Thursday, 27 September 2012

Stewart Lee and Friends perform John Cage's "Indeterminacy"

I had never really heard of John Cage. I knew two facts.

  1. He wrote 4'33", a musical piece with no sound other than the sound of the space it was performed in.
  2. He was in The Velvet Underground.

That was John Cale. So out of the two facts I knew, one of them was wrong. I even originally thought J J Cale was in The Velvet Underground till I was forcefully corrected on Twitter.

I researched him (i.e. looked at YouTube) and found this marvellous piece from 1960.

My friend Mike told me about this show and I happily agreed to go with him. We met up at 7pm but were forced to sit in the cold with our beers outside as the musicians were soundchecking. The honks and parps echoed round Dalston. We got in at 8 and found a seat with a reasonable view (near the toilets - a good tactical decision) and awaited. Neither of us were sure what to expect, but after reading a review of an earlier performance I was hopeful Harry Hill would perform Water Walk. Unfortunately it was not to be.

Things started off with a piano and trombone improvisation by Steve Beresford and Alan Tomlinson, which showed us the madness that was to come. It was instantly funny, but people seemed scared to laugh. People were giving the performance a lot of chin stroking respect, but as soon as Tomlinson honked a bicycle horn into the end of his trombone as he played, we all relaxed and realised that, yes, it's fine to laugh!

Tania Chen performed an off the wall piano solo on her "prepared piano" and as well as some traditional jazz stylings she ended up climbing into the piano and plucking the strings from the inside.

The highlight of the first half for me, though was the trombone solo. (There's a sentence I never expected to write in my life.) 

Tomlinson explained Cage's unusual scorings, particularly the instruction to remove a piece of the trombone and use a particular mute, but as he explained, when you take that piece out, all the air goes out the wrong end anyway, so the mute would have made no difference. A little joke on Cage's part perhaps?

This was really odd. A lot of single notes at various volumes, pitches and timbres, evoking a didgeridoo at one point, and at another he span as he played, giving a slow phaser effect.

Here is a short clip. But I know it doesn't do it justice. I missed the funniest bits!

We had an interval and outside I overheard conversations about French philosophers and Becket. Yes, I was certainly in Dalston.

The second half started with Chen, Beresford and Lee sitting at a table with all manner of unusual instruments amongst them. The musicians would provide an improvised backdrop for Stew, who would read 40 of Cage's stories randomly chosen from selection of 90. Each one was read at different speeds in order to either fit them into, or stretch them out so they each lasted a minute.

It was a great 40 minutes. After a while the sounds sat in my head comfortably, but always surprising me, and I struggled to hear Stew on a few occasions when the sounds got louder, but this was the intention. We left the show happy and I had a quick chat with Stew at the end where I said that Tomlinson's trombone solo reminded me of Diamanda Galas's "Schrei X" and he said "Oh, I think he's played with her before"!

It's not a show I would normally go to, and naturally the draw for me was the always magnificent Stewart Lee, but hey, I'm a hipster now!

Thanks to @muzrobertson and @chillmaid for the live photos.

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