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Playing: Concert in D major for violin, piano and string quartet (Op.21) (1891) by Ernest Chausson

How to capture a Musicircus

Saturday 18 August 2012, 17:57

Peter Meanwell Peter Meanwell Producer, Radio 3

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(Above and below) Musicircus performers at the London Coliseum

(Above and below) Musicircus performers at the London Coliseum

American composer John Cage's Musicircus, a musical happening first realised in 1967 'for any number of musicians, being prepared to perform in the same place', is rooted in his idea that 'many musics may be heard at one and the same time'. Which sounds like chaos, yet, as ever with Cage, it is less a chaotic shambles than an extremely disciplined action that opens the door to wholly unexpected results.

For the English National Opera Musicircus in March this year, with over 200 performers strewn across the four floors of the Coliseum in London, the combined result was a feast for the senses, sounds streaming in from every angle: around corners, behind closed doors, down stairwells and even in the ladies toilet. Each of the performers, be they hand-bell ringers, violinists, or even John Paul Jones from Led Zeppelin, followed chance-derived timing sheets that dictated when they should play, and when they should be silent. With each sheet being an independently generated set of timings, as a listener you experience the interplay of different musicians stopping, starting, overlapping, creating waves of concurrent musical sounds or silences.

Part of the appeal of a Musicircus is the anarchic nature of a building full of people, a musical carnival, apparently inspired by the composer's 1931 visit to Seville where he experienced a wild mix of different musicians all on the same street corner. So the idea of recording a Musicircus, creating a fixed version of an event, in which by design anything could happen, is fraught with difficulties. Not least because with 200 performers who may or may not be playing at any one time scattered around a vast Edwardian theatre, you need to have a microphone on everything; and that is a lot of microphones. It is also crucial to be faithful to the idea of the Musicircus, and present the meandering of an interested listener wandering at will through the forest of sounds that make up the piece, open to all. Once you start to make decisions about the relative merits of one sound over the other, what may or may not be more interesting, you start to stray from a Cageian ideal of a 'multiplicity of rights'.

Musicircus performer at ENO

Step forward Mr James Birtwistle, who with his crack team of sound engineers, seemingly half the BBC stock of microphones and a lot of cabling, on 50 time-coded channels managed to record the entire event. Every squeak, parp, declamation or silence was recorded, an almighty collective musical statement painstakingly captured. But this was not the whole picture, as for each visitor to the Musicircus the experience of what they heard at any given moment would be different. So James took it upon himself to wander the building with a stereo microphone, to create a narrative that took in the serendipitous tuttis, the silences, and the muttering of his fellow audience members. Once we'd returned to Broadcasting House, the next job was to mix the multitrack recording with James' stereo wanderings in order to create a radio version that matched the experience of being there. What a stereo microphone records doesn't take into account the brain's ability to focus on a particular instrument that you may happen to be looking at, so we were able to embellish the stereo mix with the direct feeds of sounds James had been looking at, all the time wary to preserve the linear integrity of the recording, all the sounds and silences, and to add nothing to the mix that couldn't be heard at that moment in time and space.

What resulted is a remarkable piece of music, a 37 minute journey from the top of the building to the bottom, taking in all the different areas, all the different performers, but with no knowledge of who would play when, or what or how. The temple bowls mixed with the violin and the lecture on mycology, the analogue electronics versus the autoharp, the two choirs singing against each other: the moments of musical overlap, creating freshly minted musical worlds, could not have been planned or composed, but by the rigorous application of chance processes. It's only one person's perspective on this mind-boggling event of course, and we make no claims to have pinned down the anarchic beast which is a Musicircus, but I hope you enjoy Cage's riotous vision of a new musical world.

As well as full mixed and multi-tracked radio recording, we sent our colleague Louise off with a pair of binaural microphones attached to her ears, for the full immersive experience - here's what Louise heard.

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