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Cheap Lecture (2009, 30 minutes)


Created and performed by Jonathan Burrows and Matteo Fargion.


Cheap Lecture is a translation of the composer John Cage's Lecture On Nothing, written in 1949. Lecture On Nothing is a talk on composition which uses the same principles that Cage used for writing his music, particularly the kind of micro-macrocosmic structure which Cage used for many pieces and performances throughout his life.


The micro-macrocosmic structure of Lecture On Nothing is built up of smaller units of 7, 6, 14, 14 and 7, and these are then repeated 7, 6, 14, 14 and 7 times so that the larger shape reflects the smaller shape.


Cheap Lecture follows this micro-macrocosmic structure, replacing Cage's words with new words and adding a layer of piano music, most of which is drawn from Schubert. The words and music are counterpointed throughout the performance by 139 projected words and phrases.


In the score that you see here, the shape of the text is a visual image of the rhythm of the words when spoken, and each line represents a beat. The gaps between printed words suggest the flow or hesitation in our speaking, and an asterisk is a counted pause.


The unusual layout of the text is the product of a pleasurable negotiation with the given form, which causes us to speak fast or slow in the wrong places and place emphasis on the wrong syllables. When it works, this wrongness makes you prick up your ears just when your ears had felt like giving up.


At the premiere of Cheap Lecture in Massmechelen Belgium, Matteo played a fortepiano built by Nanette Streicher (1769-1833), which instrument had been played by Schubert himself. As we reflected in a later talk, we hardly dared touch the keys, but the idea of the piano made the performance sing.


© Burrows&Fargion 2023


Cheap Lecture was commissioned by Cultureel Centrum Maasmechelen and Dans in Limburg, 2009.


John Cage, 'Lecture On Nothing', from 'Silence', Marion Boyars Publishers Ltd, (1961) 1995, p.109.

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