John Cage, Fat Boys and Death by Rose Petal

“Central to our situation is silence: sounds we notice are bubbles that burst on the surface of silence.” The words of American philosopher, writer, nature lover, transcendentalist and tax refuser Thoreau, who was a hero of John Cage, the inspiration behind a week’s performance frolics at the old Carlsberg factory, now Dansehallern in Copenhagen.

The achingly hip industrial spaces of the Carlsberg Dansehallern (right). Believe it or not this exact spot became a loved-up be-cushioned meditation tent for our event.

There were many kinds of bubbles bursting last week during that most Danish of experiences, the multi-genre collaborative experimental art performance event, curated by UK pianist and composer Rolf Hind with his “artistic lab” (another concept beloved of Danes) comprised of actor, percussionist/tap dancer, theatre director, actress and me. A week’s mutual brainstorming culminated in three 45 minute performances of “Soup, Sound and Silence”, the fifth annual “Host Guest Ghost” audience interactive project, masterminded by the Dansehallern’s Thilda Maria Kristensen and set  in the former tap room of Denmark’s premier beer factory.

Pianist Rolf Hind (above) enjoying a photogenic moment in front of a radical architectural space. 

Our surprisingly docile audience was led on a multi-sensory journey of guided meditation, tantric raisin, soup and flower eating, tap dancing, amplified cactus and cello duo, ritual mushroom washing, film projection, choreographed washing up and numbers from Cage’s Songbook. At the core of these activities were Rolf’s classy renditions of Cage’s hypnotic pieces for prepared piano.

Actor Niels Erling (right) demonstrating his expertise as amplified cactus player.

Production assistant Viola Dröse is also a professional dancer and part of contemporary dance group Panisk Organisk who’s synchronistically Cage-inspired piece KlangKörper premiered a couple of weeks back at the beautiful former church/ now art space Kunsthallern Nicolai.

Viola Dröse battling it out with fellow dancer Mattias Johnsson (left) and the classically Danish spectacle (below) of  sound artist recording a public art space, in this instance, the Kunsthallern Nicolai.

IMG_0765Multi-media artist Budhaditya Chattopadhyay had recorded the sound of silence in different public spaces to create his dynamic and far-from-silent sound scape to which the 4 strong company created fluid yet muscular forms, pushing against perceptual walls of sound, touch and sight in flowing re-groupings.

Moments of quiet lyricism contrasted with suspended tension, pushing against or hanging from a physical wall. And all to intermittent backdrop projections of classic documentary film footage of John Cage and the Maharishi speaking about silence.

Extraordinarily, this dance group are their own choreographers, forming their work by a collective creative process, unthinkable for the majority of dancers I know, who are either extreme control freaks or “bun-heads” whose brains have been given over entirely to the business of physical movement, bypassing the capacity for original thought.

Members of Panisk Organisk creating their own take on the Three Graces. 

I can never forget once observing a dancer spend an entire director note-giving session blissfully refining his signature over five pages of his work book, utterly unaware of the need to absorb verbal instruction.

One of the great joys of the Dansehallern project was my discovery of a fabulous bit of Danish design, the Fat Boy. Here’s me (below) with percussionist, pianist and highly accomplished tap dancer Sisse Tomczyk making the most of our Boys during the collaborative process. IMG_0836

Speaking for myself, collaboration is not something we Brits naturally lean towards. Perhaps the evil blood-lust island urges of the Empire are still in the DNA. I confess that the idea of watering down “my” strong ideas for the collective good does go against the grain. Which is why it was extremely instructive to break through said resistance and pile in with the Dansehallern’s warm invitation for us to make art and present it to a (mostly) non contemporary music audience in a convincing way.

It was reassuring to discover that all the men in our team, including Rolf’s partner Chris Chalmers (who’s prizewinning debut novel Five to One has just been published) had a very high standard of underwear, including designers Björn Borg, D&G and good old Calvin. I find it most useful to make these kind of artistic inspections on collaborative projects such as this. Full marks all round.

Cage talked about music as “purposeless play” rather than an attempt to order chaos; a way of heightening our perceptual awareness of existence. Certainly the carefully choreographed sequence of events in “Soup and Silence” was an invitation for our audience and ourselves to open our ears and senses in new ways, initiated by a guided meditation (led by me), inviting our audience to sink beneath consciousness of every day sounds to the mysterious inner noises of the nervous system and blood circulation, leading to the possibility of something much deeper, Thoreau’s essential silence.IMG_0841

Our resident dramaturg, Mads Schaltz Christensen, in an existential frame of mind. Trained at Central School of Speech and Drama in London, Mads is an expert in movement and maskwork and has worked with me on one of my sillier cabaret sketches, premiered at a Kayak Club to an audience of hardcore electronica fans. (About which experience, more later…)

Whilst Cage’s creative process was dictated almost exclusively in later years by consultation of the ancient Chinese book of wisdom, the I Ching, and shaped by the notion of indeterminacy, our piece was much more of a structured composition. Honed over three back to back performances, refined in the fire of audience response, our actions became more polished and predictable, transforming into a work that could easily be notated.

Continuing the quality underwear theme, I am happy to say that I was wearing a full set of Dutch designer Marlies Dekkers underwear during our last day of work on the show.

