Aldeburgh Music’s idea to stage a John Cage Musicircus – a concept of musical “happenings” that the composer developed from 1967 onwards – as part of this year’s festival is hardly a new one. In 2012 there were at least three major Musicircuses in the UK, including a small-scale event at Snape Maltings, the festival’s main hub, to mark the Cage centenary. But it’s hard to imagine a jollier, barmier and more inclusive one than this.
“You won’t hear anything – you’ll hear everything,” Cage once enthused. It’s a contrived kind of chaos, with musicians performing work of their choosing, at an agreed time and location, but one that, mysteriously, manages to channel the spirit and character of a place – here an English seaside town, and its wider community, on a perfect summer day.
A klaxon sounded at 11am near the Aldeburgh seafront and the crowds began to weave their way through a rich tapestry of sound. Every musician in Suffolk had been invited to participate, and the 50 or so acts included brass bands, bell-ringers, choral societies, folk groups, string quartets and performers of all ages and abilities. While teenage drummers marched the length of the street and an ageing rock trio strutted their stuff, a small group gathered around a harpist in a rose-filled garden, and others wandered into a private sitting-room for an intimate performance of Erik Satie’s Vexations.
Pierre-Laurent Aimard (world-renowned pianist and Aldeburgh’s artistic director) appeared as a silent pianist, complete with bowler hat, and there was bawdy, circus humour: belly dancers, poodles wearing ruffs, and a hairy, tattooed trombonist – naked but for a tight-fitting pair of boxer shorts – who set up shop next to an earnest cello ensemble.
At the first Musicircus in Illinois there had been popcorn and apple cider for sale. Here, fishermen’s shacks selling crab and samphire lined the beach, and a stall offered John Cage eggs, boiled for four minutes, thirty three seconds in homage to the composer’s most famous composition, 4’33”.
A performance of Ravel’s Ma mère l’oye, by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Thomas Adès, marked the event’s triumphant finale, before everyone dispersed for a mass picnic on the beach.
Cage did not tackle the genre of opera until the 1980s but the Musicircus – a celebration of myriad works, as demonstrated to wonderful effect in Aldeburgh – can, perhaps, be seen as his most operatic composition.