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Radio review: Writing’s on the Wall, and Sunday Feature: John Cage, Zen and Japan

17 July 2020


Rafael Nadal lines up his water bottles during a Wimbledon match in 2018. In Writing’s on the Wall (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week), the sports psychologist Martin Perry explored this and other rituals undertaken by elite athletes

Rafael Nadal lines up his water bottles during a Wimbledon match in 2018. In Writing’s on the Wall (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week), the sports psychol...

SOME rely on a lucky shirt or boots; others won’t change their socks while they are on a win­ning streak; and the most famously superstitious of them all will insist that his water-bottles be aligned in perfect order. In Writing’s on the Wall (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week), the sports psychologist Martin Perry explored the rituals under­taken by elite ath­letes in pursuit of the flawless per­form­ance. This is how they achieve equanimity, we are told. Or, others might argue, this is the way to wind up your opponent.

Rafael Nadal is notorious, obses­sively bouncing the ball before each serve and spending inordinate amounts of time arranging his kit. But, as the competitors interviewed here at the Grand Prix indoor athlet­ics event in Glasgow revealed, this is pretty much a universal phe­nom­enon.

And lucky charms are transfer­able: the Spurs striker Clive Allen told of how the Argentinian legend Diego Maradona re­­quested to bor­row the lucky boots that had earned Allen the club goal-scoring record.

That Perry happily talked of ritual and superstition as if they were synonymous prompts an interesting question about the interdependence of the two. Nadal’s ball-bouncing may have originated in practical ne­ces­sity, developed into a mind-sharpening ritual, and finally taken on a metaphysical significance. Solv­ing the question where one stops and the other starts, in the words of Philip Larkin, “Brings the priest and the doctor In their long coats Run­ning over the fields.”

Priest and doctor might equally be attracted by the challenges posed by the music of John Cage. In Sunday Feature: John Cage, Zen and Japan (Radio 3, Sunday), Robert Worby traced the origins of Cage’s notori­ous 4'33", consisting entirely of silence. Or, to be more specific, con­sisting of no pre-determined sound. To demonstrate the impor­tance of this clarification, we heard how 4'33" might have sounded in Cage’s apart­ment: a cacophony of traffic, sirens, and people.

Indeed, “the high priest of silence” doesn’t seem to have believed in silence at all. His visit to an anechoic chamber in Harvard — at that time thought to be the quietest place on earth — made him aware of the noises that one’s body makes when all external stimuli are removed.

Silence, for Cage, was a means by which random sound could be truly liberated from organised composi­tion, and, by implication, music lib­er­ated from the ego of the com­poser.

It was a revelation to hear that made little impact when first per­­formed by David Tudor in 1952, to an audience primarily of New York Philharmonic subscribers on vaca­tion. Only in the 1960s did Cage’s admirers — and Cage himself — identify the work as the essential first movement in a process of mu­­sical (de-)composition which en­­tailed far greater outrages against received musical wisdom than this period of silence.

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