As well as an internationally acclaimed contemporary music pianist, Rolf is also a successful composer, using structural systems of fractals in his music (number sequences occurring in nature) not unlike that of Per Nørgård’s infinity series. Unlike Cage’s “purposeless play”. But like Cage (and me), Rolf is interested in presenting music to audiences in different ways: “trying to create a high degree of sensitivity to listening to sounds that surround us in everyday life”, as Cage said. 

A classic example of fractal design, beloved of screen saver programmers the world over

This approach was apparent in Rolf’s hour-long recital in the sweltering theatre of Republique at the beginning of this week’s Athelas new music Festival. Three pianos, two of them prepared, stood in a row surrounded by feathers.

Rolf played a string of pieces by Satie, Debussy, Cage and a new piece by Christian Winther Christensen without stopping for audience applause. Released from the tyranny of the programme note and its accompanying inter-piece cough/chat/shuffle, one could appreciate the experience as a sonic sensory whole. The final Cage prepared piano piece created a powerfully meditative atmosphere, reminding me of a fridge magnet in a composer friend’s kitchen:

“The silence after a Mozart symphony is also by Mozart”.

Schoenberg said of Cage that he was not a composer, but an inventor of genius. After hearing this exquisitely textured piece one can’t help thinking that’s a slightly harsh judgement.

An invisible presence powerfully suggested to me by this programme was artist Marcel Duchamp who Cage met in the 1940s. Anticipating the New York chance music phenomenon by some half a century, not to mention the Dada movement, Duchamp created a mechanical musical sculpture in 1913, a few years before his famous Fountain (1917), transforming the every day object into art.

Cariacature of Satie (left) by Santiago Rosigñol (1891)

Suddenly the Fluxus movement of the 60s stops being so radical when one thinks of Satie wandering around at the same time as Duchamp, dressed in striped trousers and morning dress, living in a sealed house filled with umbrellas, inventing “castles” on pieces of metal and selling them as properties to the public, immersed in Rosicrucianism and revolutionary socialism.

Politically fuelled “Performance Art”, still considered so cutting edge by the current generation, was alive and well over a century ago…

My hero Erik the Red (below), from Arngrimur Jonsson’s “Gronlandia”. Wiki tells me to note the anachronistic details in his weapons and armour.

Like me, Satie was obsessed by Hans Christian Anderson and Vikings, (a nice little link with Danish Christian W. Christensen) signing his works “Erik K.”, perhaps in homage to my favourite Saga hero, Erik the Skullsplitter (or “Red”). Christian’s piece was an inspired take on conventional piano performance practice, a deconstruction of the over-familiar piano repertory of Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Bach and Rachmaninov using prepared upright piano, silent “pianistic” gestures, sounds of the piano “furniture” itself (running nails over the side of the keys), triggering ghostly piano textures from MAX MSP.

I have a feeling that Christian and Satie would have got on well at Le Chat Noir.

Now is a good point in the blog to note that it was Yoko Ono who introduced John Cage to the macrobiotic diet.

It is also a good point in the blog to be reminded of Cage’s statement halfway through a lecture:

“Slowly as the talk goes on, we are getting nowhere. It is only irritating to think we would like to be somewhere else. More and more I have the feeling we are getting nowhere. That is a pleasure which will continue”.

 

Until this project I hadn’t clocked that Cage was a recognised authority on mushrooms.

Hilarious as this must have sounded in context, Cage is making a profound (Zen) philosophical point about our perception of time and space. If one strips away the burden of future expectation, rooted in past experience, one is left with a pure present, cleansed of judgement and it’s accompanying emotions. Only in this instant can one experience true bliss. Such is the goal of meditation.

Einstein spoke of perception as being “a delusion of consciousness”.

Smashing such lofty talk to smithereens is Nicolai Worsaae‘s fabulous and truly insane piece “”Et Frappe” for bass-baritone and piano, premiered extremely late at night at the festival café a couple of days ago. It’s the first time I’ve seen a piano systematically whacked with a baseball bat with Viking-inspired performance thuggery, romping round a piano. V v VERY funny, confirming yet again my initial impressions of the New Danes on meeting them 2 years back (Christian Winther Christensen, Rune Glerup and Nicolai)  – that they bring a fantastic blast of fresh air to Danish new music.

May they sail the world with their refreshing creative lunacy. 

 

Roman coin of Caesar Heliogabalus, also known as Elagabalus. For context, read on.

I could have done with a baseball bat sitting through Boulez’ interminable Derive 2 the other night. Not having spotted it on the programme my mood instantly blackened on realising I was in for the whole 45 minute demoniacal control freak clinically crafted note hurricane that gradually but inevitably erodes one’s will to live.

The hapless guests of Emperor Heliogabalus being rose-petaled to death, as depicted by Alma-Tadema. If he’d added a surround sound recording of Boulez’ “Derive 2″ their torment would have been complete.

Something about this lethal attack by exquisite notery reminds me of my favourite Roman emperor, Heliogabalus, perhaps the maddest of the lot, who, on being appointed Caesar, promptly fired all his heads of state and replaced them with hairdressers, pastry chefs and masseurs. One story tells of how he invited all his “friends” round for a sumptuous 5 day banquet orgy, at the end of which 10,000 tons of rose petals were emptied onto the doomed guests until they suffocated to death.

I have his recipe for stuffed dormouse cooked in honey.

On which gastronomic note, I take my leave until the next episode of Z-blog.

To follow shortly.