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A Juxtaposition: John Cage vs. Sam Taylor-Wood

17 June 2009 / external, performance, reference

“When a violinist plays, which is incidental: the arm movement or the bow sound? Try arm movement only.” — Yoko Ono, ‘To the Wesleyan People’, 1966. [I’m grateful to Dawn Weleski for finding this quote].

The BBC orchestras have been getting an unusual and highly conceptual workout of late. I have been mulling over the contrast between two particular works which are bookends for advanced uses of the professional orchestra.

Consider, first, the performance of John Cage’s famous silent piece, 4’33”, by the full BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican, London in January 2004. Cage’s work

“was composed in 1952 for any instrument (or combination of instruments), and the score instructs the performer not to play the instrument during the entire duration of the piece throughout the three movements. Although commonly perceived as ‘four minutes thirty-three seconds of silence’, the piece actually consists of the sounds of the environment that the listeners hear while it is performed.” [Wikipedia].

[An additional copy can be found on YouTube here.]

In contrast to this is Sam Taylor-Wood’s video work, Sigh, in which a composition by Anne Dudley is performed by the BBC Concert Orchestra. Or, apparently performed, as the orchestra, minus their actual instruments, mime the piece precisely as their muscles remember it. In the video installation, which premiered in October 2008, the music is heard as a backdrop. A spokesperson for Taylor-Wood states:

“In a dark, rundown studio, the members of the orchestra sit in their everyday clothes. They start to play a piece of music, sawing and blowing the empty spaces where the instruments should be. Although the music is clear and audible, the absence of the instruments renders the sound oddly incorporeal. It’s a private, ghostly performance.” [London Evening-Standard]

Taylor-Wood’s work follows on the heels of her similar (and remarkable) project Prelude in Air, which focuses on the re-enactment of a solo cello work. Both videos evoke a form of sympathetic synaesthesia (or vicarious kinesthesia, if you will) in which the mind of the viewer fills in the missing instrument, an illusion which could only be made possible through the use of consummately professional performers.

And so we have two unusually intense works:

  • Cage’s 4’33” at the Barbican: All of the instruments, none of the sound; and
  • Taylor-Wood’s Sigh: None of the instruments, all of the sound.

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