Thursday, April 9, 2009

Don't Take the Diet Too Seriously: John Cage's 27 Sounds in the Kitchen

My brother's birthday two days ago
got me thinking about the composer John Cage. There are quite a few good videos of Cage on You Tube, and after watching a few, this is the one I selected for you: 27 sounds manufactured in a kitchen. Cage was an early Western adopter of a macrobiotic diet (following John Lennon and Yoko Ono) and he talks about that here, in an endearing way.

(No matter how many times I watch this, it always makes me laugh at the end. Whatever diet you follow, don't take the diet too seriously... and pay attention to the sounds you manufacture in the kitchen!)

There's also a 9:22 video of Cage on the tv show I've Got a Secret in January 1960, performing "Water Walk." At the time, he was teaching Experimental Composition at New School in New York City. He uses 5 radios in the piece, but wasn't able to turn them on because of a labor dispute about which of two unions should be allowed to plug in the radios (a detail that seems to please him, and he adapts, slapping the radios instead). The very end of the spot has some fun graphics advertising a companion show of that era, What's My Line? (I have to wonder if Betty and Don Draper, from Mad Men, caught John Cage on I've Got a Secret. My guess is that Bets would find it silly, or annoying – those damaged radios! – whereas Don might be intrigued, taking a long draw on his cigarette before wincing and smiling and packing some idea away in his ad man head.)

There's also a very cool film clip, from Dreams that Money Can Buy, a movie by Hans Richter, with a Marcel Duchamp film fragment (complete with a nearly-nude descending a staircase) and music by John Cage. Somehow these early avant garde pieces still seem relevant and compelling today. It's that uncanny mix of nostalgia for something that happened before my time (so that I missed it at its "moment") and the discovery of how fresh and forward-thinking the experimentation still feels. It's interesting to think about how artists keep playing with the same tropes and obsessions, in various media configurations. For Duchamp it was (partly) the nude, but a "new nude," a very conceptual one.

If you click on the Duchamp link above, you'll find a timeline that includes his Rotary Demisphere, the device used for the optical spheres in Dreams that Money Can Buy. You'll also see the 1941 Box in a Valise, the portable museum of Duchamp's works, reproduced in miniature as if for a salesman's briefcase. 20 copies were created; I saw one at the Text/Messages: Books by Artists show at the Walker Art Center last December. There's also a preview of The Quick and The Dead exibition (next spring) with an interview called "Simon Starling: Tiepolo and Duchamp."


john k said...

It is funny you would think of Cage and me, but then you didn't know that I performed the premiere concert performance of his Water Walk in 1991 in NYC on an Essential Music concert. After the game show appearance it was one of his scores that sat unpublished, so when that was revisited years later, I had the opportunity to be the first person to do it since the TV show in 1960. So we did a concert of his "lost" works that he attended, and we did Water Walk as a concert piece. It was after all, one of the first if not the first works of "performance art" to be codified in a score. My performance caused some guffaws from friends because I was really bad at smoking a cigarette as called for in the score. After the dress rehearsal I received some coaching.

Nor said...

OMG! That's so cool...

elena said...

!! I am trying to imagine you smoking a cigarette. Very cool that Cage was in the audience, too. And those radios – any labor disputes?

john k said...

No labor dispute with the radios because it was simply live radio in NYC, and the performance wasn't being broadcast the way it was on TV.