Monday, 19 July 2010


Spent today in Newcastle - my daughter, Emily, had spent Saturday with us, so I drove up to take her home and, wanting to kill two birds with one stone, visit the Baltic art gallery.

I've not been to the Baltic for a while, but I've been itching to ever since I saw that an exhibition of John Cage's work was on there. I hadn't read the information on the exhibition very closely and so it was really great to discover that a realisation of Cage's audio-visual work, HPSCHD, was being continually played in one of the rooms. It's difficult to describe it. All I can say is that I could have stayed in that room all day. Me and HPSCHD go back a long way. I remember it being played at the Proms in the 70s and lying awake in bed as a teenager, in the dark, listening to it on the radio. HPSCHD is written for upto seven harpsichords, upto 52 tapes of computer generated sound, upto 64 slide projectors and upto 40 motion films. The audience is free to wander in and out of what you can imagine is an astonishing enviroment. The version being realised at the Baltic relies on recorded sound and is scaled down somewhat, but it still comes across as an the engaging piece it undoubtedly is. (HPSCHD, by the way, is pronounced "Harpsichord").

The bulk of Cage's music was composed using chance techniques - most famously, using the I Ching to determine pitches, durations, and so on. One thing I find really interesting about his pieces is that they somehow manage to sound like music by John Cage. There is the ghost of a detectable style about his music. I find his use of chance liberating: you're free to enjoy what is happening at any given moment simply for what it is. There's no agenda. It doesn't begin and end - it starts and stops. It doesn't develop - it simply changes, or not, as the case may be.

There are several other exhibitions on as well as the Cage. There's a room full of art inspired by John Cage, which includes an installation by the local artist Richard Rigg. Two bells are sealed in two seperate glass jars. A machine varies the air pressure in the jars. Sometimes the bells are suspended in a vacuum, at other times they're suspended in air. A mechanism in each jar periodically causes a hammer to strike the bell. Sometimes the bells are struck silently as there is no air in the jar to carry the sound waves, while at other times there is air and the bells can be heard. Cage, I think would have thought it was wonderful.

In another part of the gallery, Tomas Saraceno has created what I thought was a fantastic installation which was not only based on spider webs and astrophysics, but which looks as if it was (the link includes a picture)! As well as the obvious resemblance to a spider's web, the work also reminded me of models I've seen of the known universe which chart the layout of clouds of galaxies. It touches the unsayable.


e said...

It sounds like a wonderful day all round. I'll check youtube to see if I can find John Cage.

Wishing you a good week!

Dominic Rivron said...

And a good week to you, too!

Some of HPSCHD is on Youtube. Unfortunately the visuals are a bit limited, to say the least. You don't get an idea of it's fantastic variety. There is a lot of other John Cage stuff there, too, though.

George said...

Sounds fascinating, Dominic. I only wish I could visit the Baltic Gallery and see for myself. Maybe this exhibit will make it to the U.S.

Poet in Residence said...

Hello Dominic, after reading this post I'm looking forward with even greater curiosity to your next audio poem. You must be overflowing with ideas!
best wishes, gwilym

Niamh B said...

sounds brilliant, thanks for bringing us there

jinksy said...

Spiders web? Looks like a few of my balls of knitting wool when they've become inextricably entangled ! LOL :)

AquaMarina said...

sounds fantastic, thanks for the review, you've inspired me to go when we're in the NE over the summer - the Baltic is great isn't it, (we always have several rides on the elevators...)

Dominic Rivron said...

George: I doubt it will - but I always imagine there more Cage kicking around in the States than over here. (I might be wrong - people are often "big" in countries other than the one they come from. Norman Wisdom is big in Russia, apparently).

PiR: I've got my thinking cap on.

Niamh B: Thanks for that.

jinksy: Perhaps deep in the subatomic particles of your wool there's a planet orbitting a sun with little people on it like us, writing blogs... :)

Aquamarina: Cage ends September 5th. Every Day is a Good Day...

Great lifts, aren't they? Yesterday we were lucky - we actually saw the Millennium Bridge raised to left a boat through.

The Weaver of Grass said...

Glad you caught Baltic on a good day - sounds as though the exhibitions were right up your street.