John Cage and his musical chess pieces: Part Two

Cage, Duchamp and the piece Reunion (1968)


In the first part of this two-part blog post, I described how John Cage, pupil of the chess-playing composer Arnold Schoenberg and friend of the chess-paying artist Marcel Duchamp, came to produce his work Chess Pieces, both a work of visual art and a composition for (in my opinion) his hallmark instrument, the prepared piano.

But before I begin…

In the time between publishing Part One and Part Two of this post, I was delighted to hear a profile on the BBC World Service of one of the musicians I mentioned in Part One: Margaret Leng Tan, who transcribed, edited, and published the score of Chess Pieces from John Cage’s picture for the ‘Imagery of Chess’ exhibition of 1944.

Leng Tan album cover
Margaret Leng Tan at her toy grand piano

Leng Tan trained as a concert pianist at New York’s Juilliard School of music, but her encounter and friendship with John Cage led her to the unusual career path of becoming a professional soloist on toy pianos, after playing Cage’s Suite for Toy Piano (1948) at his memorial concert in 1992.

So before you read the rest of this blog, I do urge you to listen to the BBC profile of Margaret Leng Tan. You can also hear her performance of Cage’s Suite by tracking down her recording, She Herself Alone—The Art Of The Toy Piano 2.

And now, on with Part Two:

In this second part, I want to outline how Cage’s flirtation with the game of chess produced another remarkable work, more than twenty years after Chess Pieces. The story serves to underline the close similarity and relationship between Cage and Duchamp.

Although Duchamp’s influence on Cage cannot be doubted, Cage’s public acknowledgement of it was typically enigmatic. The most direct statement he ever made comes in the preface to a piece he wrote titled “26 Statements re Duchamp”, which consists of statements made by other people about the artist, and perhaps chosen and assembled through chance procedures, since many of Cage’s writings were created in that way.  Here is the opening of the piece (the irregular gaps between the statements are possibly also determined by chance procedures):

The danger remains that he’ll get out of the valise we put him in. So long as he remains locked up —

The rest of them were artists. Duchamp collects dust.

The check. The string he dropped. The Mona Lisa. The musical notes taken out of a hat. The glass. The toy shot-gun painting. The things he found. Therefore, everything seen—every object, that is, plus the process of looking at it— is a Duchamp.

John Cage, “26 Statements Re Duchamp”, in A Year from Monday, Wesleyan University Press 1967, p. 70

The preface to the essay, however, was not assembled through chance procedures. Rather, it shows Cage anchoring his writing in the context of his personal friendship with Duchamp and his wife Alexina (“Teeny” – Duchamp’s second wife, who was also a keen chess player, and showed no tendency to glue his pieces to the board):

Had Marcel Duchamp not lived, it would have been necessary for someone exactly like him to live. […] Having this view, I felt obliged to keep a worshipful distance, though I had met him in the early ‘forties, and in the late ‘forties had written music for his sequence in Hans Richter’s film Dreams that Money Can Buy. […]

During the winter holidays of ’65-66, the Duchamps and I were often invited to the same parties. At one of these I marched up to Teeny Duchamp and asked her whether she thought Marcel would consider teaching me chess. She said she thought he would. Circumstances permitting, we have been together once or twice a week ever since, except for two weeks in Cadaques when we were every day together.

John Cage, preface to “26 Statements Re Duchamp”

What makes this enigmatic is the downplaying of Cage’s earlier meeting with Duchamp, which, as I showed in the first part of this post, went a lot further than the brief encounter he implies here. Equally deceptive, I think, is the implication that Cage learned the game of chess from scratch from Duchamp. Given Duchamp’s proficiency, Cage’s creation of Chess Pieces in 1944 (which he omits to mention), and his admiration for his chess-playing mentor Schoenberg, this seems to me very unlikely.

However, what Cage’s anecdote does confirm is the closer acquaintance and friendship that developed between him and Duchamp between 1965 and 1968, which turned out to be the last three years of Duchamp’s life. Before coming to the work of Cage’s that resulted, it is worth speculating a little about the place that the bewitching game of chess occupied in Cage’s method in the years between 1944 and 1968.

When a work of music becomes a game of chess

Many years ago, I was lucky enough to be asked by Cambridge University Press to translate the letters written between John Cage and the French avant-garde composer Pierre Boulez.

Boulez Cage correspondence cover
The letters between Boulez and Cage are still in print. I don’t get any royalties, though.

The two corresponded between 1949 (when Cage first met the 24-year-old Boulez in Paris) and 1954, when their differences of opinion over compositional method led to a parting of their ways, although they kept in touch intermittently thereafter. They both wrote letters in a mixture of French and English, and my task was to translate everything into English. Cage’s command of French was very good, unlike Boulez’s command of English at that time, so I was glad we weren’t producing a complete dual-language edition.

What was most fascinating about the project, however, was the way that both composers explain to each other in great detail how they go about constructing their music, and why they use the methods that they do. Looking back at these letters now, with the knowledge of Cage’s encounter with Duchamp just a few years prior to meeting Boulez, what is really striking is his fondness for arranging his materials in grids of squares and assembling his music by moving from one square to another, like a chess piece moving on a board.

