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Checkmate: John Cage and Marcel Duchamp | Prerna Anilkumar

Prerna Anilkumar

Lowell Cross, an American student at the University of Toronto.

John Cage, the famous experimental composer.

One telephone call on a wintry February morning of 1968.

Cage asks Cross to create a Musical chessboard.

Cross says, “No”.

Two words that change Cross’s no to a yes:

Marcel Duchamp.

Picture Credits: Shigeko Kubota (from left to right: Teeny Duchamp, Marcel Duchamp and John Cage)

Wrapped in surrealism and strangeness, the world would soon witness a unique creation. Creation of music by an intentional and pre-figured but chance operation of the minds of two revolutionary individuals, Cage and Duchamp, sitting across a chessboard; the moves on which would determine how the music sounds. And the above phone call would be the invitation given by Cage to Cross for collaborating on this piece, to be called ‘The Reunion’. It would be performed on 5th March 1968 in Toronto.  Named so by Cage, the piece would bring together an exquisite assortment of various artists he had worked with in the past.

That chilly evening would embody a beautiful amalgamation of chess, mathematics, music, minds and chance. It would almost morph into a ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ where the world would witness a synthesis of the arts never thought of before.  And amidst all of this, the symmetry of it all would hinge on the spiritual, strongly reminiscent of what Franz Kafka wrote in the ‘Investigation of a Dog’:

“They did not speak. They did not sing, they remained, all of them, silent, almost determinedly silent; but from the empty air they conjured music. Everything was music…”

Everyone knows Marcel Duchamp as an emblematic figure of Dadaism, as someone who profoundly revolutionised the world of art in 1913 with the ‘Nude Descending a Staircase’ and later shocked it even more in 1917 with the ‘Fountain’.

Duchamp, the eccentric. Duchamp, the enigma.

But fewer know that when USA entered WWI Duchamp left New York and went to Argentina.  And that became the land where he would fall obsessively in love with chess. Immersed completely in this glistening game of the white and the black, once he was there, even his metaphors started twirling and dancing around chess:

“All this twaddle, the existence of God, atheism, determinism, liberation, societies, death, etc., are pieces of a chess game called language, and they are amusing only if one does not preoccupy oneself with winning or losing this game of chess.”

He returned to Paris as a Chess Master and proudly declared, “while all artists are not chess players, all chess players are artists.”

Marcel Duchamp

Fascinatingly, Cage, who initiated the Reunion with his call to Lowell, displayed an absolute and abysmal inaptitude at this game. On the other hand, where he surpassed all frontiers of genius was his experimental music. Belonging to a generation heavily influenced by Duchamp, Cage followed his trail of passionate rebellion and questioning and unfurled his ouevre with the chance interplay of the   I Ch’ing and random luck. He would become a pioneer of aleatoric music where the element of chance in a performance decides how the musical notes unfold. His most famous piece, un-surpassed by a genius deeper than his, stands to be 4’33’’. With all its mystical undertones, it reflects the journey Cage undertook with D.T .Suzuki, the famed Japanese Zen teacher. The piece was four minutes and thirty three seconds of pure silence.

Articulating his deep adoration of Duchamp, Cage once said that there was only way to study the art of music; It was by studying Duchamp. Further rendering clear the true intensity of how Cage perceived this artistic genius was: “The effect for me of Duchamp’s work was to so change my way of seeing that I became in my way a Duchamp unto myself.”

The parallel universes of Cage and Duchamp intertwined for the first time in the 1940s when Duchamp asked Cage to compose music for a part in Hans Richter’s “Dreams that Money Can Buy”. Destiny played its strange games and it took twenty more years for them to become close. On the pretext of learning chess, Cage asked Duchamp to teach him the game. And so passed the last three years of Duchamp’s life, with the two men meeting once every week to traverse the mystical contours of chess.  Duchamp, exasperated at one of the games with Cage remarked, “Don’t you ever play to win?”. To this, in his quintessential Zen-ness, Cage replied, “why should anyone have to win?”

And so here we saw a fascinating creation of a unique space, a foucaultian heterotopia of sorts, where one of the most revolutionary artists of the twentieth century sat across one of the century’s most revolutionary composers.

The big match that Cage had invited Lowell Cross for started at 8:30 pm on 5th March, 1968 in Toronto. Marcel and Teeny Duchamp became the co-performers of this act. Each move of chess either activated or deactivated a specific sound being played live by four musicians: David Tudor, David Behrman, Gordon Mumma and Lowell Cross.

Each square on the board was connected to a photoresistor. Every move blocked light and through this interplay of blocking, signals got sent via the thicket of wires spewn all over the stage. The wires were connected to a uniquely elaborate sound system. With the inner circle of experimental composers birthing their own distinct sounds from their instruments, the moves in the game determined which sounds were heard.

This game of chess may as well be called a Ménage a Deux. A soulful intimacy. Between Life and Art. Between Cage and Duchamp.

Two geniuses.

Two paradigms.

Picture Credits: Shigeko Kubota

The stage that night was labelled by the Toronto Star as “a cross between an electronic factory and a movie set.”  Globe described the setting like a Beckettian play where everyone was “locked in some meaningless game.”

With Duchamp making the first chess move, the players began their play, as did the music. With the increasing complexity of the game, the intricacy of the music also deepened. Duchamp, almost 80 years old, continued exuding charm as the night progressed, with a cigar by his side, the smoke calming the chaos amidst the wires, the musicians and the heaviness of the audience.  The atmosphere progressed towards a light simplicity after a point where more pieces disappeared from the board. It all started and ended in less than an hour. It was a checkmate by Duchamp.


Cage: 0.

The second game was played between Cage and Teeny Duchamp.  Their stalement pushed itself into the night. People trickled out. Duchamp dozed off and woke up again. At 1 am they all decided to call it a night.

Perceived to be profusely anticlimactic, The Star euphemistically called the whole affair “infinitely boring”.

But irrespective, walls were broken. Boundaries were dissolved. Life and art had merged. And no one summed it up better than Lowell Cross himself. In his essay ‘Reunion: John Cage, Marcel Duchamp, Electronic Music and Chess’  he called the event  “a public celebration of Cage’s delight in living everyday life as an art form.”

Pataphysically, to borrow from Alfred Jarry, Cage had conjured a solution to a non-existent problem:  Is Life superior to Art or vice versa? This peculiar game of chess that day had morphed itself into a mobius strip.

Eyes became Ears.

Moves became Music.

Life became Art.

Art became Life.

And fittingly, this piece would be called The Reunion.

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