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Robert Wilson – John Cage Lecture on Nothing


Barbican Theatre

Robert Wilson in John Cage's Lecture on Nothing
Robert Wilson in John Cage's Lecture on Nothing
Robert Wilson in John Cage's Lecture on Nothing
Robert Wilson in John Cage's Lecture on Nothing
Robert Wilson in John Cage's Lecture on Nothing

A sixty-minute, no interval endurance test or ‘one of the central texts of twentieth century experimental literature’, a revered text of the ‘theatrical avant-garde’ John Cage’s 1959 Lecture on Nothing, performed for one night only by Robert Wilson, ‘a towering figure in the world of experimental theatre’ as part of the Barbican’s Dancing around Duchamp integrated-arts season, has the audience sitting in stunned silence.

Lecture on Nothing, the first part of Cage’s collection of ‘philosophical and poetic [texts…] composed to the same criteria as his music’, ‘exploring sound, silence and structure and the act of delivering the lecture—the how not the why’, comes under the umbrella title of Silence.

Hardly anyone walks out—this is a slice of performance art history—though I had to restrain my companion, a Central St Martin’s Fine Art graduate, trained in conceptual art, from leaving within the first few minutes of unbearable tinnitus-inducing alarm bell sounds. Ears ringing, silence and words are a welcome relief.

Cage’s autobiographical musings, Beckettian, Dadaesque, Socratic even, are intoned by Wilson, all in white, his hand slowing caressing the pile of white pages before him as if a piece of sacred Braille. A mysterious man in a dark suit and cap looks down on him from on high with binoculars.

Ankle-deep in scrunched newspapers on a monochrome stage, under hanging banners of text, a pristine white bed to one side, the lighting modulating from bright to dark, Wilson moves as in a dream. His hand lifts—in benediction—no, to reach a glass of water. The suspense is killing.

‘I am here and there is nothing to say’, his opening words. ‘Silence requires that I go on talking.’ ‘I have nothing to say and I am saying it.’ ‘This is a composed talk for I am making it as I make a piece of music.’ ‘As we go along (who knows?) an idea may occur in this talk.’

A New Yorker likes Kansas, he says—is Cage the Wizard of Oz? Has anyone dared pull back the curtain? He likes Grieg and Bach but not Brahms, the beauty of sound—noise, sirens, birds, modern music and intervals—‘I used noises that had not been intellectualized’.

But this is intellectualization. He talks of structure and form, content, continuity and memory, and limitations. Cage’s preface to the printed version (in Incontri Musicali, August 1959) explains what seems to me its pianola roll formatting:

‘There are four measures in each line and twelve lines in each unit of the rhythmic structure. There are forty-eight such units, each having forty-eight measures. The whole is divided into five large parts, in the proportion 7, 6, 14, 14, 7. The forty-eight measures of each unit are likewise so divided. The text is printed in four columns to facilitate a rhythmic reading. Each line is to be read across the page from left to right, not down the columns in sequence. This should not be done in an artificial manner (which might result from an attempt to be too strictly faithful to the position of the words on the page), but with the rubato which one uses in everyday speech.’

Rambling thoughts, witty, droll, weave back and forth, tie knots, cast off, and start all over again. ‘Might we like to be somewhere else?’ The stream of words continues in John Cage's own, dare I say Stephen Hawkinsesque, voiceover as Wilson sleeps.

Ambient sound (music by Arno Kraehahn), water flowing, machinery whirring, rattlesnake rattle, frogs croaking, Wilson’s voice rises—dictatorial. My neighbour to the left coughs incessantly. Incidental noise… Silence, a bleeping sound—‘noises are tones, corn or wheat does it matter which?’ How to fool the mind with modern music is a Cagean concept.

An audacious and confident assault on the senses, concentration wavers, but that’s fine too. We’re given permission to sleep. ‘If anybody is sleepy, let him go to sleep’. As with Einstein on the Beach, this ‘happening’ permits wandering. ‘If we are irritated it is not a pleasure. Nothing is not a pleasure if one is irritated, but suddenly it is a pleasure…’

The freedom to break the rules, to go one’s own way... A video portrait of Russian Futurist poet Mayakovsky (video artist Tomek Jeziorski) appears—ah, is that who the Kraftwerk man with binoculars represents?

I hear the sound poetry of Daniil Kharms, Soviet surrealist and absurdist poet, writer and dramatist, part of sound poet Aleksandr Tufanov’s circle, a follower of Velemir Khlebnikov’s ideas on zaum (beyond the mind) poetry, and a member of the OBERIU avant-garde collective. My artist companion references Bruce Nauman’s work, part of the 1960s Process Art Movement. And Duchamp, of course.

Reviewer: Vera Liber