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08 July 2013


©Rob Shepperson

It's been just over six months since the unofficial close of Cage's Centennial Year, and we're in both afterglow and the trenches here at the John Cage Trust.  Afterglow because so many gratifying things happened over the course of the year,  the trenches because we're still digging ourselves out from under the debris left by so many demands on our resources and time.

I can't write about all of the events that took place, but I'd like to at least touch upon the events created and produced by the John Cage Trust.  One of these events, John Cage's Empty Words at Bard College, has given birth to a new home page for our website!  

John Cage's Empty Words (Bard College, Spiegeltent, June 30/July 1, 2012)

This was a very special (some might say spectacularly weird) overnight event here at Bard College during which 50-odd people gathered together with pajamas and air mattresses in hand to collectively experience a rare, complete recorded reading by Cage himself (Mills College, Oakland, California, 1978).  This event followed Cage's guidelines for any live performance: that Part I begin precisely at a time in the evening that would lead to Part IV commencing precisely at dawn the following day, and that specific macrobiotic foods be served at scheduled intervals throughout the night.  We also showed a perpetual slideshow of 117 images drawn from Henry David Thoreau's Journals, miniatures made grand for the scale of the projection screens.  We followed everything to the letter, and while virtually everyone stayed, very few stayed awake, the venerable George Quasha a notable exception:

Because of the limitations of space in Bard's Spiegeltent -- which could accommodate no more than 50 (horizontal) participants -- we enlisted the Hudson Valley's own WGXC 90.7 FM to provide live broadcast via the Internet, which was heard around the world. Here's the radio station team (Galen Joseph-Hunter on the far left, Tom Roe on the far right, in headphones), early on, still vertical:

©Ralph Benko
Just for fun, we added dusk and dawn music, generously provided by Josh Quillen of So Percussion, Bard's resident percussion ensemble:

Empty Words is a marathon text, lasting some 10 hours, drawn from the Journals of Henry David Thoreau.  It is one of Cage's most challenging compositions involving spoken text.  As he described it:

I let it be known to my friends, and even strangers, as I was wandering around the country, that what was interesting me was making English less understandable.  Because when it’s understandable, well, people control one another, and poetry disappears – and as I was talking with my friend Norman O. Brown, he said, “Syntax [which is what makes things understandable] is the army, is the arrangement of the army.

So what we’re doing when we make language un-understandable is we’re demilitarizing it, so that we can do our living.

It’s a transition from language to music certainly.  It’s bewildering at first, but it’s extremely pleasurable as time goes on.  And that’s what I’m up to.  “Empty Words” begins by omitting sentences, has only phrases, words, syllables, and letters.  The second part omits the phrases, has only words, syllables, and letters.  The third part omits the words, has only syllables and letters.  And the last part has nothing but letters and sounds.  
(John Cage, August 8, 1974)

Cage performed Part III frequently throughout the late 1970s and well into the 1980s -- his reading in Milan's Teatro Lirico on Dec. 2, 1977 has entered history, morphing as it did from concert to happening to near riot.   Cage described it as

An incredible happening, in which the spectators became the real protagonists who introduced, after being enticed by my musical stimuli, the violence and contradictions of the reality surrounding us.

Note in the image at the left several spectators joining Cage onstage, one going so far as to remove his reading glasses. 

Photo © Maurizio Buscarino

Empty Words takes front and center stage on the new homepage of the John Cage Trust's website, where we've created a virtual radio station hosting Cage's full-length reading, which you can dip into 24 hours a day.  We've also linked to Stefano Pocci's website devoted to Cage in Italy,, and specifically to his blog, "Empty Words at Teatro Lirico (Milan, 1977)".  

Cage's Satie: Composition for Museum (Musee d'art contemporain de Lyon, September 28-December 30, 2012)

As guest curator for MAC Lyon, and given remarkably free reign, I conceived of a multi-sensory exhibition that would celebrate Cage's enduring love of the French composer Erik Satie. What better way to celebrate Cage's birth than to continue his deconstructive bent with regard to museums -- to forego the usual emphasis on precious artifacts in favor of manipulated manuscripts and sounded compositions?  Twelve works were showcased on the first floor -- Cheap Imitation (1969), Chorals (1978), Etcetera (1973), Extended Lullaby (1992/1994), Four3 (1991), Furniture Music Etcetera (1980), Socrate (1944), Sports: Perpetual Tango (1984) and Swinging (1989), Song Books (Solos for Voice-3-92) (1970), Sonnekus2 (1985), Two6 (1992), and Letter[s] to Erik Satie (1978) -- all made to commingle in an ever-changing audio mix by the ingenious French physicist, Gilles Reigner.

