John Cage and his musical chess pieces: Part One

Cage, Duchamp and the 1944 Imagery of Chess exhibition

The American composer John Cage (1912–1992), a central figure of the twentieth-century avant-garde, was the one pupil whom Arnold Schoenberg singled out when asked about his years teaching at the University of California in Los Angeles in the 1930s. I remarked on this towards the end of my post about Schoenberg’s Coalition Chess. Schoenberg only taught Cage briefly, between 1936 and 1938, but his influence was decisive in Cage’s life, as is shown by an anecdote recorded by a biographer of Cage and frequently recounted by the composer:

Schoenberg questioned whether Cage could afford to study with him. “I told him,” Cage has said, “that there wasn’t any question of affording it, because I couldn’t pay him anything at all. He then asked me whether I was willing to devote my life to music, and I said I was. “In that case,” he said, “I will teach you free of charge.”

Calvin Tomkins, The Bride and the Bachelors: Five Masters of the Avant-Garde. New York: Viking Press, 1965, pp. 84–85

It is hard to define what Cage learned from Schoenberg; as the Cage scholar James Pritchett remarks, Cage never wrote a piece which sounded remotely like any of Schoenberg’s music.

Schoenberg’s passion for invention was certainly shared by Cage, however. His most famous work is 4′ 33″, which consists of the sounds that occur randomly in the environment while its performer remains silent.  The notoriety of 4′ 33″ has somewhat eclipsed the fact that Cage wrote many works over a very long career. He was ceaselessly experimental, especially in terms of redefining what a work of music, or a concert, or a musical performance, actually is.

One of the things a performance or an act of composition might be is a game of chess. Cage’s engagement with chess is something I have never seen discussed in any detail in the many biographies and studies of his life and work. And yet David Revill, one of the most comprehensive and sympathetic of his biographers, says that when he met Cage in order to gather information for his book, in what turned out to be the last year of Cage’s life, he played chess every evening.

So what I want to do is fill in this gap in previous Cage scholarship. In order to do it, I have had to divide this blog post into two separate parts. This first part is centred on Cage’s first encounter with someone who not only became seminal for Cage’s aesthetics, but also happened to be a chess player of grandmaster strength.

Marcel Duchamp appears once more

It is no surprise to find Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968) cropping up in this story, as he did in Schoenberg’s Coalition Chess. There, his use of ‘readymades’ as art works appeared as an example of bricolage by a Modernist artist, similar to Schoenberg’s home-made playing pieces for his variant of the game of chess. It is uncertain to what extent Duchamp was known to Schoenberg; by contrast, he was an undoubted influence on Cage, who first met him in New York in late 1942.

Duchamp and Alekhine playing chess in 1935 (adjusted)
Marcel Duchamp (right) relaxes over a game of chess in 1935. His opponents are World Champion Alexander Alekhine and his cat.

Duchamp was French-born, but spent much of his life in America. As a young man, he produced art of extraordinary inventiveness: not just his notorious placement of a urinal as an art gallery exhibit (1917), but for instance collaborating with the photographer Man Ray, or producing motorised sculptures with moving parts. He is counted as one of the most important artists of the Dada and Surrealist movements. He also wrote music, briefly: between 1912 and 1915, he produced musical pieces generated through chance procedures, something Cage was to take up (and is usually credited with inventing) in the 1950s.

In 1923, however, Duchamp gave up his activities as an artist, returned to France from America, and became a professional chess player. He would later often say, in an inversion of the Romantic cliché of the poor artist starving in a garret, that a chess player had a purer form of calling than an avant-garde artist, since it was harder to make a living playing chess.

Duchamp must of course have been a fine chess player before this sudden change of direction in his mid-thirties. But as soon as he arrived back in France, he dedicated himself to the game with a compulsive obsession. In 1927 he married, and his wife became so alarmed at the way that the game occupied his entire time and energy that she glued his chess pieces to the board in an attempt to gain his attention. The marriage ended shortly afterwards.

