Radio Music – Impossible Beyond 2017

In September 2012 I will be giving /leading a concert at An Lanntair, Stornoway, to mark the centenary celebrations of the birth of John Cage (September 1912) and indeed, the twentieth anniversary of his death (in August 1992). The programme will include a performance of Cage’s Radio Music (part of which is pictured) which, as the set of parts states is: ‘a piece to be performed as a solo or ensemble for 1 to 8 performers, each at one radio’. Other works I’m performing in the programme include Cage’s Music For Piano 26-36 & 37-52 (1955); Music For Piano 69-84 (1960);  4’33” (1952) & Imaginary Landscape 5 (for 42 random records and tape – more on this in next blog), and all of which, as far as I can tell, will be getting their first performances in the Outer Hebrides.

The poignancy of this performance 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 (1956), Speech (1955) and Imaginary Landscape 4 (1951)) in the UK when the analogue signal 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 DAB 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.

Why not join me in Stornoway in September for a celebration of a threatened form of noise and music, and a celebration of Cage’s work?

If you are interested in being one of the 8 radio musicians in September, I’m sorry but I’ve no money to pay anyone, but you’re very welcome to commit to playing a part, I guarantee a great time on Lewis and I’m sure some accommodation could be arranged. let me know if you want to take part by leaving your e-mail in a comment below, and come and join us in the rehearsals. Full details to follow.

If there is more than 8 wishing to participate I might also programme Cage’s Imaginary Landscape 4 (march 2) for twelve radio performers.


8 thoughts on “Radio Music – Impossible Beyond 2017

  1. hi Peter,
    My name is Cat and i am from a group called Decibel in Western Australia. We have done Radio music before here in perth – and will be in Slovenia in September so are keen to take part in your project if you’ll have us! There are four of us coming!
    Artistic Director, Decibel.

  2. Not sure whether I’d be able to take part, but I’d like to be there, if I can. Perhaps you could let me know when it will happen. A visit to Stornaway is long overdue – haven’t been since the arts centre was relocated. If I can get there for the big day, I can arrange my own accommodation. All the best
    Richard Leigh

  3. Dear Mr. Urpeth, I am very interested in participating in your John Cage event. I have performed “Radio Music” and “Imaginary Landscape No.4” on numerous occasions, and I have recently finished a studio recording of “Radio Music” for stereo and 5.0 surround sound for a radio art festival here in the USA. I also use the work with my university students. I look forward to hearing from you.

    Kindest regards, Ron

    Senior Lecturer
    Percussion, Improvisation, and Jazz
    Southern Illinois University Carbondale

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