Review: John Cage Lecture on Nothing

When avant-garde extraordinaire John Cage first placed his notation-free musical composition 4′33″ in front of a New York audience in 1952, the result was anything but silent. While his contemporaries were listening to tightly-orchestrated piano concertos or Nat King Cole ditties, Cage turned an enthusiastic ear to the sounds of his venues and of his audiences. His goal was to undermine his own role as the singular creative source, and while some exasperated listeners misinterpreted Cage’s work as a composition centred around silence, this artist’s bold new argument for what constituted music sent ripples of passionate conversation across the fashionable art world.

But while 4′33″ is generally held as Cage’s greatest work, it is just one of many grand statements made by the artist concerning music, performance and composition. Devised at a similar point in time, the disjointed Lecture on Nothing also exhibits Cage’s rebellious spirit and definition-shaking intelligence. Constantly reconfiguring and evaluating its arguments across five key sections each made of five small segments in homage to square numbers, the script of this lecture takes us to the extremes where sense and structure blend into nonsense and irrationality.

It’s a narrative form that teases and infuriates, but throughout the tightly-plotted structure of this work it is clear that performer/director Robert Wilson truly understands how thrillingly playful Cage’s reasoning can be; loyal to the theoretical refinement and wit of the source text, Wilson also puts in an admirable effort to ensure his audience is suitably illuminated through his meandering journey into this measured and joyously maddening text.

Comprised of incomprehensible statements on banners rising from a messy bed of discarded newspaper, the set initially veers to the wrong side of pretentiousness. However, by the third section, the bold capital letters distributed across the stage bleed into Wilson’s meditation, becoming the very fabric that supports this stream of consciousness. Flowing and absorbing, these texts echo the words of our actor, leading this production, together with the unplanned sounds that surround it, to develop a sense of being a balanced, organic whole.

With a nod to Cage’s fascination with Buddhism and zen thinking, Wilson’s calm, looping recital brings a meditative flair to this reading, and Arno Kraehahn’s sound design is fundamental in embellishing this spiritual quality. The production opens with shrill, loud electronic tones, and a raw progression of chords generates an disembodied emotional force. As the notes increase in intensity, the sound develops an almost painful power that grows until the bold noises are severed, when the sparse soundscape that remains turns every single rustle or cough into an impromptu solo. Crucially, this lecture on nothing generates a rare physicality, threatening our senses and gripping our movements. Now, that really is something.

John Cage Lecture on Nothing played at The Barbican Centre on 25 Feb only. For more information on the centre’s Dancing Around Duchamp season, see

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