One suspects that Duchamp’s aim was to become World Champion. While he did not achieve quite that height, he did better than almost anyone else who is today best known in another field. For several successive Chess Olympiads, he was a member of the French national team, with the World Champion Alekhine (playing without his cat) on top board. Duchamp played in many tournaments, and recorded victories over some of the best players of the 20s and 30s, such as Edgar Colle, Georges Koltanowski, and the memorably-named Eugene Aleksandrovich Znosko-Borovsky.  Duchamp even achieved the accolade probably most coveted by any chess player: an opening variation is named after him. In fact, there are two:

Duchamp English Opening variation
English opening, Duchamp variation

This variation in the English opening is a “hypermodern” one, with both White and Black activating pieces at the side of the board rather than occupying any of the four central squares. The game after which this variation was named was Duchamp vs Kahn, Paris 1924. In this game, the players moved symmetrically for the first nine moves (the perils of moving symmetrically without forethought were mentioned in my post Mozart and Capablanca: playing jokes on the amateur). Duchamp eventually lost, resigning after move 43.

Duchamp-Kasparov variation
Nimzo-Indian / Queen’s Indian opening, Duchamp variation

This variation has a more substantial place in the history of the game, however. It can arise from either of two popular “hypermodern” openings, the Nimzo-Indian Defence and the Queen’s Indian Defence. In fact, it combines the two. It has been used by most chess World Champions since Capablanca, for instance in Kasparov vs Karpov, World Championship Rematch 1986, 18th game, a crucial win for Anatoly Karpov.

Duchamp, then, is someone who genuinely left his mark on the history of the game of chess, although not quite as indelibly as he left his mark on the history of modern art. His encounter with John Cage was, indirectly, to leave a mark on the history of modern music as well.

Cage meets Duchamp for the first time

The story of Cage’s first meeting with Duchamp is told by his biographer David Revill. The background was the move by Cage and his wife Xenia from Chicago to New York in the spring of 1942, on the back of a successful broadcast of Cage’s work for percussion and electrical instruments, The City Wears a Slouch Hat, which had led to an invitation from the artist Max Ernst to come and stay with him in New York in the flat he shared with the wealthy art patron and gallery owner Peggy Guggenheim. The Cages left for New York, Revill says, “with just enough money for the bus fare”. At Ernst’s flat Cage met an enormous number of the avant-garde artistic community. He also organised a concert of his percussion music at the Museum of Modern Art. Then, as Revill puts it, “his luck changed”:

When Guggenheim learned that Cage had arranged a concert at the Museum of Modern Art, she was furious, cancelled his performance at her gallery, declined to pay for the transportation of the percussion instruments, and made clear what until then had not been, that he and Xenia could only stay with her temporarily. Hearing all this, Cage burst into tears.

In the adjoining room to the rear of the apartment sat a man in a rocking chair, smoking a cigar. It was Marcel Duchamp. He asked Cage why he was crying and Cage explained. Duchamp said little in reply, “but his presence was such that I felt calmer … he had calmness in the face of disaster.”

(David Revill, The Roaring Silence: John Cage: A Life, London: Bloomsbury 1992, p. 80)

Cage was now unemployed, homeless, and penniless. Over the next two years or so, by taking any work he could, begging money and accommodation from friends, and showing both buoyancy in the face of adversity and a huge work ethic, Cage gradually established himself within New York artistic society. One of the projects that he worked on was an art exhibition, The Imagery of Chess.

The Imagery of Chess

Duchamp Ernst exhibition poster
The cover of the exhibition leaflet

The exhibition was organised by Duchamp and Ernst at the Julien Levy Gallery in the Winter of 1944–45. Ernst was yet another keen chess player, and he created a set of chess pieces for the exhibition, featured in outline on the cover of its leaflet. The exhibition promises “Newly designed chessmen, music and miscellany” and lists thirty-two contributors, the same number as the pieces in a chess set, their names laid out in a chess-like grid in alternating red and black in the leaflet.

There is much more detail about the exhibition, with many stunning images, in an MA thesis by Meredith Lancaster available online.

