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.

John Cage, One9 and 108

The history of Western music shows us that a few composers distinguished themselves in other fields of creative endeavor: Guillaume de Machaut’s poetry is as famous as his music, for instance, and Carl Ruggles supported himself during his final years as a painter. John Cage (1912-1992) wrote poems and prose every bit as distinguished as his music for most of his career.  After producing isolated examples of visual art (notably the plexigram/lithograph series Not Wanting to Say Anything About Marcel of 1969), he turned decisively to printmaking and watercolor in 1978 thanks to invitations from Kathan Brown of Crown Point Press and Ray Kass of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.  As the distinguished appointee of Harvard’s Norton Professorship in the 1988-89 academic year, Cage produced the imposing and diverse poems of I-VI, the crowning achievement in a series of literary works that exemplified “a way of writing which comes from ideas, is not about them, but which produces them.”[1]

There certainly are examples in which Cage’s compositional procedures carry over from music to painting or vice versa—for instance, the series of works inspired by the Ryoanji garden in Kyoto.  But more generally, both the writings and prints from his late years offer a helpful context for his final musical compositions—above all, the forty-seven completed works known collectively as the Number Pieces.

From 1985 until 1992, the date of his last session at Crown Point, Cage used smoked paper for his prints—a fire was built on the bed of the press and damp paper ran through it, which extinguished the fire and left elegant, swirling patterns on the paper. The images then added to this paper came from a variety of sources. For instance, teapots were used to brand circular shapes onto the paper in the series called Fire (1985), while the 1991 group called Smoke Weather Stone Weather shows tracings of stones. In these works particularly, we can see a striking continuity between the gestural quality of the tracings and the more neutral environment of the smoked paper. Cage admired this continuity very much:

I wanted to have an ambiguity between the smoke and the images. I was afraid at the beginning some of the marks were going to be too strong. But as we continue . . . even the strong marks lose anything that you could compare with impact.[2]

The twenty-second print from the series shows this ambiguity very clearly. Cage’s tracings, while they show the degree of his skill and keen visual sense, has a certain muted quality that asserts itself as surely as time’s passing. The gentle swirls of the paper, though unobtrusive, make an unforgettable impression.

Turning to Cage’s late poetry, we see that the incredible heterogeneity of I-VI echoes another important theme in his work: the bringing together of elements conventionally considered incompatible. Compare this remark from Silence: “It goes without saying that dissonances and noises are welcome in this new music. But so is the dominant seventh chord if it happens to put in an appearance.”[3] The presence of so much variety helped Cage to guarantee that no one component of his work could dominate and overshadow the importance of the rest. His art is like a map in which every path taken leads to a marvelous destination.

Cage realized variety in I-VI with a library of found sources including newspapers and writings by Wittgenstein, Emerson, Thoreau, and himself, among others. A combination of chance operations and his own choices determined the final content of the work. Although there are moments that approach the pattern and gesture of conventional poetry–notably the final section of Part IV with its repetition of the words “equally loud and in the same tempo”–the majority of I-VI has an unusual mixture of the prosaic and the profound, an almost disconcerting blankness:

           alwayS ’
               iT is
        not pullEd
        philippiNes would ’
          talks Convert
  something alwaYs
      all ’ prevIous
        circle aNother
        from whiCh
  bullfighting tO
               iN nature ’

Analogies with Cage’s Number Pieces show themselves readily. The sounds emerge from and recede into a silence as neutral and as elegant as the swirls of smoked paper in the final prints. Indeed, silence does not so much articulate the musical material of the Number Pieces as it offers another kind of sound to listen to—or put another way, the sounds of Cage’s music are only something considerably easier to hear than the silence which surrounds them. And just as I-VI alternates between the evocative and the everyday, so too the Number Pieces generally alternate simple pitches and even conventional chords with inexplicable noises and dissonances. The transparency that characterizes most of the works in the series even allows us to pay attention—with an unusual level of awareness—to the attacks of sounds, their tunings, or their particular timbre. All in all, they demonstrate Cage’s quiet reconciliation with harmony, which he now defined as “several sounds . . . being noticed at the same time.”[5]

Of course, the Number Pieces differ from Cage’s printed poetry and his visual pieces in the amount of variability that can occur from performance to performance—variability made possible by the composer’s use of time brackets specifying ranges of start- and end-times for every sound in one of the works. So long as the performer observes these ranges, she can make a sound as short, long, loud, or soft as she wants. The unchanging durations of the time brackets ensure that the playing time of the composition remain the same and that the events of those pieces occur in more or less the same order.

Short, loud sounds in performances of Cage’s Number Pieces always remind me of the brandings or tracings in Cage’s prints—they are more gestural, more demonstrative than the longer sounds and silences. Sometimes I find the loud sounds annoy me—they remind me too much of another kind of modern music that seems at odds with the Number Pieces. But their presence helps to keep the music unpredictable and astonishing, qualities Cage surely sought in his composition. And in the best performances of these works—almost magically—they somehow join with everything else to create a continuity, an environment in which every type of sound has its place.

Cage scored 108 (1991) for the largest number of players in any of the Number Pieces. Its duration of 43’30” makes an oblique reference to his groundbreaking 4’33” (1952). And the work can be played on its own or with either of two solo works from the same year, One8 (for cello) and One9 for the sho, a mouth organ with bamboo pipes that acts as one of the harmony-producing instruments in Japanese gagaku. Both solo works were composed for artists very important in Cage’s final years. The cellist Michael Bach had invented a curved bow that permitted him to play sustained chords, while Mayumi Miyata had pioneered the sho as a contemporary concert instrument. Cage first met Miyata during his historic return to the 1990 Darmstadt summer course; the composer was enchanted with the sound of her instrument and produced in all three works for her. (The second of these works, Two4, has been released on Mode 88.)

