Nothing: A Centenary to Celebrate

Nothing: A Centenary to Celebrate

Our poetry now is the realisation that we possess nothing.

2012 does not only mark the hundredth anniversary of the fall of the Qing Dynasty, and the signing of the International Opium Convention at the Hague. It is not just the centenary of the births of Eva Braun, Jackson Pollock, Kim Il Sung and Woodie Guthrie.

Not uniquely is this year the one hundredth since the deaths of Otto Schoetensack, Bram Stoker, Robert Falcon Scott and Nikolai of Japan. It may be one hundred years since Nils Gustaf Dalén won the Nobel Prize for Physics, for the invention of automatic regulators for use in conjunction with gas accumulators for illuminating lighthouses and buoys, but that is not the only anniversary to celebrate in 2012.

No indeed.

It is also a hundred years since the birth of John Cage, that incredible American composer and thinker to whom we owe nothing. No other figure ever has made nothing come alive the way he did, and we owe him that. In his remarkable Lecture on Nothing, he comments that 'Nothing more than nothing can be said'.

While some say there's nothing like the music of Mozart, I say John Cage's music is like nothing.

I'm not just talking about 4'33'' here, his famous 'silent' piece. This, in fact, might well be the loudest, most un-nothing piece there is by him, as it is the one which has accumulated the most relentless commentary. Everyone seems so set to uncover something within it that nothing isn't left, which is a pity. It's actually a very beautiful experience in concert, if you listen without the correct mindset.

I have nothing to say and I am saying it and that is poetry as I need it.

His other pieces have a certain nothing to them too. John Cage would often use the I Ching, or Book of Changes, to determine elements in his compositions: he would ask this divinatory system compositional questions, and use the chance-determined answers to fill in the score. To say that the results were nothing but random would be wrong. Closer to describe them as random but nothing.

The works can be confusing. Etudes Boreales is a work for cello or piano which was composed by tracing star-charts. The result is so precise, it ranks among the hardest works for cello there are. It doesn't necessarily sound like that, though. Four, which was choreographed by Merce Cunningham as Beach Birds, is for four performers, on piano or pianos, violin or sine wave, and twelve rainsticks. It is nothing if not/and immensely beautiful.

Some people don't get John Cage, but I think it's just jealousy. After all, we can't all be like John Cage. Nothing would happen.

Slowly, as the talk goes on, we are getting nowhere and that is a pleasure.

This is arguably an extremely unhelpful introduction to John Cage. But in a sense, there's nothing to say. One has to hear, and read, and see John Cage's work. In a world where nothing is certain, this is certain.

John Cage's book Silence collects a number of his lectures and articles and, celebrating its own 50th anniversary, it has recently been republished. Next Monday, an event at the Royal College of Music will set three of John Cage's pieces - including Etudes Boreales and Four/Beach Birds - to new choreography. It's free; that is, there's nothing to stop you going. Or make you go. Either way. Or both.

If you feel like preparing for Monday's concert, John Cage's 2 pages, 122 words on music and dance will tell you nothing about it at all.

All I know about method is that when I am not working I sometimes think I know something, but when I am working, it is quite clear that I know nothing.

Cage in Motion is at the Britten Theatre in London on 20 Feb at 7.30pm.


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