In 1959 Smithsonian Folkways – a record label more typically associated with folk artists like Peggy Seeger and Woody Guthrie – released Indeterminacy, described as “Ninety Stories by John Cage, with Music.” The set-up was as follows: Cage recited stories, plucked randomly from 90 stories written on cue cards, as David Tudor – playing out of earshot in another room – mashed sections of Cage’s Concert for Piano and Orchestra inside his electronic Fontana Mix.
Cage’s stories – about Zen Buddhism, taking composition lessons with Schoenberg, his love of mushrooms and generally finding sublime pleasures in life’s minutiae – were overlaid onto Tudor’s bitty, non-sequitur boom-splats of music. All life was there – the fascination of boredom, banality collapsing towards whimsy, the curious randomness of accuracy working against/with the even stranger accuracy of randomness. Humour and existentialist melancholy co-existed, perching on a knife-edge. Cage imposed one further rule: each story had to slot inside a one-minute timeframe and therefore longer stories needed to be read quickly, while shorter stories were stretched to a counter-intuitive snail’s pace. But few stories actually spanned the one-minute duration comfortably. Cage played tricks with time. Only in the real world do minutes last sixty seconds. Even if they don’t. Or do.
On July 2 and July 3 pianists Tania Chen and Steve Beresford will perform Indeterminacy live in Shoreditch Church, with stand-up comedian Stewart Lee taking the John Cage role. It’s a historic event: as far as anyone can vouch, this will be the first performance of Indeterminacy since Cage and Tudor’s recording. And how about this for an act of Cageian randomness – as Beresford and Chen were pondering how to realise Indeterminacy live, Peters Edition, Cage’s publisher, unaware of their plans, published Indeterminacy: The Gift Box-set.
“Included in the box,” Chen tells me, “is a leaflet explaining how to realise the piece. One option Cage sanctioned was to have no music, just the words; but if you do decide to use sounds, they can be anything you like.”
“At the time,” Beresford continues, “I had started going through Cage’s book Silence, trying to find the original stories. We had assumed that, like Tudor, we would have to perform bits of Concert and Fontana Mix, but this new edition licensed us to do what we liked. I’m going to improvise. Unlike Tudor, I will be able to hear what Stewart says, but I’ll try to evoke his spirit without producing mere pastiche.”
“I’m using chance procedures,” Chen says, “to determine when to produce a particular sound, regardless of what Stewart is saying.” Beresford again: “That’s the Cageian spirit. In the original recording, the constant slowing and speeding up of the voice is very funny, even if not laugh-aloud funny necessarily. But even funnier are when the punch lines, such as they are, get obscured by a sudden outburst from Tudor.” Chen: “Surreal…absurd? What’s the word?” “There is no word for it, which is why it’s worth doing,” Beresford counters.
Stewart Lee was the obvious choice to re-tell Cage’s stories, Beresford thinks. “Stewart is great follower of experimental music. In his stand-up routines, he obsesses about the abuse of language; how people think they are expressing what they’re patently not. In this piece Cage is also interested about how language is structured. So we had a list of one person to do this – Stewart.”
An episode of Lee’s recent BBC 2 Comedy Vehicle climaxed with a routine about Only Fools And Horses’ Derek Trotter – aka Del Boy – falling over in a wine bar. The joke was forensically dissected, as Lee repeated Del Boy’s lines reductio ad absurdum and re-created his slapstick fall again. And again. And again and again. And again. And again, once more. Voted Britain’s favourite comedy moment, Lee killed the joke stone dead. His message: falling over is an easy way to make comedy.
“I immediately grasped Cage’s ideas about things being boring,” Lee tells me. “He talked about repeating boring things until they become interesting and writing comedy can be like that; if something doesn’t work over 30 seconds, it could well work over a minute. I performed that Del Boy sketch on tour, working with the material every night to make it spontaneous. But when I recorded it for TV, it had lost a certain edge. Years ago, I saw the guitarist Fred Frith play an improvisation gig. People were taking photographs and he asked them to stop: ‘I’m trying to forget where I am, and the flashes keep reminding me,’ he said. So I was going to read Cage’s cards to prepare for the performances. But then decided, no. Best leave it.”
Indeterminacy is performed on July 2 and 3 at Shoreditch Church. Details: Indeterminacy