Apartment House and Philip Thomas perform John Cage’s Concert for Piano and Orchestra

The performance on this film involved little rehearsal for the full ensemble, as is probably typical of most performances: because the Concert is a collection of solos, putting it together for performance tends to be a matter of checking balance of sound, ensuring everyone is familiar with the conductor’s movements, and general discussion. Most of the players were familiar with the Concert from earlier performances, either with Apartment House (who have played it on numerous occasions with varying line-ups) or other ensembles.

This is not to say that the performance is under-rehearsed or improvised: it is the culmination of a prolonged engagement with the music over the year prior to the performance (and longer for those who had played it before). Each musician met with members of the research team for an hour or longer at some point during the year to discuss their Solo, the techniques and possible approaches to the music (the exception being a number of the string players, who met as a group with the research team for a thoughtful and lively discussion of the music). In the weeks leading up to the performance a number of additional e-mail, telephone and Skype discussions were held with a number of the musicians. These discussions were primarily to enable the research team to gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of the instrumental techniques involved, but the musicians also benefited from the opportunity to discuss their solos in detail.

The research team, as well as the conductor Jack Sheen and ensemble director Anton Lukoszevieze, were keen not to stipulate the individual approaches a musician should take to their interpretations. The one decision that was made in advance was taken by Philip Thomas, the pianist, who had made a realisation of the Solo for Piano for the performance with a duration of 53 minutes: this was taken to be the total length of the performance as a whole. This duration happens to coincide exactly with the total duration of all but the last two rows of the conductor’s part, which consequently equates to 39 minutes of effective time, (see the conductor’s part). All musicians were instructed to construct (or plan in some way for) a realisation totalling 39 rotations of the conductor’s arms. No further direction was given as to how they were to achieve this. As the film about preparing a part demonstrates, players made different decisions one from another, ranging from playing all the pages in order, to some of the pages in random order, to just one page for the entire duration (the choice of Jonathan Heilbron, double bass).

The musicians were spread across the performance area as spaced apart as possible while allowing for clear view of the conductor. A later performance in London allowed for a 360-degree spatial arrangement with the conductor in the centre of the hall and musicians around and above the audience. The viewer will notice that the performance includes a saxophone player and bassoon player, instead of a single player playing both instruments, as the part implies. Finding a sympathetic player confident on both instruments as well as with the techniques and notations involved is not an easy task. We were lucky to be able to engage Christian Forshaw, a player with just these capabilities (and more!) to play for this performance (and the recording made later the same day). We were unlucky, however, to learn that the day before the concert Christian had an accident resulting in his being unable to play for the concert. We were extremely grateful to Iain Harrison and Isabel Dowell for stepping in at the last minute.