“I am here and there is nothing to say,” begins John Cage's Lecture on Nothing, which was performed Friday night by Atlanta Symphony Orchestra music director Robert Spano at Emerson Concert Hall in Emory University's Schwartz Center for Performing Arts.
Born in 1912, John Cage was the most famous and influential composer of the American musical avant garde movement during the latter twentieth century, his ideas touching not only music, but philosophy, social theory, visual art and performance art. Cage died in 1992, but his work continues to influence younger generations. (Sonic Youth covered music by Cage on their 1999 album SYR4, and last December the Cage Against the Machine rendition of 4'33” hit No. 21 on the British pop singles charts.)
"Lecture on Nothing" is spoken word, like lecture, but composed in the manner of music, the text printed on a four-column grid indicating passage of time. Not only do noticeable silences occur, even extensive ones, some passages of text recur multiple times, such as the refrain, “If anyone is sleepy, let him go to sleep,” which is heard 14 times in all. First published 50 years ago, in Silence, his most influential book, Cage wrote "Lecture on Nothing" in 1949 and first performed it the next year at the Artist's Club in New York City.
Cage was the primary performer of his composed lectures during his lifetime. Robert Spano has performed "Lecture on Nothing" a handful of times himself. His voice is warmer and rounder than Cage's was, and he did not try to imitate the composer's own performances. Spano's delivery throughout the 40-minute work was natural and unforced, conversational, as if speaking to friends in a living room. That would have met with Cage's approval, who insisted that the text should not be read “in an artificial manner … but with the rubato which one uses in everyday speech.” The spare set on the Emerson stage — a chair, microphone, side table and music stand, illuminated simply — complemented the nature of the lecture, as did Spano's avoidance of hand gestures, leaving his hands in his lap except to occasionally turn a page.
At the conclusion, the audience was invited to ask questions, to which Spano replied with answers prescribed by Cage, regardless of what the actual questions were.
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