When John Cage first conceived his composition, 4’33”, he couldn’t have predicted how the pandemic-enforced lockdown we’re currently living in would inadvertently create the perfect environment for it to be heard. 4’33”, after all, is arguably the American composer’s most ‘zen’ piece, in which musicians or performers studiously don’t play their instruments for the time outlined by the title, while the rest of the world ebbs and flows around them.
Often misunderstood as a ‘silent’ composition, 4’33” is more akin to a form of environmental sound art. Here, the sounds of the natural world are captured in what amounts to a fleeting pause for thought that democratises the experience for both listener and artist.
This is something John Wills has taken a chance on for his independently produced podcast, The Great John Cage Project – in Lockdown. Now six editions in, Wills’ self-produced initiative has seen him present a series of recordings collected from all over the world following an open call, more than fifty of which have already been broadcast.
With the first edition setting out its store in the all but deserted thoroughfare of Edinburgh’s normally bustling Princes Street, over an hour each Wednesday night or whatever time you choose, Wills acts as a genial guide through a series of home-made soundscapes that eavesdrop on spaces both private and public. Whether it’s the sound of church bells in a French village, birds singing in an English garden or a spookily quiet inner city, each aural snapshot has a sense of place at its heart, capturing a moment in time never to be repeated. In this way, the recordings are both document and eyewitness—or rather, earwitness—creating a rolling aural archive of how we live now in this crucial moment of history.
The first episode of the project serendipitously premiered on Earth Day, the worldwide day of environmental action that falls on 22 March. Wills explained then how Cage composed 4’33” in 1952 following his experience at Harvard University in an anechoic chamber, a sound-proofed room designed to absorb sound rather than echo it. Cage entered expecting total silence, but instead heard two sounds, one high and one low. These turned out to be his nervous system in action, and the sound of his blood circulating through his body.
With influences ranging from inquiries into Zen Buddhism and the ‘white’ paintings of his contemporary, Robert Rauschenberg, Cage applied a concept of silence to various compositions before stripping things back to their purest form with 4’33”. Today, Wills speaksof the composition being a ‘meditation on the impossibility of silence’.
In the second episode, Wills talks of remembrance and gives a brief history of the two-minute silence. The show’s own one-minute silence is followed by Wills’ recording of a Thursday night applause for key workers, complete with the banging of pots and pans, a routine which has become a new kind of community folk ritual, not without its critics.
The following week seemed to confirm this, when a recording from Belgrade highlighted a similar weekly appreciation for key workers. This takes things to another level, however, in a far angrier display that has become part of the city’s own response to the crisis in protest at the ruling government in Serbia.
Amidst the varying silences were also the pounding industrial clangs of a Brisbane construction site, still inexplicably working through lockdown; and a recording captured in the bustle of St Thomas’ Hospital in London.
Wills describes how the project highlights ‘the impossibility of silence’, as ‘a gentle reminder to embrace our surroundings’ and how “4’33” isn’t about listening to nothing. It’s about listening to everything’. As a musician whose career began playing drums with 1980s/90s sonic alchemists, Loop, before moving on to the more drone-based Hair and Skin Trading Company and more recent song-based excursions with Pumajaw, Wills understands the power of making a big noise.
By opening up the endless possibilities of what 4’33” can be, Wills’ podcast becomes a slow-burning counterblast to the stampede of online artistic activity that has risen up since lockdown to an at times overwhelming degree. Wills recognises too that his increasingly expansive compendiums of everyday exercises in aural psycho-geography aren’t the only means of paying close attention in a quieter way.
In one show, Wills mentions Pauline Oliveros, the American composer and accordionist, who first introduced ideas of deep listening and sonic awareness to the world, in which people tune in to the sounds around them with a focus and alertness that is aural equivalent of sorts to John Berger’s notions of visual consciousness outlined in his book, Ways of Seeing.
