The Vision of John Cage

An exhibition at the MQ: Membra Disjecta, to honour the man who taught us to value the ‘Symphonies of Chance’

Gina Lee Falco
Mar 01, 2012

John Cage was always a hard person to categorize: A pioneer of  indeterminacy, he exploited gradients of chance in the composition, performance, and interpretation of music and art. As one of the leading figures of the 20th century avant-garde, Cage was an influential composer, music theorist, writer and artist.

Now, on the centennial of his birth - and twentieth anniversary of his death - the MuseumsQuartier is paying tribute to John Cage with an exhibition in the quartier21 freiraum, Membra Disjecta for John Cage: Wanting to Say Something About John.

In the late 1950s Cage was integral in the creation spontaneous art-action events in New York that came to be called "happenings". Along with his student Allan Kaprow whom he met on a mushroom hunt with pop artist George Segal, they created events that abandoned script, plot, and the traditional stage-audience relationship. Instead they were left to chance, with no sense of definite duration. As an instructor at The New School, John Cage also became a mentor and founder of Fluxus, an interdisciplinary group of conceptual artists, composers, writers and designers, including seminal members like Yoko Ono.

Among the artists paying homage to Cage in Vienna are friends and contemporaries, including Alvin Curran, Ray Kass and Richard Kostelanetz plus an array of new artists under the Cagian influence like Tyler Adams, Arturas Bumšteinas and Hassan Khan. The exhibition presents 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 a collection of books authored by Cage. In the assemblage of sounds and images mingling together emerges a multimedia environment that becomes a virtual work of art in itself.

This diversity celebrates Cagian philosophies embraced throughout his work. "Membra Disjecta" –  a Latin phrase usually referring to "scattered fragments" of ancient literary and cultural objectsis here applied to Cage's wide variety of sources, including his passion for gardening, illustrated by Alvin Curran in a shed replete with tools and pots that became instruments of sound.

The subtitle of the exhibit is a paraphrase of Cage’s Not Wanting to Say Anything About Marcel, a 1969 tribute to the revolutionary artist of Cubism Marcel Duchamp. (He was teasing artist Jasper Johns who had declined the invitation, saying, "I don't want to say anything about Marcel.") Cage had contributed two lithographs and a series of eight "Plexigrams" – Plexiglass panels with silk-screened, randomly chosen letters positioned on a wooden base. These lithographs and his plexigram piece VII make their Vienna debut here, on loan from the John Cage Trust in New York.

Cage was born in Los Angeles, California to a journalist-socialite mother, Lucretia Harvey, and an often idealistic inventor father, John Milton Cage, Sr., influences reflected in Membra Disjecta. Posted on a staircase leading up to the second floor display of haikus and musical scores is the fascinating and hypnotic Cage About the Polywave (2011) rendered by the American GX Jupitter-Larsen, an underground interdisciplinary artist and former sound designer for the performances of Survival Research Laboratories. Containing a seemingly illogical psycho-geometric 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 electromagnetic theory of the universe.

He studied under Austrian 12-tone composer Arnold Schoenberg at the University of Southern California, UCLA, who taught Cage for free in return for his promise to devote his life to music. And although Schoenberg never gave his pupil a compliment, Cage held to the promise. Of course he's not a composer," later Schoenberg later noted, "but he's an inventor–of genius."

Although never completing a degree, Cage maintained a relationship with colleges and universities 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.

At an entrance to the exhibition, a small unassuming television plays a loop of a younger Cage as a guest on an early TV show, "I’ve Got A Secret", making music by banging, rubbing, squeezing, and switching on various items such as an electric blender, a squawking rubber duck, and a boiling pot releasing steaming vapor (Cage would lift the lid to release the spewing sound of steam). Informed that radios he had brought along could not be turned on under union rules, Cage improvised, punctuating the performance by tossing the radios with a crash onto the floor. Each action was timed with a stopwatch; all the while he intermittently mixed a cocktail, which he enjoyed at the end with a satisfied smile.

While Cage composed for conventional instruments such as piano and percussion, it was always in unconventional ways. In 1940 he earned recognition with the invention of the "prepared piano", whose sound was altered by found objects he placed inside the piano in contact with the strings.

At times Cage did not actually specify what instrument should be used for a certain piece. In his early composition "Living Room Music" for percussion and speech quartet, traditional percussion instruments are replace by "any household objects or architectural elements". For the performance of the piece "Five" (1988), Cage allows "any five voices or instruments or mixture thereof, so long as they can play tones in the proper ranges."

His unorthodox style also inspired modern dancers, who were among the first to express interest in Cage’s work. Through this interaction he met his lifelong partner, the American dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham.

In Membra Disjecta, American artist Ray Kass presents a 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). STEPS premiered at Kass’s Mountain Lake festival, where Cunningham had choreographed a trio of modern dancers—painting the canvas with their bare feet, with the choreographer rolling over the canvas with the inked wheels of his wheelchair. On view in Vienna, is a film realization of this art-action, evoking the "giant Zen ink-wash painting of footprints in a riverbed", that Kass had described at the debut. The footprints and lines appear as symbolic traces of fleeting spirits in a ghostly dance with the elements.

Cage's compositions changed in 1951 when a student gave him a copy of the I Ching, one of the oldest Chinese numinous texts, relating Taoist traditions of the role of chance and determinism in human life. That same year Cage completed his first piece based on Taoist divination, his "Music of Changes" for solo piano.

Along with chance, Cage was fascinated with the spaces between sounds: In his "Autobiographical Statement" of 1990, Cage reflected upon his visit to an anechoic chamber at Harvard University – an echo-free room insulated from outside noise. Silence, he saw, was not merely the absence of sound, rather a space where he heard the unintended operation of his nervous system and the circulation of his blood.

Performing 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 and the Cagian embrace of chance operations are addressed in Cynthia Peck’s article "Saying Something About Cage" VR, March 2012, p. 17.

Two years before his death in 1992, Cage wrote about his later compositions, the Number Pieces, written with flexible time brackets and variable structures. "I look for something I haven't yet found," he wrote. "…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 – like the sounds of passing traffic – Cage’s music celebrates the tonalities that surround us wherever we are, whilst we are invited to listen beyond the silence.

This mood is captured in the contribution from American-Swiss artist and composer Christian Marclay, a series of white, A4 pieces of paper pasted on a wall, printed with a message  instructing visitors to play the ring tones programmed on their mobile phone, creating "a random soundtrack throughout the exhibition."

At last! I thought, entering the space: A place to let our phones sound out and become part of a symphony of chance for John Cage.


Membra Disjecta for John Cage: Wanting to Say Something About John

Through 6 May 2012

freiraum quartier21


7. Museumsplatz 1