As was his habit, Cage wanted to learn as many possibilities for a new instrument or medium as he could before composing a work, and among his papers are copious notes indicating all of the single tones and clusters (aitake) that the sho could play, both familiar and unfamiliar. Once this material was in place, he could then use chance operations to choose which of all these possibilities would become the sounds for his new pieces, thus producing results that he hoped would surprise and interest him when he finally heard them performed.

As I mentioned, when either One8 or One9 are performed with 108, they become concertos much in the same manner as Fourteen (1990), for bowed piano and instruments. Even so, the concerto formed by One9 and 108 is a very unusual one indeed, and a fine example of Cage’s aesthetic. The delicate sounds of the sho enter almost imperceptibly, reminding me of Cage’s suggestion (in the performance notes for 101) that tones be “brushed into existence as in oriental calligraphy where the ink (the sound) is not always seen, or if so, is streaked with white (silence).”[6] Both orchestra and soloist remain completely silent for the first minute and a half of the piece.  The orchestra disappears again in other two sections, but not to herald a grand cadenza: the sho music continues much as it had before, a quiet, serene, almost timeless utterance. Indeed, the regal simplicity of the sho makes it an ideal instrument for Cage, who tried to make his final work like writing on water—an action, incomparably graceful, that would leave no traces.[7]

Reprinted from the Mode Records CD: John Cage: One9 and 108. Mode 108 (

[1]Cage records this idea for the first time as part of the “Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse) Continued 1973-1982, published in X: Writings ’79-’82 (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1983), 163.

[2]Quoted in Kathan Brown, John Cage Visual Art: To Sober and Quiet the Mind (San Francisco: Crown Point Pres, 2000), 117. For more on the technique of smoking paper and Cage’s visual works from 1985 onward, see pp. 97–124. Cage probably would have disagreed with my characterization of the tracings as gestural. He thought of them as something neither non-gestural nor gestural, but rather “something else.” See Joan Retallack, ed., Musicage: Cage Muses on Words, Art, Music. John Cage in Conversation with Joan Retallack (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1996), 127–28.

[3]From “Experimental Music,” in Silence: Lectures and Writings (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1961), 11.

[4]John Cage, I-VI (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 1990), 73.

[5]Musicage, 108.

[6]Reproduced in Richard Kostelanetz, ed., John Cage: Writer (New York: Limelight Editions, 1993), 198.

[7]This principle is one of the “whispered truths” in Tibetan Buddhism. Cage discusses the idea with Joan Retallack in Musicage, 163 and 189–91. Read more

Liner Notes for John Cage, One4, Four, Twenty-Nine—OgreOgress (2002)

Sources for quotations (in order of appearance): Laura Fletcher and Thomas Moore, “An Interview [John Cage],” Sonus 3, no. 2 (Spring 1983): 19; John Cage, I–VI: MethodStructureIntentionDisciplineNotationIndeterminacyInterpenetrationImita-tionDevotionCircumstancesVariableStructureNonunderstandingContingencyIncon-sistencyPerformance (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990), 177–78; John Cage, Composition in Retrospect (Cambridge: Exact Change, 1993), 6; John Cage and Joan Retallack, Musicage: Cage Muses on Words, Art, Music (Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 1996), 218; Joan Retallack, “Poethics of a Complex Realism” in John Cage: Composed in America, ed. Marjorie Perloff and Charles Junkerman (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 260.

¶ Recording technology makes it possible for one person to record all the parts of a Number Piece by herself.  The question arises: is one person the best example of an anarchic society?

¶ Even the titles of the Number Pieces bespeak a quiet simplicity—a number written as a word indicates the number of performers involved; superscript Arabic numerals indicate (as necessary) the position of that particular piece with respect to all the other pieces composed for the same number of players.  Cage liked the titles because they were like the simple clothes he wore, the style of which never changed from day to day.

¶ It is in this sense that one can speak of harmony in the works—each one has an established universe of sounds that we hear at various points, but Cage doesn’t strictly order them because of the time brackets.

¶ Cage’s attitude toward the Number Pieces offers a fitting conclusion to a period that began around 1980 during which the composer’s long-famous optimism had given way to a doubt that music could do anything whatsoever to change people’s minds.  In time, however, Cage would find new musical metaphors for the overwhelming social problems of our time.  The extraordinary difficulty of the Freeman Etudes, for example, came to symbolize for the composer “the practicality of the impossible,” the courageous act of the individual in the face of desperate and seemingly insurmountable circumstances.  Similarly, the Number Pieces were a metaphor for “the type of world in which we could live.”

¶ At the end of his life, Cage wanted his music to be like writing on water—an act that left no traces.  The flexibility that the time brackets provided him helped to give this impression: no two performances of the Number Pieces will ever be exactly the same, although one can usually distinguish one Number Piece from another on the basis of its sounds alone.

¶ But the number pieces concern more than just lengths of time, however.  There are sounds, too, and almost always a group of fixed sounds that recur unpredictably throughout the piece—a nonhierarchical gamut of elements “to Each/elemenT of wHich/equal hOnor/coulD be given.”

¶ Thus, harmony occurs not as an intentional design to be followed step by step through a piece.  Rather, the listener is a “tourist,” observing the landscape around her, creating private connections or ignoring connections altogether.

¶ Joan Retallack tells the story of a person who asked Cage the initial idea he’d had for one of the Number Pieces.  As I remember it, Cage said, “I began with the idea of thirty minutes,” saying nothing further.

¶ The music of Cage’s Number Pieces generally occurs within little slices of time, each around a minute long.  Two indications at the left-hand side of these “time brackets” tell the performer the range of times during which she may begin; a similar pair of indications show her the range of times during which she must stop.