Oliveros made her first ever UK performance in Glasgow, when in October 2005 she took part in Instal, the Arika organisation’s annual festival of ‘Brave New Music’ held at the now closed Arches venue. Playing alongside trombonist David Dove, director of the Deep Listening Institute, the pair utilised a specially installed eight-channel PA. This allowed them to work in three dimensions with the unique acoustic properties of the cavernous venue created from a previously derelict railway siding beneath Glasgow’s Central Station.
In terms of environmental interventions, Arika’s adventures in sound beyond indoor venues has taken them to less chartered territory. In 2006, Resonant Spaces saw saxophonist John Butcher and sound artist, field recordist and composer Akio Suzuki perform in six non-venues across Scotland. These included Smoo Cave, Tugnet Ice House and the ancient Stones of Stenness. Using the sonic properties of each, Butcher and Suzuki created a series of one-off responses.
Arika did something similar the following year with Shadowed Spaces, which took audiences into the hidden nooks and crannies of urban areas. There was the site of an abandoned office block in Dundee, a disused railway turning circle in Aberdeen, the former Abbeyhill Railway Station site in Edinburgh, and others in Glasgow, Cumbernauld and Newcastle. With the involvement of psycho-geographer Denis Wood, performances by drummer Sean Meehan, saxophonist Tamio Shiraishi and percussionist Ikuro Takahashi took place in each space.
Shadowed Spaces was a precursor of sorts to Scrub Transmissions, the occasional series of urban occupations currently being undertaken in Manchester by Julie Campbell. Better known as Lonelady, Campbell’s two albums of jittery inner-city dispatches, Nerve Up and Hinterland, transform everyday alienation into a sub-Ballardian mesh of neo-punk-funk.
Scrub Transmissions sees Campbell cement an mp3 player into the fabric of a wall or other structure at the end of a city walk. Downloadable maps and instructions guide those taking part with their own headphones to the installation. Once here, they plug the headphones into the mp3 player, which plays a recording by Campbell on a loop until the batteries run out. The third edition, DEMON, is currently accessible and features Lonelady covering ‘Bound by Silence’, a song by early 80s Liverpool group, Pink Industry. Once the batteries die, it leaves behind a piece of detritus that has lost its function to the elements, but which creates its own intangible archive.
While rooted in the Situationist idea of the derive—drifting through a city to create a psycho-geographic map of an inner landscape as much as a physical one—Scrub Transmissions relates as well to other sense-heightening walks. At the end of 2019, the Talbot Rice Gallery in Edinburgh hosted French artist Myriam Lefkowitz’s ‘Walk, Hands, Eyes’. An experience which has been applied in different cities across the world, Lefkowitz has trained guides to lead participants through the city streets with their eyes closed. Those taking part experience sounds and smells while putting their trust in their guide to transport them safely throughout their route.
In some respects, The Great John Cage Project—in Lockdown might similarly be best experienced with eyes closed, albeit from your living room sofa. This does not suggest passivity, however, and, as with Oliveros’ deep listening and sonic awareness, it invites a concentrated approach.
As does Touch: Isolation, a series of new recordings by artists associated with Touch, which for almost forty years has curated and created impeccably realised audio-visual artefacts that bridge ambient and experimental compositions. While many of these have been released on record or CD, Touch doesn’t regard itself as a record label per se. Releases by artists including Philip Jeck and Chris Watson have nevertheless made waves, with sounds from the natural world sculpted into often beguiling immersive experiences.
Touch: Isolation is a subscription-based initiative in response to lockdown, which twice a week over two months sent out brand new tracks on Bandcamp by Touch artists. Like The Great John Cage Project—in Lockdown, these offer little sonic snapshots of where we are now. While the pieces showcased by Touch: Isolation are more ‘composed’, the epic ambience running across its twenty-eight tracks creates a similar experience.
Perhaps the nearest neighbour to Wills in this context is Chris Watson, the BAFTA-winning sound recordist who has become a key collaborator of David Attenborough on his spectacular nature documentaries. Watson’s own albums include Weather Report, which, when released in 2003, saw him move away from what up until then had been unmediated found-sound recordings to creating compositions from the wildlife and their immediate habitats.
