On Variations V—Mode 258, 2013

John Cage’s work took a profound turn in the 1960s. Having discovered, in the previous decade, the promise of composing with the assistance of chance, and even creating strategies that rendered music indeterminate and thus incapable of replication from one performance to another, he began to pursue the implications of his discovery to their logical conclusion. Throughout the decade, he made a number of works that, with only a few exceptions, violated the notion of what music was in every detail. The extreme works 0′00″ (1962) and Variations III (1963) are emblematic. In the earlier work, the score requires the performer simply to execute a disciplined action with extreme amplification that verges upon creating feedback. (Only later did Cage add a series of codicils that clarified the action to be performed—for instance, that it should not instantiate a musical performance and that it should fulfill a social obligation to others.) And while Variations III requires the use of circles inscribed on transparent plastic to create a particular design that represents the barest outlines of a performance score, nothing explains how to interpret definitively the resulting design, what sounds will populate it, or even how long the work should last—indeed, he includes a remark that a performer can fulfill her obligation simply by paying attention to events as they occur—as he remarked to Richard Kostelanetz, “We could be performing Variations III right now, if we decided to do so” (quoted in Kostelanetz 1991, 195–96).

Cage did not make these extraordinary compositions out of a need to enact a game of avant-garde one-upmanship, but rather from the sense that then-current technological and social conditions demanded a radically new approach to art and artworks. Following Marshall McLuhan, he believed that fundamental changes in electronic media had created a heightened awareness of the world and of its impermanency; art now needed to reflect this so that it better served the flexible and volatile nature of reality that technology had brokered. It also served to change the minds of people in the way Cage believed accorded with Zen Buddhism.

The aim of musical art had moved away from finished objects—symphonies and concertos and so on—to more open environments where audiences could observe ongoing processes whose individual components interacted with each other in countless ways, whose resulting impressions could never satisfactorily be explained by a single observer. For that matter, Cage seemed to doubt that such a goal could even be accomplished by a musical composition alone, as when he observed of serial composers that “The question of the relation of this music to themselves and to society never enters their minds” (Kostelanetz 1991, 10). That’s why, among all his works from the 1960s, Variations V most closely realized his hope for art that used technology to respond creatively to the society around him.

For the premiere on July 23, 1965—which took place during the ninth concert that was part of the French-American Festival at New York’s Lincoln Center—the dancers (Merce Cunningham, Carolyn Brown, Barbara Dilley Lloyd, Sandra Neels, Albert Reid, Peter Saul, and Gus Solomons) performed on stage, their movements interacting with twelve antennas built by Robert Moog and a set of photocells designed by Bell Labs research scientist Billy Klüver in such a way as to trigger the transmission of sounds to a 50-channel mixer whose output was heard from six speakers around the hall. The actual sound sources—a battery of tape recorders and radios—were supervised by Cage and the composers James Tenney, Malcolm Goldstein, and Fredric Lieberman; Cage and David Tudor operated the mixer. The mise-en-scène was supplemented by a film collage by Stan VanDerBeek that included processed television images by Nam June Paik and footage of the dancers shot by VanDerBeek during rehearsals. Brown recalls that the equipment never functioned as intended, singling out Cage and Tudor for their lack of preparation:

I wrote at the time: “[Lewis Lloyd, then manager of the Cunningham Company] is absolutely FURIOUS with John and David’s ineptness. He said they should have figured out all the wiring on paper before coming into the hall . . . but no, they were doing it there—like high-school physics kids.” (Brown 2007, 459)

Leta E. Miller, who has documented the collaboration in great detail (2001), assigns the blame more widely, agreeing that all the technology needed careful testing well before the final rehearsals in the hall.

