They say you should never meet your heroes. But they don’t say anything about them meeting each other, so I had very little idea of what to expect at Kings Place on Monday night when comedian Stewart Lee performed John Cage. In the event, this was a hugely enjoyable short recital, though I do wonder if it wasn’t a bit funnier than should really be expected from a Cage gig.

Stewart Lee © Steve Ullathorne
Stewart Lee
© Steve Ullathorne

Cage’s composition-cum-party-game Indeterminacy has a slightly confusing history, existing first of all as a recording made by Cage with pianist David Tudor in 1959. It’s a set of short, first-person stories by Cage to be read out such that each takes a minute, and it can be performed alongside or not alongside instrumental performance, which can basically be anything. Here, pianists Tania Chen and Steve Beresford provided some simultaneous though unrelated improvising at or near a piano while Lee read out 40 of Cage’s strange fables.

If I’m completely honest, I’m not quite sure if Lee was uniquely suited to this role or uniquely unsuited to it. As evinced by his standup shows, he has an incredible gift for finding punchlines where there should rightly be none – at one moment in his last TV series he managed to make the word “plain”, said blandly with around 30 seconds’ silence either side of it, completely hilarious. And so, inevitably, he made all of Cage’s anecdotes sound like leftfield jokes. Very funny ones, of course, but I do wonder if this was exactly what the piece was meant to be. If it was meant to be anything, that is; it’s hard to tell.

This is not to say that I wasn’t in fits of laughter. Watching Steve Beresford throw a ping-pong ball into the body of a grand piano while Lee read out three short Japanese poems was really, genuinely funny, for some reason, and the 40 minutes of this performance flew by in a way that experimental music evenings (much as I love them) rarely do. It’s a wonderful tribute to the humour inherent in Cage’s work – though the combination of Lee’s brilliantly straight delivery and a particularly wacky range of props for Chen and Beresford to improvise with did have the effect of exaggerating this comic element. This must have been a lot of the audience’s first exposure to Cage’s music live, and it wasn’t a totally representative experience.

The performance also highlighted the problematic nature of Cage’s relationship with improvisation. While many of Cage’s scores allow performers huge amounts of freedom, this doesn’t turn them into improvisations: rather, his pieces become fascinating because of the tension which exists between the precision of his musical scores and the bizarrely broad range of outcomes which these scores permit. Alan Tomlinson’s fascinating introduction to the Solo for Sliding Trombone, which he performed in the first half, demonstrated this well: in this piece, the size of a note in the score determines – at the performer’s discretion – either the length or volume (or both) at which it is to be performed. The sound which results is hence completely different each time the piece is played, but nonetheless still controlled in a very tight way by Cage’s instructions. Hence, opening the evening with a series of short improvisations by the performers was not really completely Cageian in spirit. And particularly with the comic element always so clearly at the forefront – Tomlinson’s trombone improvisation involved him manically taking his instrument apart, muting it with a table, and other crazy antics – the connection to Cage seemed all but lost.

Maybe I’m being pedantic though – this was a very entertaining evening, and it can only be a good thing that Cage is getting such wide exposure. This might not have been the most completely faithful Cage tribute in his anniversary year, but it was certainly the funniest, and I’m delighted that these two heroes of mine have met each other. I only hope that “Bob Dylan reads Umberto Eco” comes to town soon.

***11