather than the other way round. As painter and friend of Cage, Willem de Kooning, once said, ‘The past does not influence me; I influence it …’.

Pwyll ap Siôn

Gramophone reviewer Pwyll ap Siôn is senior lecturer in music at Bangor University. His monograph on The Music of Michael Nyman was published by Ashgate Press in 2007. Other books include The Ashgate Research Companion to Minimalist and Postminimalist Music and an edited volume of Michael Nyman's Collected Writings (both due out in 2013).

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