Review: Stewart Lee – works by John Cage

Stewart Lee, Steve Beresford, Tania Chen, Harry Hill and Alan Tomlinson perform John Cage
(Purcell Room on Saturday 29 May, 2011; review and drawings* by Geoff Winston

Stewart Lee, best known as a comedian, has championed radical guitarist Derek Bailey on Radio 4’s ‘The Music Group’ (“that music … it stops time”). Last year he won Celebrity Mastermind with Bailey as his subject. So when he invited Beresford, Chen and Tomlnson to perform Cage’s Indeterminacy and other pieces at the Purcell Room, it seemed the perfect opportunity to make a Cage Day of it.

The day started with a trip to Bexhill-on-Sea’s modernist De La Warr Pavilion to see the exhibition of Cage’s sublime and understated art works, ‘Every Day is a Good Day’. The show includes a wonderful film of Cage’s performance of ‘Water Walk’ on American TV, which was the template for its re-enactment by Harry Hill in the evening’s concert.

Humour was an integral part of the proceedings. Cage is known primarily for his re-evaluation of the concepts of musical composition and performance, but his questioning and his general outlook were accompanied by a grace and a gentle wit, which are easily overlooked.

In the opening exploratory duet Beresford’s delicate, richly nuanced piano was the foil to Alan Tomlinson’s mobile, expressive vitality; breaths were drawn through the trombone mouthpiece before exploding into a raucous elephantine bellow.

Tania Chen, a seasoned interpreter of Cage, opened her solo improvisation on prepared piano (Cage’s invention, born of necessity in 1940), adding a mild, percussive rattle. In an expressive, tempered sequence, she leaned to pick out notes on the piano strings; mellow then turned jumpy, and she closed with a fevered burst.

Tomlinson’s inspired interpretation of Cage’s ‘Solo for Sliding Trombone’ (of which he asked, not unreasonably, “What is a sliding trombone?”) drew on the traditions of vaudeville. Dressed in black tights, cream jacket, bow tie and a red cummerbund, Tomlinson re-enacted Chisholm’s solo from the Goons’ ‘Ying Tong Song’ and, in explaining Cage’s open-ended instructions to the performer – tongue-in-cheek bordering on disbelief – he mentioned that Cage sought guidance from a trombonist who had played with Spike Jones. Tomlinson’s virtuosic display included the dismantling of his instrument, as he followed his selected path through the score. As he nodded the beats, there were blurted single notes, and the application of various mutes and found objects, including a metal pie plate which vibrated unnervingly, and a plastic cup which bounced around inside the bell. He blew into the bell, and a laughing trombone ended up as amplified, liquid gargles played only on the main slide.

Difficult to follow, but what better than a respectful and accurate rendering of Cage’s ‘Water Walk’? Harry Hill navigated his way through the self-timed 3 minute obstacle course of mainly water-related equipment – a bath, a hissing pressure cooker, a squeaky rubber duck, a food processor filled with ice, a watering can, a vase of flowers, a glass and a bottle of Campari – to name just a few – along with a piano and a bank of mute radios, producing a sequence of events and sounds, which, through precision and serendipity, avoided a descent into slapstick.

The main event was the trio of Stewart Lee, reciting 40 of Cage’s one-minute stories (there are 200 to choose from), to the dissociated accompaniment of Beresford and Chen on a variety of implements and instruments. The stories, drawn by Cage from his personal experience and his reading, are succinctly set out and each makes a point, often with a philosophical resonance. Lee read these with the awkward, gappy pacing that Cage instructed, speeding up or spreading out to fit their 60 second allocations. The musicians worked in tandem, independently of Lee, as Cage deemed, creating a soundtrack to the spoken text, with odd juxtapositions and unconventional instrumentation, slipping from drama to whimsy, and pianissimo to forte, which briefly drowned out a few words. Beresford created wind chimes from the piano wires; Chen used maracas, a rattle, wind-up toys, a small whistle and finally blew up and squeaked the membrane of a red balloon. Once the humour had evaporated a calm thoughtfulness remained, echoed in the subtext of one anecdote in which the Zen master, Dr Suzuki said that after studying Zen “… the feet are a little bit off the ground.” The audience left with a mild hover in its collective step.

Categories: miscellaneous

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  1. As a postscript – I just found a recent interview (for the DLWP) on Stewart Lee's site, where he says: “… it was Steve Beresford and Tania Chen’s idea. They wanted to do Indeterminacy and needed someone with a flat, monotonous voice used to speaking in public to do it.” A touch of self-deprecation, perhaps, but it does point to a collaborative initiative. The Purcell Room concert was included in Stewart Lee's Austerity Binge programme which ran for a few days at the South Bank.


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