Artwork showing footseps of dancers, who stepped in paint then danced on artwork

A Symphony of Chance: John Cage and the Music Not Yet Heard

Portrait of John Cage wearing a crown
John Cage, Frankfurt 1986 – © Andreas Pohlman

How to pay tribute to a great artist: Through the supposed flattery of imitation or the path of inspiration? If the latter, then with what approach? Would you carefully plan each step or let improvisation and chance guide your way? I asked myself these questions while on the way to an exhibition in Vienna’s MuseumsQuartier. In its quartier21 freiraum space 60 international artists paid tribute to the composer and artist John Cage (1912-1992) with Membra Disjecta for John Cage: Wanting to Say Something About John, on the centennial of his birth and what happens to be the twentieth anniversary of his death.

Bracing an icy cold, but architecturally beautiful, walk past palaces and museums, I wondered what to expect. Always eager to discover different perspectives, I knew there would naturally be many of them on the subject of such a multifacted individual like John Cage, one of the leading figures of the twentieth century avant-garde and an influential composer, music theorist, writer, philosopher and artist. A pioneer of aleatory, or indeterminacy, he employed the element of chance in the composition of music, and often allowed for the same in its performance or interpretation. Cage was also integral in the creation of “happenings”: spontaneous art-actions he established with his students. As an instructor at The New School he was influential in the formation of Fluxus, an interdisciplinary group of artists, composers, writers and designers.

Plans for sound installation in garden shed
Plans for sound installation in garden shed: “Gardening with John 1.1” – © Alvin Curran

The artists who paid homage to Cage are friends and contemporaries, including Alvin Curran, Ray Kass and Richard Kostelanetz plus others under the Cagian influence like Tyler Adams, Arturas Bumšteinas and Hassan Khan. The exhibition presented more than a hundred works in an assortment of media with paintings, drawings, collages, prints, texts, musical scores, sound installations, videos, an interactive birthday cake and some books written by Cage himself. The assemblage of sounds and images mingling with each other created a multimedia environment in the space, intended as a virtual work of art in itself.

This diversity in itself celebrates Cage’s philosophy embraced throughout his work. “Membra Disjecta” refers to a Latin phrase for “scattered fragments” (disjecta membra). Usually relating to fragments of ancient literary and cultural objects, the term instead is applied to Cage’s method of taking inspiration from a variety of sources.

The subtitle is a paraphrase of his work, Not Wanting to Say Anything About Marcel. In 1969 Cage was asked to partake in a tribute to the Dadaist and Surrealist artist Marcel Duchamp, who died the previous year. His contribution was two lithographs and a series of eight “plexigrams”: Plexiglas panels with silk screened, randomly chosen letters positioned on a wooden base. The contemporary artist Jasper Johns was also asked to express something about Duchamp, but refused with the statement, “I don’t want to say anything about Marcel.” Cage used Johns’ statement as inspiration for the title of his work. A rare treat of the exhibition was the opportunity to see Cage’s two lithographs and his plexigram piece VII, here on loan from the John Cage Trust and Margarete Roeder Gallery in New York.

Lithography by John Cage featuring muted blues and greens on dark background
Not Wanting to Say Anything About Marcel – Lithograph A – © John Cage (John Cage Trust/Margarete Roeder Gallery)

Cage was born in Los Angeles, California to a journalist-socialite mother, Lucretia Harvey, and an often idealistic inventor father, John Milton Cage, Sr. This aspect—and possible influence—of Cage’s life was not overlooked in Membra Disjecta: posted on a staircase leading up to contributions of haikus and musical scores is the fascinating and hypnotic Cage About the Polywave (2011) by American artist GX Jupitter-Larsen, an underground interdisciplinary artist and former sound designer for the performances of Survival Research Laboratories. Containing an image with the words, “Electrostatic Field Theory by John Milton Cage Sr (1886 – 1964)” Jupitter-Larsen’s print is an apparent reference to Cage, Sr.’s theory of the universe.

From Sakshat Virtual Labs under the subheading “Electrostatic Field”:

Electric field is defined as the electric force per unit charge. The direction of the field is taken to be the direction of the force it would exert on a positive test charge. The electric field is radially outward from a positive charge and radially in toward a negative point charge.

Rendering of Electrostatic Field Theory white on blue
Cage About the Polywave – © GX Jupitter-Larsen

In California Cage studied music at USC, UCLA and privately under the renowned Austrian composer and painter Arnold Schoenberg. Schoenberg gave lessons to Cage gratis after Cage promised to devote his life to music. This promise propelled Cage throughout his life, even at times when he became discouraged with the medium. Cage thought very highly of Schoenberg although he never received a compliment from his esteemed instructor. Later on, whilst recollecting upon his pupils, Schoenberg spoke of Cage not as a composer, but “an inventor of genius”.

