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16 February 2012

Radio Music - Impossible Beyond 2017?

In September 2012, Peter Urpeth will lead a concert at An Lanntair, Stornoway, to mark the centenary of the birth of John Cage (Sept. 5, 1912) and the 20th anniversary of his death (Aug. 12, 1992).

The program will include a performance of Cage's Radio Music (1956), a piece that is to be performed as a solo or ensemble for 1 to 8 performers, each at one radio. Also on the program will be Cage's Music for Piano 26-36 & 37-52 (1955), Music for Piano 69-84 (1960), 4'33" (1952), and Imaginary Landscape No. 5 (1952) all receiving their first performances in the Outer Hebrides.

In a recent blog, Peter Urpeth also spoke a bit about Cage's Radio Music as being a kind of endangered species in the UK:

"The poignancy of Radio Music is not simply in the fact that it celebrates the life and work of one of the most influential -- and to my mind interesting -- of musicians, but also because with the looming switch-off of the analogue radio signal in favour of the DAB type digital signal, it will be impossible to perform Cage's large oeuvre for radio (which includes Radio Music [1955] and Imaginary Landscape No. 4 [1951]) in the UK when the analogue signal is turned off for good in 2017.

Cage's Radio Music requires multiple, precise retunings of each radio during the performance according to a set list of frequencies (with some periods of silence), which do not change according to the geographical location of each specific performance and which therefore enables chance and random soundings to occur. In the Outer Hebrides we have access to very few radio stations even on the analogue signal, so a great deal of the performance here will consist of the white noise blur of the FM/AM radio spectrum. The simple fact is that the sequence of retunings cannot be achieved on the DB digital system. With digital radio you have all the available channels or none, and you cannot select an individual frequency to listen to if it is not part of a digital package.

A kind of performance could be achieved with different frequencies on the civil scanning systems of transport, emergency service, and CB radio signals, but the chance flirtations with popular music and speech radio in Cage's original will no longer be available.

It is my hunch that Cage might not have objected to this threat to his music, other than in the loss of a major domestic source of random noise. Digital is bringing us closer to silence, but a sterile kind of featureless silence. I'd go further and say that just as in Freud death is the real state of being and life a false interlude, so in Cage's music, noise longs for silence, and slowly Cage's music is returning to silence.

So, whilst it would be a beautiful act of futility to ask David Cameron to ensure the continuation of the analogue signal beyond 2017 for the sole purpose of enabling performances of Cage's music or as a resource for experimental musicians I think the gradual drift to silence of these pieces should be embraced."


Urpeth is inviting others to join him next September in Stornoway for a celebration of Cage's work, and especially Radio Music, which he sees as "a threatened form of noise and music."

He has no money to pay anyone, but he guarantees a great time (and perhaps accommodations). You can signal your interest by leaving your email in the comment box at his blog (link above). If there are more than eight who express interest, he will consider programming Cage's Imaginary Landscape No. 4 (March No. 2) (1951) for 12 radio performers as well.

Laura Kuhn