Monday 25 February 2013

Lecture on Nothing

To the Barbican Centre to see Robert Wilson delivering John Cage's Lecture on Nothing, 'one of the central texts of twentieth-century experimental literature' according to the programme, but entirely new to me. Seeing RW on stage a thrill of sorts, because he's not only very tall but is also a towering figure in experimental theatre.

The text was delivered from a stack of loose foolscap sheets by RW, in white shirt and pants, no shoes, and slapdash kabuki makeup. The set rather distractingly busy - two dozen white banners on which passages of the text are artlessly painted. The floor covered in scrunched up newspapers, bare lightbulbs hanging down, and a tower of sorts from which a mute Lenin-like associate peers turn and turn about through binoculars at the audience and RW, who for the first ten minutes or so sits motionless, staring straight ahead as layers of noise are projected into the auditorium. Flickering white neon tubes downstage - an impression of black and white, letters and paper.

Later a portrait photograph of Mayakovsky projected high up, stage right top, subtly animated so he slowly raises a cigarette to his lips, then lowers same. Why this was mesmerising I don't know, but it was. Cage's text eventually settles into a relentless, seemingly endless re-iteration of the same passage, each version delivered with subtle differences in pitch and stress by Wilson in his slightly cracked but mellow, euphonious voice. He's 70. At one point he retired to a bed on stage and we heard (presumably) Cage's voice delivering the same words. How can something be almost intolerably boring and deeply absorbing at the same time? I suppose if something is exciting all the time it's likely to be a TV gameshow. This was the opposite of that, and memorable.

The event harks back to the first ever 'happening' staged at the Black Mountain College in North Carolina back in 1952, when Cage collaborated with Merce Cunningham and others. He's the Duchamp of modern music, a serious subversive. I'd heard of the Black Mountain poets (and have an anthology somewhere) but was ignorant of the other amazing talents at this fine institution, a bohemian Bauhaus. Must find out more . . .

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