Musicircus plays host to multitude of musicians

Composer John Cage’s democratic concept put to the test at The Polygon Gallery

Polygon Gallery in collaboration with Blueridge Chamber Music Society will be staging a performance of Musicircus, Jan. 13, 1-4 p.m. Admission by donation.

Visitors to the Polygon Gallery will be choosing their own sound adventure while inadvertently composing music on Sunday.

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Gallery guests will be immersed in a “Musicircus.” Picture this: As many musicians as possible packing the Polygon, invited to perform anything they want – all at the same time. An open call has been put out to the community.

Singing, spoken word, and musical notes projecting from formal and makeshift instruments is expected to consume the multi-story building. The exhibition merges amateur and professional musicians, stationed in every corner of the gallery, from the gift shop to the balcony, even the staircase.

While that might sound like musical chaos, there’s an underlying art unleashed in the process. This is the genius of avant-garde composer John Cage who conceived Musicircus in 1967.

Cage included no score or instrumentation – nothing is prescribed except the concept. He invites an infinite number of musicians to play any composition they want, simultaneously.

Blueridge Chamber Music Festival co-director Dory Hayley can’t wait for the outcome on Sunday.

“It should be quite lively and interesting,” says Hayley who has been working with the Polygon for this staging of Musicircus.

Hayley had been talking about another project with curator Helga Pakasaar who, as an aside, said: ‘While I’ve got you on the phone, ‘What do you know about John Cage?’

An enthusiastic performer of contemporary music, Hayley was of course acquainted with the legendary composer’s work. In fact, six years ago the Blueridge Chamber Music Festival celebrated the 100th anniversary of Cage’s birth with a concert of his work.

The Blueridge audience didn’t know what to expect, explains Hayley, but found Cage’s merging of the sound world and the thought world easy to digest.

“I really hope that’s what people find on Sunday,” says Hayley.

In disallowing a dominant focal point in an atmosphere of controlled chaos, Cage creates a democratic, inclusive piece of music that mirrors the amiably anarchic society he envisioned. Changing relationships between things thereby creating unintended consequences is at the core of Cage’s musical contributions.

“By having all these performers doing their thing in a crowd, he believed that music would emerge and ideas would emerge that could not be created by any one person,” explains Hayley.

In changing the relationship between the performers and the audience, Cage allows people to consume music in a different way. His theory will be put to the test at the Polygon during Musicircus.

“Listeners participate in the creation of the composition by moving around the venue – in this case, every single available space in the Polygon Gallery – thus changing the kaleidoscope of sounds they encounter,” says Hayley. “As Cage promised, ‘You won’t hear anything: you’ll hear everything.’”

Cage’s most notable compositions, performed by a core group of musicians, will serve as the heart of Musicircus. Audiences will hear the meditative “Litany for the Whale,” the haunting “Four6,” the whimsical “Suite for Toy Piano,” and the famous “4’33’’ (the score calls for four and a half minutes of silence) presented by musicians Mark McGregor, Martin Fisk, Melanie Adams, Alejandro Ochoa and Hayley.

The afternoon also includes a rare chance, says Hayley, for the curious to hear Cage’s monumental work “Sonatas and Interludes,” showcased by UBC pianist and professor Corey Hamm on a prepared piano.

Don’t try what you hear on Sunday at home, cautions Hayley with a laugh, referring to the prepared piano – another Cage invention.

Cage experimented under the piano lid with a variety of objects including screws and bolts, along with rubber and plastic items. He later composed “incredibly specific” instructions on how to place the objects on the piano strings.

“He discovered if you put things inside the piano, it sounded different,” explains Hayley.

In addition to Cage’s compositions, Musicircus at the Polygon will also include a “boisterous mashup of music” ranging from jazz to classical to world music, performed by groups including the North Shore Chamber Orchestra, Vancouver Cantonese Opera, Lions Gate Youth Orchestra and the North Shore Celtic Ensemble.

Musicircus at the Polygon deliberately coincides with the final day of the Hannah Rickards’ installation, One can make out the surface only by placing any dark-coloured object on the ground.

As curator of this exhibition, Pakasaar sees similarities between Cage and Rickards’ artistic explorations, especially in how she uses sound in her video installation, as well as the role of chance in relation to structure through performance and gesture.

“Hannah is a true Cagean in how she works with the intersections of time, chance, and composition,” says Pakasaar.

It’s no coincidence that Cage’s ideology comes through in Rickards’ installation, according to the interdisciplinary artist herself.

“My work and thinking has been informed strongly by musical structures, and the works of particular 20th century composers, most specifically John Cage,” explains Rickards.

Musicircus and its ensuing beautiful chaos will be a fitting send-off for Rickards’ run at the Polygon.

“The possibility of the overlaps and slippages between pieces, and a distribution across both time and space will hopefully be an energetic end to the show,” she says.


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