A blindfold chess exhibition formed part of The Imagery of Chess. Whether any music was played as part of the exhibition is unclear, despite the promise on the cover of the leaflet.

Cage’s contribution was a picture, rather than a piece of music. Or at least, what was exhibited was a rather demure painting of a chess board divided into lighter and darker grey squares. The title of the picture is Chess Pieces. The play on words of the title becomes clear when the viewer realises that overlaid across the squares is a musical score. This is set out on two staves, as if for piano, and divided into twenty-two pairs of staves, each containing twelve bars. The sections therefore do not fit neatly across the squares; there is room for roughly two-and-three-quarters pairs of staves per square from top to bottom, and an average of one-and-a-half bars per square reading left to right. The notes of the score change colour from white to black as the music crosses from a light square to a dark square. A close-up of part of the painting was used at the head of this blog post. Here is an image of the whole thing:

John Cage Chess Pieces (picture) 1944 adjusted.jpg
John Cage, Chess Pieces (1944)

The music of the score used in the picture seems never to have been performed at the time it was written. Then in 2005, more than a decade after Cage’s death, it was deciphered and transcribed by Margaret Leng Tan, a pianist who worked with Cage in the last years of his life. It was then issued as a piano piece by Cage’s publisher, C.F. Peters.

Cage Chess Pieces (1944) cover
The score is available from C. F. Peters

Since the music is set out on two staves, it seems reasonable to assume it is for piano. It is not particularly difficult, and, in my opinion having played it, not particularly interesting either. It is formed out of brief musical phrases using a limited number of different notes, mostly in quavers and crotchets, not particularly adventurous rhythmically, and written without a key signature, but possibly in a kind of modal A minor.

Leng Tan, in her preface to the score, describes music, visual art and chess as Cage’s “three primary life-long interests”. This is interesting in itself – she knew Cage well personally, so this is further evidence that chess was an abiding interest for him. She also admits that the general layout of the music of Chess Pieces resembles that of Cage’s works to prepared piano of the same date. Here are the first twelve bars, which extend across the width of the chess board right at the top (in fact, the top part of the right-hand line seems to be missing, but Leng Tan has managed to reconstruct it from what can be seen):

Cage Chess Pieces bb 1-12

The prepared piano is one of Cage’s most famous creations. It was originally an invention genuinely mothered by necessity: in 1938, Cage was asked to write music to accompany a dance piece called Bacchanale. What he produced, like most of his works at the time, was music for percussion ensemble. But he discovered that the hall where the piece was to be performed was far too small for the instruments. To overcome this, Cage re-wrote the music for piano alone, and inserted pieces of rubber, metal and other objects between the strings of a piano in order to make it produce sounds like those of percussion instruments.

At the time that he produced Chess Pieces, nearly all of Cage’s works were for prepared piano. It seems a much better choice than an ordinary piano for performing the score. The similarity between Chess Pieces and his other prepared piano works can be seen from this fragment of the score of A Valentine Out of Season, also written in 1944, and dedicated to Xenia, during the gradual break up of the Cages’ marriage:

John Cage A Valentine Out of Season (1944) score fragment (MOMA)
A Valentine out of Season, autograph fragment, New York Museum of Modern Art

Unfortunately, no-one seems to have recorded a prepared piano performance of Chess Pieces, as far as I can discover. However, a percussion ensemble gets a lot closer to what I think Cage had in mind:

Some day, I intend to perform Chess Pieces on a prepared piano. It would make a fitting part of a chess-themed concert. Perhaps the closest one can get to that in the meantime, however, is a piece which Cage did write in the 1940s, and with which I shall finish this first part of this blog post: his Music for Marcel Duchamp, written in 1947 for a Surrealist film, Dreams that Money Can Buy. The film was produced by Hans Richter, with several artists directing individual sections. For his section, Duchamp turned to Cage and his prepared piano for accompanying music.

Many years were to pass before Duchamp and Cage collaborated again. That later occasion, orchestrated by Cage, will be the subject of the second half of this post.


Author: Robert Samuels

I teach music for The Open University and play chess for Cowley Chess Club in the Oxfordshire Chess League.

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