Duck and crystal

Just to remind myself that there are at least two ways of doing things, here are a couple of clips I came across some time ago, both of outstanding performances.

The first one is Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli playing Domenico Scarlatti’s Sonata in B Minor K 27 in 1949. What this feels like to me is approaching a crystal lying at the centre of the universe. Everything is under complete control: the piano, his hands, his face, his feet, the turn-ups on his trousers and every single hair on his head. It is so perfect that if any flaw had developed anywhere in the crystal, if someone for example were to have crept in and untied one of his shoe-laces, perhaps everything would have shattered, leaving a pile of tiny splinters and his moustache.

The other performance is also outstanding, but could hardly be more different in attitude. This is John Cage performing a piece of his called Water Walk on a US quiz show in 1960. The piece, at least in this performance, might more appropriately have been called Water of a Duck’s Back, because nothing that happens seems to perturb Cage at all. He was supposed to turn on five radios at certain points in the performance but is prevented from doing so because of a dispute between two unions so no one could agree who was responsible for plugging them in. Never mind, he says, I’ll bang on them instead. The presenter thinks he is ridiculous, the audience thinks it is ridiculous, but he never loses his smile. (Once I travelled on a train which had been prepared by Cage. It was supposed to play his music together with an amplification of the noise the train was making. After about twenty minutes of bewilderment on the part of the passengers, someone told us that there was a problem and that Cage’s music wouldn’t be audible. So we ended up taking a two hour amplified train journey. But I saw him on the platform at the end and he had the same smile he has in the clip.)

You could try and perfect the performance by turning on radios yourselves at the points indicated (when he bangs them).


If you would like to see the first part of the film of Benedetti MIchelangeli performing here is a link to it. (Go to 02.40 if you want to skip the introduction). And here is another beautiful version of the B minor sonata by Emil Gilels, so different that it seems another piece of music.

Just as I was finishing I noticed that the New Yorker’s music critic Alex Ross had put up a whole page of clips and comments on Cage here. 

Ross mentions that Cage was on an Italian game show as well. What he doesn’t say is that he was on (in 1958) not just as a performer but as a competitor and won a lot of money answering questions on mushrooms. If you can understand Italian here is an account.

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