CMR Gallery, Redruth, host 4 weeks (and 33 hours) of centennial activities celebrating the life and work of composer, artist, author and thinker, John Cage (1912-1992).
Words by Simon Bayliss
‘I’ve got nothing to say and I’m saying it!’
This was the John Cage quote that Janet McEwan launched at me with delight after the realisation sank in that I had lost the 45 minute interview I had just recorded with her. I, however, didn’t share her enthusiasm. It was late after a long but enthralling afternoon of discussions and negotiations, involving all of the artists participating in a project celebrating the life and work of John Cage; to coincide with his would be 100th birthday. McEwan – who it turned out doesn’t like being interviewed – is the curator, and she was in charge that day of coordinating the final exhibition. My looming task, instead of simply editing dialogue, was now to piece together what I’d heard during the meeting about this extensive project.
The title 4 weeks and 33 hours, states the duration of the event based at CMR Gallery, an artist-led space in Redruth, Cornwall. And when I arrived it had been underway for three weeks already. 4’33” is also Cage’s most iconic work: 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence…
The composer is also known for his experimental soundscapes which teeter somewhere between recognisably harmonious music and sound for sound’s sake; often performing with curious objects as instruments. But he is also known for his visual art – ethereal paintings and drawings, his abstract writing and visual poetry, and his superior knowledge and lifelong fascination with mushrooms.
‘Value judgments are destructive
to our proper business, which
is curiosity and awareness.’
That said (by Cage of course), Redruth, one of the Southwest’s most deprived ex-mining towns, seemed like an obscure setting to celebrate one of the world’s most influential Avant-guard figures. And CMR – the only carpeted art gallery I’ve ever been to – seemed like an unlikely venue. But with its warren of office-sized rooms and communal areas, it offers a more relaxed friendly setting than a white-cube space, and Redruth – it turns out – was the perfect location. During the attempted interview McEwan and I talked about synchronicity; the coincidences in life which prompt one to question the notion of chance. Cage was fascinated by the unseen, underlying, incongruous harmonies in the world. And although McEwan mentioned her regrets, that she wasn’t participating as an artist in her own project, it seems she has been channelling these Cagean values throughout the mapping of this task. When she contacted the Redruth Community Radio station for example, simply with the intention of promotion, she discovered a 21 year old John Cage expert – Kane Baker – who had recently begun a series of shows about the life and work of the composer. This prompted an invite for him to give three lectures at CMR, which have since proven to be the catalyst for much thinking and activity, drawing an audience from far and wide. Coincidently again, it transpired that Pauline Penna, co-ordinator of the Cornwall Fungi Recording group, lived in Redruth, and despite not having any previous involvement in the world of contemporary art, she was delighted to take part in the project.
My favourite music is the
music I haven’t heard yet.
This was a Cage line that played on my mind as I listened to participants discussing their 4 minute and 33 second long proposals for the final exhibition. Not because, like on The Dragon’s Den, I was awaiting an ever more extraordinary pitch, but because much of the work was still in progress. A group residency scheme is the model for productivity, and there were a number of artists involved, reflecting on the theme in a variety of modes. At the opening night of the finale for example, Rob Gawthrop will perform two Fluxus (a movement heavily influenced by the ideas of John Cage) performances by George Brecht.
Dripping, involves the artist standing at the top of a stepladder, slowly pouring water into to an amplified vessel below. In an apt piece for the fallen once-industrial Redruth, artist Sara Bowler is comparing pre-technological and modern-day soundscapes. The former will depict the rustic noises from implements and everyday tasks imagined 200 years ago, whereas the latter will render the bleeps, ticks, buzzing, and clanking of the appliances, devices and machines which pervade our daily lives. There were all kinds of other works discussed, from line drawings, to video, to interactive installations involving a Casio Keyboard. All are different takes on the man himself; his philosophies of using nature’s patterns to compose his work, his interest in Zen Buddhism, even his personal life (he left his wife for Merce Cunningham, the famous male dancer and choreographer), and of course his love of fungi.
‘There is no such thing as an empty space or an empty time. There is always something to see, something to hear. In fact, try as we may to make a silence, we cannot.’ This Cagean proverb was proven during the first week of the centennial celebrations when artist and musician Liam Jolly, arranged a collaborative garage rock performance of 4’33” at Gaslights bar in Redruth. Some musicians expressed their concern at being lynched by locals. But for those involved, the piece – which began with a characteristic rock intro… followed by silence… and ended in a rolling crescendo of guitars and drums – was a success. The video documentation is extraordinary. As silence suddenly descends you can hear typical bar sounds – people chatting and playing pool – but gradually the quiet grows increasingly more intense, and somehow becomes totally captivating.
Cage also famously composed a piece using a feather to play amplified cacti and plant material. This inspired Kane Baker to contact the British Cactus Society – whose Cornish branch happened to meet in Redruth – and they lent him a large round spiky specimen to experiment with. During our unsuccessful interview McEwan and I played the cactus together, and noted that the longer spikes had a lower pitch than the shorter ones, and that her side was more tuneful than mine. We also tried sitting in silence, I noted the wind whistling and rattling the windows, and all of the previously imperceptible sounds of the CMR building which has housed the residencies and will host the final exhibition. The 4 minutes and 33 seconds even ended with the chiming of the clock tower: it was perfectly synchronised! But alas, when I realised the recording was lost, synchronicity was again on McEwans side. She feared her intense (but for me fascinating) rambling was unpublishable. I, on the other hand, had planned for the easier journalistic task of handing over an amended interview. But as I packed up to leave, feeling overwhelmed and frustrated, McEwan suggested that it was appropriate that I had been left with silence, and gave me a list of John Cage quotes she had prepared. My lesson in all of this was stark at the top of the page:
‘One shouldn’t go into the woods looking for something, but rather to see what is there.’
4 weeks 33 hours Finale takes place Friday 12 – Sunday 14 October 2012, 1-7pm, at CMR Art Gallery & Project Space, Royal Circus Buildings, Back Lane West, Redruth, Cornwall, TR15 2BT
More info here: http: c-m-r.org/4-weeks-33-hours.html