John Cage has been absent from this Earth for 20 years, and not a single note he wrote is performed at this evening’s concert, but his finger prints are all over both tonight and more contemporary music than you might imagine (especially if all you know of the late, great experimental composition is that ‘4’33”’ is a song that features nothing but silence). A sometime flatmate and diligent student of Cage’s pioneering attitude towards classical music, Morton Feldman wrote ‘For John Cage’ in 1982 to display just how influential his friend’s ideas had been on his own formidable canon, making its inclusion in tonight’s edition of the Ether Festival (celebrating what would have been Cage’s 100th birthday) entirely appropriate.
Feldman’s score couldn’t be more simplistic, nor more challenging to perform. John Tilbury on the piano and Darragh Morganon on violin execute perhaps the most dazzling display of restraint and subtlety these ears have ever to witnessed – completely unamplified, they deliver Feldman’s eighty minute long composition in a manner that’s both note perfect and imbued at every moment with more genuine involvement than you’re ever likely to get from a four-piece rock band. Such is the nature of the composition, everything both sounds like a wrong note and one that, if a millisecond out of place, would throw the whole curious concoction off kilter. Sparser than sparse and quiet as a mouse, it’s astounding that they manage a few minutes of getting it right, let alone eighty.
As you’ll have gathered, this isn’t music for everyone; though that’s something that a few attendees here seem not to have clocked beforehand – upon being told that the performance had a strict ‘no readmission’ policy, you imagine that the five or so people fleeing the weirdness were more relieved than disappointed. It’s a test of endurance even for the most involved, with extremely repetitive motifs sitting next to passages of discordance that would be quite confrontational if they weren’t being delivered so delicately. This is certainly not classifiable as easy or background listening. But to get lost in it, which you do, is to find yourself immersed in a sound you’ll struggle to draw comparison to, so uniquely creepy is its commanding aesthetic.
When it finally ends, abruptly even at an hour and a quarter in, the majority who remain in the room all seem to have reconciled themselves to it going on forever. It changes you, stuff like this, if only momentarily. Such is Cage’s greatest gift to the medium – and clearly, Morton Feldman – pointing out that music has way more possibilities than any of us are currently making use of. You might not want to put yourself through ‘For John Cage’ at regular intervals throughout your life. But the times you do could be some of the most enlightening.