Tyler Adams’ compilation of amateur renditions of Cage’s 4′33″ found on YouTube
An extensive and diverse exhibition dedicated to the pioneering American composer, music theorist, writer, and artist John Cage has just begun at Prague’s DOX Centre for Contemporary Art, marking the centenary of his birth and 20th anniversary of his death.
“Membra Disjecta [Scattered Fragments] for John Cage” is subtitled “Wanting to Say Something About John,” a reference to the title of a piece the avant-garde giant himself produced for a 1969 tribute to Marcel Duchamp, “Not Wanting To Say Anything About Marcel,” which is one of the key items in the show.
In creating what was his first visual artwork – consisting of several sheets of Plexiglas silkscreened with letters, numbers, and images and mounted on a wooden base – Cage employed the “I Ching,” the Chinese “Book of Changes,” a numerical system with 64 possible outcomes, to determine the design.
John Milton Cage Jr. (September 5, 1912 – August 12, 1992), American composer, philosopher, poet, music theorist, artist, printmaker
Preoccupied by the random, the composer frequently turned to the classic text, including, apparently, in the writing of his best known work, 4′33″, a four-minute, thirty-three-second composition whose score instructs its performers not to play their instruments for that duration of time.
Often assumed to be a work of silence, the three-movement composition was intended to highlight the ambient sounds of the audience’s environment during a performance. The ground-breaking and initially controversial piece, first performed in 1952, has become something of a 20th century icon.
“He has everything that a great figure needs,” one of the show’s curators, Georg Weckwerth, told Czech Position. “He inspired so many artists from different fields. Think about Picasso – I would say he only inspired the painting scene. Schoenberg [who taught Cage] perhaps only inspired people in the field of music. But Cage inspired all of us, in a way.” ‘Think about Picasso – I would say he only inspired the painting scene. Schoenberg [who taught Cage] perhaps only inspired people in the field of music. But Cage inspired all of us, in a way.’
Among the 70-odd contemporary artists in the exhibition that have turned Cage’s inspiration into new art is Conny Blom from Sweden. His rather hissy collage sound installation represents a novel twist on what the composer did with 4′33″.
“I’ve stolen copyrighted silences, silences within recorded compositions and breaks within them,” Blom said during a press preview of the show. “It’s also possible to raise the volume, so what was supposed to be silent actually isn’t any more – there are all these traces of things. As John Cage was pointing out with his piece, it’s not really silence; there are all these things going on.”
Other exhibits are rather more palpable, such as the large and striking “Gardening With John 1.1” by Alvin Curran, a fellow composer and friend of Cage’s. It consists of an actual, equipped garden shed with hidden speakers playing a variety of recordings, among them sounds of gardening, Cage laughing, and the ambience in his last home in New York City.
In close proximity stands a box-like structure with one side taken up by a piece by U.S. artist Tyler Adams composed of 20 joined video screens showing amateur renditions of 4′33″ found on YouTube. “He shows us what silence can look like,” says Weckwerth, adding that Adams was partly inspired by a resurgence of interest in the piece in recent years.
Indeed, in 2010 it was “recorded” by a group of U.K. musicians under the name Cage Against the Machine, with the aim of preventing a talent-show winner taking the coveted number one slot in the country’s pop charts during Christmas week.
Another video piece shows participants in a workshop held during an earlier, slightly smaller version of the show at Vienna’s MuseumQuartier following the instructions outlined inCage's “STEPS: A Composition for a Painting to be Performed by Individuals and Groups.”
While that exhibit has something of a “you had to there” feel, many visitors will likely be charmed by some of the more offbeat and playful pieces in “Membra Disjecta for John Cage.” Belgian artist Kris Vleeschouwer’s whimsical interactive (or at least kinetic) installation “Beautiful Day,” for instance, comprises a goldfish tank with an electronic sensor and – across the room – a linked box containing a mechanical lever and three dice.
Drinking game with a twist
Another work, by Ben Patterson, comprises a black jack table, a bottle of whisky, and a printed set of house rules and was inspired by a game of poker that the artist, a founder of the Fluxus movement, played with Cage.
“I personally like it a lot because the rules stipulate that whoever wins has to down a shot of Scotch,” Josef Czeres, a Slovak art and music professor who co-curated the show, said during the preview. “It’s probably better for the loser.”
Meanwhile, Lee Ranaldo, a guitarist with the U.S. rock band Sonic Youth, and the New Zealand artist Zeger Reyers are represented by “De/Composition for John,” consisting of musical notation linked to Cage’s keen interest in mushrooms. ‘I personally like it a lot because the rules stipulate that whoever wins has to down a shot of Scotch.’
“Some people say that he was a better mycologist than composer,” says Czeres. Indeed, according to the news website České noviny, he was known to mushroom lovers in this part of the world before he caught the attention of artists and intellectuals, and became a member of the Czechoslovak Mycological Society in 1965.
After Prague, “Membra Disjecta for John Cage,” which features around 120 individual items, moves on to the Czech Republic’s third-largest city, Ostrava, and the Slovak capital, Bratislava. Meanwhile, an extensive catalog – accompanied by a CD of the artist’s music – should be issued during its Prague run.