Cage did not continue his formal collegiate studies, but did retain a relationship with universities and colleges throughout his life, lecturing on experimental music and working with modern dancers. His compositional and performance methods incorporated unorthodox instruments like metal, conch shells and household items. For those willing to brace the chilly Vienna air for a bit, a small, unnassuming television set awaits at an entrance to the exhibition with a performance by a younger Cage on an early black and white TV show. Cage performed music by banging, rubbing and using various items such as a blender and a pot releasing steaming water (Cage would lift the lid to release the sound of the steam). When he was informed that the radios he brought could not be turned on, Cage eagerly improvised by tossing them off their table so they would crash onto the floor. Each action was timed with a stop watch; all the while he intermittently made a cocktail, which he enjoyed at the end with a satisfied smile.

While Cage composed for conventional instruments such as piano and percussion, he approached them in his innovative manner, as well. In 1940 he earned recognition during a West Coast tour with a percussion ensemble where he made another noted improvisational choice. Upon encountering a performance space too small for his percussion ensemble, Cage invented the “prepared piano”, whose sound was altered by objects placed in contact with the strings. Unfortunately I didn’t encounter a prepared piano at the exhibition. It could be something to play around with when tiring of my Hanon exercises.

At times he did not actually specify what instrument should be used for a certain piece. In 1940 he composed “Living Room Music” for percussion and speech quartet, wherein no traditional percussion instruments are used. Cage instead notes that “any household objects or architectural elements may be used as instruments”. In the third movement of the piece, a player performs the melody on “any suitable instrument”. Cage used this type of open instruction upon occasion. The piece “Five” (1988) allows for the performance “by any five voices or instruments or mixture thereof, so long as they can play tones in the proper ranges.”

His innovative musical style inspired modern dancers, who were among the earliest to express interest in Cage’s work. Through this interaction he met his lifelong partner, the American dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham. The couple are celebrated in a piece from Ray Kass, Professor Emeritus of Art at Virginia Tech, and founder and director of the Mountain Lake Workshop, a collaborative, community-based art project. It was there, in 1989, that John Cage performed the art-action piece STEPS. Kass presented Cage with a five-foot wide brush, which Cage used to complete his work of art, 60 x 208 inches (about 152 x 528 cm) on special paper. From Kass’ own recollection:

This work features the isolated imprints of Cage’s shoes and, like 12th century Chinese Sung paintings of lonely travelers among remote mountains and streams, it raises the timeless image of a solitary figure walking in nature. This effect was achieved when, before applying the watercolor wash to the paper, Cage stepped in basins of water-based paint. As he walked across the paper pulling the large brush, his shoes left their imprints, and they were immediately toned and blurred under a layer of wash.

In Membra Disjecta, Kass presented a realization of STEPS in tribute to Cage and Cunningham with For Merce Cunningham – a performance of John Cage’s STEPS: A Composition for A Painting To Be Performed by Individuals and Groups, performed on July 27, 2009 (ink and watercolor on nylon fabric). The piece was performed at Mountain Lake with Merce Cunningham, where Cunningham choreographed a trio of modern dancers—painting the canvas with their bare feet—and then participates himself with the inked wheels of his wheelchair. Looking at his piece one can feel as Kass did in describing the original STEPS as resembling “a giant Zen ink-wash painting of footprints in a riverbed (water/river is a recurrent theme in Cage’s Mountain Lake paintings)”. The footprints and lines as traces of fleeting spirits in a ghostly dance with the elements.

Artwork showing footseps of dancers, who stepped in paint then danced on artwork
For Merce Cunningham – a performance of John Cage’s STEPS – © Ray Kass

Some of Cage’s greatest influences came from Eastern cultures in Zen Buddhism, Indian philosophy and the Taoist I Ching. One result of his studies on the subjects is in his use of the I Ching, given to him by his pupil, experimental composer Christian Wolff in early 1951. Often called The Book of Changes, the I Ching is considered one of the oldest Chinese texts and (in an unfortunate short definition; it is a profoundly beautiful book) addresses the balance of opposites and the inevitability of change. The text is highly regarded by many as a treasury of ancient cosmic principles with chapters denoted by 64 distinct hexagrams.

