John Cage : Scottish Circus

This concerns the work Scottish Circus by the celebrated American composer John Cage. It provides background information to the piece and documentary and archival material relating to its public performances. It also offers information supporting a project to realise the first commercial recording of the work involving the musicians that performed at its premiere.

Scottish Circus was commissioned by Eddie McGuire and the Scottish traditional music ensemble the Whistlebinkies and was premiered in Glasgow in 1990. Since that date there have been only a small number of ‘official’ performances.


The background to the piece is explained in detail in this paper by Eddie McGuire

August 1984 The Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh

Scottish Circus had its origins in a party to mark the birthday of John Cage held at the  Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh, in 1984 where an exhibition of the composer’s art was on show;.

Murdo Macdonald wrote of the exhibition in The Festival Times (no. 3 23-28 August 1984: 34):

Many of us remember with pleasure John Cage’s collaboration with Merce Cunningham’s dance group in the 1979 Festival. It’s good to have the opportunity this year to see his Prints, Drawings and Books at the Fruitmarket Gallery. Cage works on the boundaries of our ways of thinking. His works point to new perceptions, they avoid confirming old ones. He uses chance, change and stillness to open up these new views. This is equally true of, for example, music to be made during a dance performance or in the shifting imagery of these etchings and drawings. His thinking is rooted in the New England of the last century and his work has the transcendental straightforwardness of the music of Ives or the writing of Thoreau, whose texts he makes considerable use of. Another important influence is the Chinese book of changes, the I Ching, which elaborates the human condition as a nature dependent continuum of changes taking place in the context of a stable cyclical system. John Cage’s art reflects this: improvisation implies structure.

John Fowler of The Glasgow Herald (‘Free and easy’, 4 September 1984) reported on the event:

The American composer and artist John Cage , a quiet 72-year old with a birdlike face and a childlike smile, turned a party given in his honour in Edinburgh on Sunday night into a musical happening of an impromptu kind, with a little help from the Scottish traditional group, Whistlebinkies.

A reception had been arranged at the Fruitmarket gallery where an exhibition of Cage;s spidery graphics remains on show after the festival – by the gallery director Mark Francis. Francis contacted Edward McGuire of the Whistlebinkies, an admirer of Cage’s avant-garde work, to provide some entertainment.

At this point Cage took over. On meeting McGuire, who is a composer of serious – for lack of a better term – music as well as playing the flute and composing in the traditional style for the Whistlebinkies, he called for a meeting with the other five members of the group. They were then put through their paces in a series of individual conversations-cum-auditions.

At the party Cage posted McGuire and his fellow players of fiddle, lowland pipes, concertina, clarsach and bodhran (hand drum) at fa-flung corners of the gallery, seething by this time with a large gathering, including Hamish Henderson of the School of Scottish Studies, the poets Liz Lochhead and William Montgomery, and numerous artists and musicians from both classical and folk disciplines.

It was then left to each of the Whistlebinkies to do his or her own thing, playing whatever they felt like whenever they felt like it. Some discordances and some happy felicities resulted. “We got some very surprising results,” says McGuire. Now and again it would sound chaotic, at other times- as when Judith Peacock was suddenly left singing Gaelic alone in a small pool of silence – the effect was hauntingly beautiful.

Hamish Henderson said he’d heard nothing like it since wandering into a pub in the Highlands at one of the early folk festivals in the ‘sixties and hearing the mingling of several fiddlers playing different tunes in the hubbub.

Before and after this random interval the Whistlebinkies made music of a more orthodox kind, though with a subtle difference. “It had an added impact when we played our own music afterwards,” McGuire said.

Cage, once a student of Schoenberg, is noted for the introduction of chance elements into his composition. He has also for long been interested in ethnic music, which accounts for his rapport with the Whistlebinkies. Next time they meet, he suggested they should try out the same experiment in an American gallery.

At the time of the exhibition John Cage was interviewed by Eddie McGuire and Stephen Arnold. A transcript of the interview was published in Cencrastus (‘John Cage in Conversation’, No 21, Summer 1985: 5-9).



Photographs by Sean Hudson.

September 1990 Musica Nova, Glasgow

An interview with John Cage by Steve Sweeney Turner during the festival was published in Tempo (‘John Cage and the Glaswegian Circus’, No 177, June 1991: 2-8).

29 November 1992 Van Gough Museum, Amsterdam

This performance was recorded by National VPRO Radio for broadcast but the tapes have not yet been located.

The concert was reviewed by Mary Miller in The Scotsman on 2 December 1992:

Sunday morning, the museum is packed… No-one, one suspects, knows quite what to expect… The silence warmed to rapt attention, for McGuire’s marvellous 1982 String Quartet [played by The Utrecht Quartet]: two outer movements of wriggling, vital fast moving pattern and exploration enclosing a vast, still Largo, where the high violin and creeping bass line seem to climb inexorably together. One listened, hypnotised by the sound.

And wide-eyed, ears straining, we remained, as more haunting phrases crept from all around – from the upper galleries, from distant rooms and hidden corners. John Cage’s Scottish Circus, he devised for the Whistlebinkies, an improvisation of incredible beauty and delicacy. Upstairs, hanging in sombre splendour, Alexander Reid stares from his ornate frame, out over the work of his friend Van Gough. There’s a Hornel on one wall, Van Gough’s peasants on another. None of this seems strange. It is, after all, art, and music, in context.

May 2007 Inverleith House, Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh

This event formed part of the formal opening of the exhibition No Fixed Points – Drawings by John Cage and Merce Cunningham that ran from 1 May until 8 July. The piece was played by the musicians situated and moving through the gallery.




Photographs by Stuart Eydmann.

24 June 2007 Inverleith House, Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh

The work was later included in the programme of a special day of Cage’s music open to the general public.






Photographs by Derek Hoy.

Although there is no audio recording of this performance, which ranged across the floors and rooms of this fine mansion house, recording and filming of a private playing of the piece in the same venue was undertaken later that evening. It is planned that the film and audio will be released by Mode Records of New York.





Photographs by CaVa Sound Studio.

9 September 2012 Rotterdam Gergiev Festival

1 June 2018 University of Glasgow


This performance, the initiative of students of the University of Glasgow, was presented by staff and students (Prof. William Sweeney, Prof. Bjorn Heile, Anne Cumberland, Neil McDermott, Cemre Arca, Aimee Laws, Rosalind Sharp, Ross Bahiaj, Niamh MacKaveney, Fergus Hall, Eilidh Forsyth, Sarah McWhinney, Lea Shaw) and guest performers including Eddie McGuire, Stuart Eydmann and Rab Wallace of the Whistlebinkies and Fong Liu and Hool Ling Eng of the Harmony Ensemble. The piece can be heard here:

The work was followed by a special version of the original devised by the students entitled New Scottish Circus. Here the performers featured music that reflected the diversity of those in the ensemble thus celebrating the different cultures and nationalities of those within the staff and student body of the university, the City of Glasgow and of Scotland as a whole. This can be heard here:

The Scottish Circus performances were preceded by a discussion between Professor Bjorn Heile and Eddie McGuire (above) which can be heard here:

The programme also included a performance of John Cage’s seminal 4′ 33” of 1952 by Eddie McGuire (flute), Professor William Sweeney (clarinet), Fergus Hall (violin) and Eilidh Forsyth (piano) that can be heard here:




These recordings and photographs were made and edited by Stuart Eydmann. Recording and photography was also undertaken by university staff.