John Cage – Variations VII

Posted: 1 June 2021 in Albums
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

CD Epicentre Editions EPI-2101

Christopher Nosnibor

It’s testament to his degree of innovation and influence that John Cage’s works remain a source of fascination for so many almost 30 years after his death. Few composers have reached across so many fields, let alone a composer as radical and overtly experimental. But Cage singlehandedly broke all the ground, especially when it came to exploring elements of the random, of the relationship between the performance and the audience, and of incorporating strands of philosophy into the creative process.

This recording of Variations VII is very much an unadulterated document of a specific event, best detailed in the liner notes:

Variations VII was created by John Cage to be performed at a special event, 9 Evenings, Theatre & Engineering, held from 13th to 23rd October 1966 in New York and in which a team of engineers, led by Billy Klüver, worked with ten artists from the American “avant-garde”, with the aim of enabling them to extend their exploration of the possibilities of electronics in their own art. Here is how John Cage described this piece in the programme for the event:

« It is a piece of music, Variations VII, indeterminate in form and detail, making use of the sound system which has been devised collectively for this festival, further making use of modulation means organized by David Tudor, using as sound sources only those sounds which are in the air at the moment of performance, picked up via the communication bands, telephone lines, microphones together with, instead of musical instruments, a variety of household appliances, and frequency generators. »

And so ‘Intro’ is four minutes of audience chatter, a throng of conversations, all in French, over and across one another. It may feel superfluous to some, but in so many ways, it’s integral to the experience. It not only captures the moments before the performance as it happened, but also transports the listener there, and reminds us that this is not a studio work, designed to capture some kind of perfect realisation of the piece for all time. There is no trickery or manipulation after the fact: this is a live performance, in front of a live audience, something that happened in the moment, and the moment is all there is, and the life of the piece is tied to that specific moment. And then, there is the fact that Variations VII is, effectively, about chatter.

Crackles of static, whistles and whines rent the air as the performance begins; the sound of radio dials turning, tuning in, finding – or failing to find – the right wavelength. Hums, hisses, and snippets of conversations, fragments of music. Whups and whirs, shill shards of feedback and blizzards of white noise emerge from a myriad pieces of sound, booming yawns of interference all criss-crossing over one another in a disorienting real-time sonic collage. Machines grind, babies cry, there are explosive, thunderous blasts of distortion, It’s like walking down a busy street, hearing pieces of conversation, radios blaring from cars, engines revving, and the parallels with William Burroughs’ cut-up technique, for those familiar, are clear. This replicates the experience of life in real-time, and real-time experience is not linear, but simultaneous: a plane flies overhead and you catch sight of an advertisement, and a reflection of a face in a shop window while conducting a conversation, and all around, other people conduct their own conversations…

The mechanics of it are complex and ambitious, but also typical of Cage’s approach to composition:

‘Ten telephone lines connected to the sounds of ten different locations in New York City. History has taught us that one of the first uses of the telephone at the end of the 19th century was, besides transporting voices, the live re-transmission of concert performances of opera. A few privileged listeners could therefore listen to the music in their own homes. Several decades later, John Cage reversed this, so to speak, by inviting the sounds of several distant environments into the concert venue!’

And so it is that the 1966 piece was performed live once more on August 15th, 2020 at the festival Le Bruit de la Musique. The performance lasts for an hour and eight minutes, during which time we’re subjected to a bewildering array of sounds, unconnected, disparate, all completely independent of one another, uncoordinated, random, haphazard and hither and thither. It’s a bewildering experience: not a lot happens, but at the same time, everything happens, a lot of it simultaneously. For the duration of the performance, the spell remains unbroken. For some reason that I really can’t explain, I find myself sitting, ears pricked, on tenterhooks, listening out for details. Towards the end, a blitzkrieg of overlapping extranea build to a tempestuous tumult of harsh noise that sounds like Throbbing Gristle a whole decade before their conception. And as it gradually tapers down, a cough from the audience cuts through the quiet – but it’s not quite finished. We wait, on edge.

Suddenly, there is silence.

Only when the performance ends is the tension broken.

There is a pause, a few seconds of uncertainty, before the applause breaks. There are a few whoops, but mostly, it’s polite. Enthusiastic, but polite. There is no chatter now. One suspects that having witnessed this – bearing in mind that it’s 1966 – many would have been simply stunned of vocabulary. The era may have been accustomed to all kinds of newness, all kinds of shocking, taboo-breaking art, but this…?

Variations VII hasn’t dated, and not lonely does it still sound contemporary, it remains incredibly relevant: if anything, its relevance is greater in 2021 than it was in 1966, perfectly recreating the experience of total media and sensory overload. Never mind The Beatles, here’s John Cage.

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