November 2–3
Studio, Sydney Opera House

Bang On A Can has had the blessing of John Cage, their idol and the patriarch of contemporary classical music, ever since he showed up to their first concert 25 years ago. The New York ensemble commissioned or programmed at least one work from him annually until his death in 1992, and his music and philosophy remains a cornerstone of their practice. So it’s fitting that they took charge of the Sydney Opera House’s sprawling two-day festival celebrating John Cage’s centenary year, tracing the lineage from the iconoclast’s own creations to the younger generations inspired by him – and not just in the rarefied classical realm. 

The Bang On A Can All-Stars sextet opened proceedings with an introduction to one of Cage’s fundamental guiding principles music determined by chance, combining his Indeterminacy (1959) with Variations II (1961). With the whimsy of the transistor radio gently piping away and occasionally switching channels onstage, each performer contributed random instrumental noises and intoned fragments of Cage’s writings, from meticulously argued logic, excerpts from lectures and charming personal anecdotes ­– the range of which belies Cage’s most famous quote, “I have nothing to say and I am saying it.” 

Out of context and stated simultaneously as tangled strands of words, listeners could simply let these vignettes wash over them as a stream-of-consciousness wave, or get drawn tantalisingly into one particularly intriguing spoken passage before it faded into another, unrelated story. If this all went on for too long, usefully, percussionist David Cossin bashed a bass drum once or twice, snapping us out of our reverie. By contrast, the second half of this concert consisted of short, punchy and highly charged music by three self-styled descendants of Cage, Bang On A Can founders David Lang, Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe. 

In the second concert, pianist Vicky Chow demonstrated Cage’s seminal innovation, transforming her Steinway into her own exotic percussion orchestra by lodging nuts, bolts and other household objects on or between the strings. Her intimate performance of the first bracket of Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano with such delicacy and playfulness that I wished we could have heard the complete set, instead of Cossin and double bassist Robert Black’s short, unremarkable Improvisations. 

The prepared piano’s muted, meditative textures provided the ideal lead-in for Bang On A Can’s signature arrangement of experimental rocker Brian Eno’s ambient electronic classic Music For Airports, an extension of John Cage and Erik Satie’s concept of “furniture” music. Belying the calming effect the work was designed to create, there’s something subversive about performing 40 minutes of background music to a seated, paying audience (though we were encouraged to relax, get up and stretch or duck to the bathroom as required), and still more subversive to play music intended to be computer-generated with the passion and expressivity summoned, in particular, by cellist Ashley Bathgate. 

Of course, the closing concert had to have Cage’s most famous and controversial work, the so-called silent 4’33’’, illuminated by musicologist Lyle Chan’s probing lecture earlier that day. For sitting demurely with hands in laps, eyes glued to the music stands as we contemplated the hum of the air conditioner, Bang On A Can received the most enthusiastic applause of the entire festival.

As a foil to this piece of nothing, they saved their punchiest, most energetic works for last. Louis Andriessen’s Workers Union required tight ensemble for its relentlessly driven unison rhythms, building up to a riveting climaxes. Bang On A Can played it with a breathtaking mix of unwavering discipline and full pelt, reckless abandon. They should have ended the program with that: Terry Riley’s pioneering minimalist masterpiece In C, fleshed out by Sydney’s Ensemble Offspring, just didn’t sustain interest, energy or precision as a 70-minute finale. 

Outside in the studio foyer, Musicircus — Cage’s vision of an informal, diverse music “happening” — took shape as performers (including members of Bang On A Can) spread out with toy pianos, invented instruments, a hula hoop (my own contribution) and even a quartet eking out notes in response to electronically stimulated involuntary muscular movements. Cage would have approved of this celebration of what he called “purposeless play” in the name of exploring sound.