This classic book also contains a system of divination wherein a hexagram is randomly determined and then its subsequent chapter is read. Cage began using the I Ching system of divination allowing oracular chance to guide the composition of music and artwork. This opened up new possibilities to explore chance-controlled music. In the same year Cage completed his first instrumental piece based on this method, “Music of Changes” for solo piano.

An homage to John Cage’s embrace of chance operations was shown in Membra Disjecta through Belgian artist Kris Vleeschouwer’s interactive installation Beautiful Day. Although this is not an interaction any visitor can engage. Situated on one side of a large exhibition room is an intriguing presentation of a stand supporting a case with a transparent cover. The display contains three dice in one corner and a mechanical, metal lever in the other, set upon a green base. Upon occasion, the corner of this green base slants upward rolling the dice toward the lever. After the base settles down the lever then returns the dice to their original side of the case.

On the other side of the room is a seemingly unrelated item, one that kept meditatively drawing my attention as I was waiting for this mechanical process to start again: an aquarium containing three goldfish and two green plants at either end. Looking around the exhibition space, I was repeatedly drawn back to these graceful and mesmerizing creatures. I kept wondering to myself: But what’s with the fish?  It turns out that set up on the wall of the aquarium, in the open space between the plants, is an electronic sensor. A goldfish swimming past the sensor sets the mechanism in motion across the room for the green base to rise. The whimsical movements of fish determining when the dice will roll.

Image of anechoic chamber in Harvard
Harvard Anechoic Chamber, 1945

It was a year after Cage’s introduction to the I Ching when he made his most controversial composition, “4’33″”. The title denotes the length of the piece, composed of three movements in which the performer is instructed not to play a single note for the entire duration. Instead of the perceived silence, the listeners are meant to pay attention to the sounds of the environment instead, thereby providing a different experience for each audience depending upon the location of the performance.

In his “Autobiographical Statement” of 1990, Cage recollected upon his visit to an anechoic chamber—an echo-free room insulated from outside noises—at Harvard University, where he realized that silence was not merely the absence of sound but the unintended operation of his nervous system and the circulation of his blood. This experience influenced Cage to compose “4’33″”, along with having viewed artist Robert Rauschenberg’s White Paintings series. Upon first glance appear they appear to be blank, white canvases, but John Cage was attuned to the intention of the artist and instead of only seeing nothing he observed that subtle changes in the lighting and ambient conditions of the room could be detected on the canvas.

Video still shots of Tyler Adams work Performing SilencePerforming Silence from American artist Tyler Adams is a testament to “4’33″”, and one that can answer the question for the inquiring musician: How do you perform silence? That question alone could be the topic for a foray into the philosophies of interpretation. Here, found footage is compiled in a video wall showing various performances of the piece, wherein each musician dutifully refrains from playing his or her instrument. Instead we hear the sounds of our surrounding space.

Contributing to this aleatoric atmosphere is the contribution from artist and composer Christian Marclay. Posted in various locations on the walls of the gallery is a white piece of paper printed with a message from Marclay suggesting a “participatory piece” wherein, “A sign would instruct visitors to play the ring tones programed on their mobile phone. These alarm sounds would create a random soundtrack throughout the exhibition.”

At last! A place indoors where we don’t have to be concerned about quieting our phones. Instead are encouraged to let them sound out and in doing so become part of a symphony of chance for John Cage.

There is so much more to add to this symphony, to an experience that is just the frosting on the cake, or really, reflections on the idea of frosting. I’m sure art and music theorists can disect and divide on the many aspect of Cage’s thoughts, ideas, motivations and actions. I pretend to be no expert, only a curious appreciator. I’ve just found that exhibitions are more fulfilling with a little research done beforehand. We will near a stopping point here, then, with a statement from Cage.

Two years before his death in his “Autobiographical Statement” Cage wrote about his later compositions, a series collectively referred to as the Number Pieces, written with flexible time brackets and variable structures. In his musing he poetically states the philosophy behind his musical explorations:

…I look for something I haven’t yet found. My favorite music is the music I haven’t yet heard. I don’t hear the music I write. I write in order to hear the music I haven’t yet heard.

Whether intentionally created or accidentally encountered, music surrounds us wherever we are, even if we have to listen beyond the silence.


Of further interest:
Transcript: Oral history interview with John Cage, 1974 May 2, from the Archives of American Art
Video: John Cage about silence

Cage Exhibit Ringtone Letter
Letter posted in space for John Cage exhibition encouraging the playing of ringtones while visiting.
Plexigram by John Cage
A plexigram by John Cage, “Not Wanting to Say Anything About Marcel” (sorry I forgot which one of the series). In the exhibition space, Vienna.


This piece was adapted from an article I wrote for The Vienna Review.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.