The score for Variations V also gives the impression of a series of possibilities colliding with each other to suggest an ongoing experience rather than a fixed series of instructions, for it consists of a series of 37 remarks that not only document the work’s premiere and offer guidance on how others might realize it, but cannily allude to Cage’s immediate milieu of the 1960s and his perception of his place within it. Examples of the former include his description of the sound system, its components and designers, and the important remark that dancers influence the audibility of the sound system as they move through the space and activate the technology around them. Other remarks suggest the attitude of performers to their work, for instance “Perform at control panels in the role of research worker,” “Variations III,” “Lighting . . . as the solution of a problem,” and “Conversation, consultations (not as sound-sources).” Still others seem more personal and range from the ridiculous to the sublime: “E.g., kitchen sink (‘bad plumbing’)” and “‘Breakthrough’ by means of collaboration into the ‘unorganized areas in the rear’ of the unknown.” Taken together, the remarks constituting the Variations V score suggest a creative act itself, one that actually exemplifies Cage’s approach to his new conception of composition and music as a continuing process (just as his famous “Lecture on Nothing” demonstrates a micro-macrocosmic piece of music where words function as the sole sonic content).

A year after the first performances, the company brought Variations V along for its European tour and filmed it in Hamburg; with the assistance of Gordon Mumma, much (but not all) of the original technology was packed up, and he joined Tudor and Cage at the controls for the film (Miller 2001, 558–59). On that occasion—as Mumma recalls in his reminiscence printed elsewhere in this booklet—the company’s lighting designer, Beverly Emmons, supervised the stage direction, all the décor, and the balance of the film collage with the onstage activity. Thus, her role in the visual component of Variations V should not be underestimated, just as her later work with the American director Robert Wilson was instrumental in establishing the full realization of Wilson’s painterly approach to the theater.

Variations V reveals its potential only when—as here—one sees and hears at least a portion of what an audience would have. Indeed, Elizabeth Hoover has persuasively invoked Derrida’s concept of différance to interpret the fluid play of meanings conjured by the overlapping sounds and images in the work; she offers a close reading of Cunningham’s choreography for the final two minutes in order to destabilize a sense that Cage’s authority was primary and to exemplify the Derridean reading of signification within the piece (Hoover 2010). But this interplay of meaning is further fragmented by the filmed production, which frequently superimposes images from the film collage over the dancers and inserts many close-ups of the dancers’ bodies and faces as well as the décor; it includes several cutaways to Cage, Tudor, and Mumma manning the tape recorders and other technology. The effect of seeing Brown or Solomons in extreme close-up as they concentrate on the difficult movements both humanizes the inscrutable character of Cunningham’s choreography and reminds the viewer of the enduring impact of Zen on the work’s aesthetic. (Brown herself attended Suzuki’s lectures and read, on Cage’s recommendation, The Huang Po Doctrine of Universal Mind.) In particular, the performers of Variations V exist within an environment of competing, contradictory content; people are not the only actors of import here, but take their place as equals beside light, film images, bicycles, and flower pots: the infinitude of the Dharmadhatu.


Reference List

Brown, Carolyn. 2007. Chance and circumstance: Twenty years with Cage and Cunningham. New York: Knopf.

Hoover, Elizabeth. 2010. Variations V: “Escaping stagnation” through movement of signification. Current Musicology 90 (Fall): 57–75.

Kostelanetz, Richard, ed. 1991. John Cage: An anthology. New York: Da Capo.

Miller, Leta E. 2001. Cage, Cunningham, and collaborators: The odyssey of Variations V. Musical Quarterly 85, no. 3 (Fall): 545–67.

1 reply
  1. Ali
    Ali says:

    There are three drum practice rooms at The Manahattan School of Music. Two rooms have brand new drum sets, and the other room has a rusty, old, beat up drum set thats paobrbly been around since the 70 s. Whenever I get that room my day is almost instantly ruined. I hate the way it looks, I hate the way it sounds, and I hate the way it feels. Yesterday I went to go practice and decided to visit the infamous drum set. At first sight it looked like the same ol’ piece of junk, but when I looked deeper, it took on a whole new light. The more I looked at the drums, the more I saw the history in them. I saw where the drum was dropped, I saw where it was hit too hard, I even saw where past drummers engraved their initials. When I played the drums in this new light, they took on a new sound as well. I have to admit, they still didn’t sound great, but I could definitely hear some wisdom in them that I never noticed before. I realized while playing these drums, that I’d never played a set that sounded like them. If I heard a drummer play every set at school, I would be able to pick out that particular set instantly, which is not true for all new drums. This experience helped me see the beauty in something I would have never thought to be beautiful. It’s funny how a week ago going to that practice room would have ruined my day, and yesterday it made my day.


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