The exhibition continued on the second floor with a new interactive installation by Mikel Rouse based on Cage's unfinished sound score for his 1982 radio play, James Joyce, Marcel Duchamp, Erik Satie: An Alphabet

©Emily Martin
as well as a technologically adventurous showing of Cage's rarely-seen, late-life collaborative merger of poetry, performance, visual art, sculpture, and music, The First Meeting of the Satie Society (seen above), left not quite complete at the time of his death in 1992.  Also on view was Cage's own "Satie Memorabilia Collection", a rare archival treasure trove held at the John Cage Trust consisting of pamphlets, programs, original drawings and cartoons, buttons, first editions, photographs, and scores.  

Here's a short video produced by MAC Lyon, a virtual tour of all four aspects of the exhibition:

If the sounds intrigue you, get ahold of a copy of the exhibition catalog, as it includes an audio CD composed by Mikel Rouse that simulates a walk through the museum. Designed by Naomi Yang, the catalog also contains essays by yours truly and Thierry Raspail, the spirited director of MAC Lyon, as well as dozens of stellar reproductions of rare photographs, memorabilia, and manuscripts, many of which were included in the exhibition.

Our work continues in 2013.  The highlight so far this year was hands down the New World Symphony's Making the Right Choices: A John Cage Centennial Celebration (New World Center, Miami Beach, February 8-10, 2013), perhaps the best Cage Festival I've ever attended.  Curated by NWS Artistic Director Michael Tilson Thomas and spanning three days and nights, it took full advantage of the spectacular staging, lighting, and projection possibilities in the Frank Gehry-designed New World Center.  Highlights included the NWS's performance of Cage's Cheap Imitation, the full orchestral version, sans conductor (a revelation unto itself!), enlivened by live performance by two former Cunningham dancers, Brandon Cowles and Andrea Webber (as well as a ghostly apparition of Cunningham himself), performing materials from Second Hand:  

And MTT joining with Jessye Norman for a truly unforgettable performance of Cage's The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs:

They reprised the spectacular theatrical production of Cage's Song Books that was seen/heard at Carnegie Hall in March 2012 with Meredith Monk, Jessye Norman, and Joan La Barbara, and also hosted a new video installation by Mikel Rouse, NWS: 4'33", which simultaneously and randomly presented recorded performances of Cage's iconic work contributed via YouTube by individuals from around the world.  NWS: 4'33" kicked off the festival on Thursday, Feb. 7, 2013, with an introductory talk by Kyle Gann.  

For those of you planning to be in Edinburgh for the Fringe Festival this summer, you'll want to catch the premiere performances of Victoria Miguel's Laquearia* at Summerhall, running Aug. 2-9, 2013.   Miguel describes Laquearia (which began life as Chessmates, an M.A. in Liberal Arts thesis undertaken at The New School in 2003), as a conversation between Samuel Beckett and John Cage over the game of chess described in Beckett's novel Murphy, providing the structure for the first performances of a new digital version of Cage's Reunion (commissioned for this production by the John Cage Trust).  In effect, it asks and answers the narrator's question: might the game from Murphy be used as the structure for a performance of Reunion?  

©Shigeko Kubota (Toronto, 1968)
Both Beckett and Cage made frequent reference to chess in their work.  In 1968, Cage used a chess game as the structure for Reunion, an event without a score, originally performed on an electrified chessboard created by Lowell Cross.  The game works as a sublimely indeterminate structure: as a game of chess is played, the moves of the players activate four compositions and distribute them to eight speakers surrounding the audience.  At the premiere of Reunion (Toronto, March 5, 1968), Cage played against Marcel and Teeny Duchamp, activating live compositions by Gordon Mumma, Lowell Cross, David Behrman, and David Tudor.  

Here's an audio snippet drawn from that event, recorded by Behrman and included in its entirety on a small 33 1/3 stereo LP recording accompanying a now-coveted publication compiled (and with original photographs) by Shigeko Kubota, Marcel Duchamp and John Cage (Takeyoshi Miyazawa, 1968):


Laquearia incorporates Reunion by combining the live sounds generated by the moving of chess pieces as the Murphy game is played on stage, with live feed of the compositions activated by the same game being played via the online version of Reunion, to be hosted by  

©Lowell Cross

The online version of Reunion is the work of  Dr. Christopher Jefferson and Dr. Ian Miguel of the University of St. Andrews' School of Computer Science.  It means to faithfully recreate the original indeterminate structure devised by Cage and Cross, while making necessary accommodations for its use of recorded music.  Jacob Carpenter Morris, Lynn Wright, and Marc Thorman have been commissioned to compose new works for the online iteration of Reunion, which will also incorporate Cage's Chess Pieces (1943), thus uniting this new version with the old.
*Miguel's title comes from T.S. Eliot's "A Game of Chess" section of The Wasteland in which the characters are said to have "flung their smoke into the laquearia."  Lacquearia [pronounced lak-we-a'ri-a) means paneled ceiling, but it also refers to a genus of fungi.

Laura Kuhn