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.