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The Wire – July 2017

Possessing Nothing: John Cage Song Books

Kings Place – London

Deborah Nash

“We are immersed in action and distraction from every direction – performers are behind us and in front. Dam chants an unintelligible mantra from the side; Mitchener bangs a typewriter; Brenda Mayo slaps pink goggles over her eyes and addresses us in French. At a certain point, the performers assume the majesty of archetypes: the messenger, the trickster, the home-maker, the wild card.”

Nothing is experienced in a vacuum. Waves of incident, significant and superfluous, rush to fill the void. It can’t be helped. There is the noise inside our heads (which John Cage, quoting Satie, called the intrusion, not the chatter of a transistor radio, which is the reality) and there is the environment.

The day is June; there is sun and wind outside, and trauma. It has been a summer where each week brings new tragedy and upheaval, and days stretch to the length of years by the enormity of events that wound them, so it’s not hard to find poetic metaphor in vocalist Elaine Mitchener’s interpretation of the John Cage Song Books, staged as part of the Poetry & Lyrics festival in London, supported by the Poet In The City organisation.

Let’s begin with its finale: 12 black anarchist flags are unfurled and distributed among the audience who wave them limply. “The best form of government is no government at all”, Mitchener soliloquises, until the lights cut and we are dropped into darkness. The end.

The spoken text for Solo 35 is taken from Henry David Thoreau’s 1849 essay Civil Disobedience where he calls on individuals to be “a counter-friction to stop the machine” to refuse to support a government that is unjust and corrupt by withholding taxes that fund it, and by rebellion: “The best form of government is no government at all. And that will be the kind of government we’ll have when we are ready for it”.

Cage said of the treatise that it was “practically a popular tune, as popular as a slogan or a flag”. In the glass cube of King’s Place, the Saturday after the General Election, it feels that the state of ‘no government’ has been reached, and as for Cage’s appreciation of randomness, well, this has lost its innocence and acquired a sinister edge, or so I think, as we queue up to have our bags searched before entering the concert hall.

Inside, our expectations are upended by the seating arrangements; rows face each other from all angles in an anti-hierarchical configuration that rejects the idea of ‘best seat’. Dancer Dam Van Huynh is crawling across the floor between chairs; another dancer is frantically running, resting, raising his hand; textile artist Brenda Mayo moves among us encumbered by a trailing rustle of white fabric, pausing at a food station where she rhythmically shreds a carrot.

The soundscape by Matt Wright introduces birdsong and miniature sounds like the pinging of a plastic comb; when these subside you marvel at the nearsilence. Someone clears their throat and the offering is swiftly incorporated into the sonic mulch.

We are immersed in action and distraction from every direction – performers are behind us and in front. Dam chants an unintelligible mantra from the side; Mitchener bangs a typewriter; Brenda Mayo slaps pink goggles over her eyes and addresses us in French. At a certain point, the performers assume the majesty of archetypes: the messenger, the trickster, the home-maker, the wild card.

The hour elapses, and a game of chess plays out on the back of the tamed hyperactive dancer, while a row of seats is tied up in Brenda Mayo’s trousseau and a parcel is passed along another. Then the lights come up, and some of us stay behind to rummage through the remains of the performance. We read the unfinished gibberish left on the typewriter and try to decode the score on the lectern. The floor is scattered with fallen sheets of paper, and as if looking for answers, someone stoops to pick one up, only to find on turning it over there’s nothing there. Time to consult the I Ching.

 

14 March 2017

The Guardian – 3 July 2016