Wednesday, September 05, 2012

When Marcel Met John

John Cage first met Marcel Duchamp in the 1940s. Duchamp asked Cage to write music for his part in Hans Richter’s film “Dreams that Money Can Buy” (1946). But it took twenty more years before the two actually became close. Cage didn’t want to bother Duchamp with his friendship until he realized that Duchamp’s health was failing. Then he decided to actively seek his company. He knew that Duchamp was taking chess very seriously, and it was easy for Cage to use this pretext, so he simply asked him to teach him the game. And for the last three years of Duchamp’s life the two men and Teeny Duchamp, the bachelor’s bride, met at least once a week and played chess.

Actually, Cage hadn’t lost every single match with Duchamp. There was one that he definitely won, after a fashion. It happened in Toronto, in 1968. Cage had invited Duchamp and Teeny to be with him on the stage. All they had to do was play chess as usual, but the chessboard was wired and each move activated or cut off the sound coming live from several musicians (David Tudor was one of them). They played until the room emptied. Without a word said, Cage had managed to turn the chess game (Duchamp’s ostensive refusal to work) into a working performance. And the performance was a musical piece. In pataphysical terms, Cage had provided an imaginary solution to a nonexistent problem: whether life was superior to art. Playing chess that night extended life into art – or vice versa. All it took was plugging in their brains to a set of instruments, converting nerve signals into sounds. Eyes became ears, moves music. Reunion was the name of the piece. It happened to be their endgame.

John Cage would have been 100 years old today.

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