It perhaps should come as no surprise that Wills and Watson worked together on Turn of the Tides, an ambisonic audio installation at St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall as part of the 2017 Orkney Music Festival. Like Wills, Watson has roots in more ‘out-there’ experimental sounds. He was a founding member of Cabaret Voltaire, who did their own take on 4’33” on the STUMM 433 box set. Like Wills, hearing Watson talk about sound and the sonic world is a joy, with the passion for his art pouring through gentle Yorkshire tones.
East Lothian based experimental composer, Michael Begg, who has frequently absorbed the natural world into his work, is also worth mentioning here. Begghas recently generated work using data streams, and in January 2020 performed with cellist Clea Friend at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh as part of NOW, an exhibition exploring deep time, the cosmos, and the place of humans in relation to these phenomena.
Since lockdown, Begg has released two recordings as part of his new Witness series. These ambient pieces use software programmed to track live satellites themselves charged to record activity on Earth in real time. About the second piece, ‘The Weather Engine’, Begg talks of wanting to ‘make a kind of fingerprint from moments in the days of lockdown’. As a starting point he uses the idea that ‘time has become deranged. The days slip into each other, moments repeat themselves whilst other events seem to hang perpetually in limbo.’
Begg recently took part in Lockdown Vexations, a globally sourced response to Erik Satie’s 1893 composition, Vexations, in which the French minimalist composer instructed that the theme of his work penned on a solitary page of manuscript should be played 840 times.
The Lockdown Vexations performance coincided with the 154th anniversary of Satie’s birth on 17 May 2020, and included contributions from seventy-seven isolated performers, lasting over twenty-six hours. This is a step on from the first ever full performance of Vexations, which lasted more than eighteen hours. The live event was organised by John Cage in New York in 1963, a decade after 4’33”. Several pianists took part, including David Tudor, the original performer of 4’33”.
There are plenty of other things to listen to during lockdown. Glasgow-based club and record label Optimo have put together a series of five Tranquillity Mixes to soothe stresses. Meanwhile, over on Resonance FM, the original online sound art radio station, the weekly show, Bad Punk, presents a woozy late-night collage of sound and spoken-word.
It’s there too in ‘Yesterday’, Georgina Starr’s contribution to this year’s online edition of Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art. Dating from 1991, ‘Yesterday’ is a two-minute cassette recording of Starr whistling the tune to the Beatles’ song, ‘Yesterday’, in the corridor of Slade School of Art. Hearing Starr’s recording thirty years on is to eavesdrop on a fleeting moment of a life captured for posterity, and which has now become a sense memory of a more innocent age and a reminder of what came before and after.
The Great John Cage Project—in Lockdown is destined to do something similar. The rolling collection of works gathered by Wills will be included in the Coronavirus Sound Archive and subsequently gifted to the British Library Sound Archive. While this is important in itself, it needs to go further. The project is a glorious mash-up of psychogeography and sociology, anthropology and art, and says as much about the human condition in socially distanced times as it does about the wider world it inhabits.
Listening to it, really listening to it, is to commune with a living, breathing thing, where radio silence is anything but.
The Great John Cage Project—in Lockdown is broadcast every Wednesday night 9-10pm. An archive of all the recordings can be heard at https://anchor.fm/greatjohncageproject
Touch: Isolation – www.touchisolation.bandcamp.com
Details of ‘Resonant Spaces’ and ‘Shadowed Spaces’ can be found at www.arika.org.uk
NVA’s archive can be found at www.nva.org.uk
Details of ‘Scrub Transmissions’ are at www.lonelady.co.uk
Michael Begg’s Witness 1 and 2 can be heard at www.omnempathy.bandcamp.com of Lockdown Vexations can be found at www.satievexations.art
Optimo ‘Tranquillity Mix’ – www.soundcloud.com/twitch/jd-twitch-tranquility-mix-1
‘Wait’ by Bill Drummond can be read at www.caughtbytheriver.net/2020/04/wait-bill-drummond/
‘Yesterday’ by Georgina Starr is part of Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art 2020 online, and can be heard at www.glasgowinternational.org until 31 May 2020.
Neil Cooper is a music, theatre and art critic based in Edinburgh.