The first time this is evident in Cage’s letters is in Letter 7, of 17 January 1950. Here Cage is attempting to explain the method he had used in the piece First Construction in Metal, which he had written in 1939 and which had been recorded – Boulez possessed the record and had used it in lectures. Here is what Cage writes:

Regarding the method: there are 16 rhythmic motives divided 4, 4, 4, 4, conceived as circular series

Construction in Metal chart transparentWhen you are on 1, you can go 1 2 3 4 1 or retrograde. You can repeat (e.g. 1122344322 etc.) But you cannot go 2↔4 or 1↔3. when you are on 2, you can not only use the same idea but you can go back to 1 using the “doorways” 1 or 4. (Very simple games.)

John Cage, The Boulez–Cage Correspondence, p. 49

The point here is that Cage is thinking of the elements of the piece (in this case, short rhythmic cells) laid out in a grid, chosen by moving from one square to an adjacent one. Rather like the way the King moves in chess.

Over a year later, Cage describes the method he uses for a piece he had only recently finished, his Concerto for Prepared Piano and Chamber Orchestra (1950–51). This is in Letter 27, of 22 May 1951.

A new idea entered [in this piece] which is this: to arrange the aggregates […] in a chart formation. […] I then made moves on this chart of a “thematic nature” but, as you may easily see, with an “athematic” result. This entire first movement uses only 2 moves, e.g. down 2, over three, up 4. etc. This move can be varied from a given spot on the chart by going in any of the directions.

John Cage, The Boulez–Cage Correspondence, p. 93

Although Cage describes his use of a chart as “a new idea”, it is extremely similar to that used in the earlier piece. Except that now, instead of going from square to adjacent square like a chess King, he is jumping around like a chess Knight.

To show the kind of chart Cage was talking about, here is one of the ones he used for the work he was writing at the time he wrote to Boulez, Music of Changes:

Music of Changes pitches chart
One of the charts for sounds used in Music of Changes for piano (1951)

In all of these pieces, Cage has been obsessed with numbers that are multiples of four: 16 rhythmic cells divided 4, 4, 4, 4, set out in 16 bars divided 4, 3, 2, 3, 4 in First Construction in Metal; four groups of four kinds of instruments (woodwind, brass, percussion and strings) in the Concerto for Prepared Piano (the grid for this piece had 16 x 14 squares). But in Music of Changes, the chart looks much more like a chess board. The charts for sounds (there are 8 in total) each consist of 32 sounds arranged in eight rows of four, as in the one pictured above. But each also has 32 silences that can be selected, making 64 elements in total, in an 8 x 8 grid. Charts for other musical elements (durations, tempi) are also constructed as 8 x 8 squares.

Music of Changes MS fragment (Correspondence p.105)
John Cage, Music of Changes, MS fragment (reproduced in The Boulez-Cage Correspondence, p. 105)

The fragment of manuscript above also shows Cage’s method for selecting elements to create the piece: instead of moving around on the 8 x 8 grid as if it were a chess board, he tosses coins according to the method of the Chinese book of oracles, the I Ching. Each set of three tosses provides one of eight results, which are shown along the side and top of the grid. It was this new technique (which, as we know, may have been inspired by Duchamp) of selecting musical elements by chance, that seemed unacceptable to Boulez and led to the end of the correspondence. At the moment that Cage’s charts came to look most like chess boards, his method moved away decisively from the intentionality that is an essential aspect of game-playing. The one thing no chess player tries to do (not even Duchamp) is to move unintentionally.

When playing chess becomes a work of music

The renewed friendship between Cage and Duchamp in the 1960s led to one more collaboration, in which playing a game of chess actually becomes the performance of a piece of music.

John Cage Reunion (with Duchamp) John Cage Trust
John Cage, Marcel Duchamp, & Teeny Duchamp performing Reunion at its premiere in Toronto, 5th March, 1968. Photograph by Shigeko Kubota, © The John Cage Trust.

The work in question is Reunion by Cage. The title, it seems to me, must refer to Cage’s friendship with Duchamp rather than any aspect of the game of chess. The two were indeed reunited on stage to perform the piece in Toronto in 1968, their first artistic collaboration since the Imagery of Chess exhibition and Hans Richter’s film in the 1940s.

The performance of Reunion consists of music triggered by the moves that two chess players make on the touch-sensitive squares of a specially-constructed chessboard. The whole enterprise was collaborative: the board was made by Lowell Cross, a young Toronto-based composer of electronic music (today Professor Emeritus at the University of Iowa). The touch sensitivity was provided by photoelectric cells under each square on the board: each one triggered the start of a pre-composed piece of music when activated by moving a piece. For the squares at each side of the board occupied by pieces at the start of the game, the cells were “off” when covered and “on” when exposed; for the squares in the middle, empty at the start of the game, the opposite was true. Thus the music began when the first piece was moved.

The pre-composed music was also produced collaboratively. In total, sixteen pieces were used, four by each of four composers (Lowell Cross, Gordon Mumma, David Behrman, and David Tudor). Typically for Cage, then, his piece did not contain any sound created personally by him, although he designed it as a musical event. As the game progressed, some or all of the sixteen pieces would play simultaneously through the eight loudspeakers arranged around the audience.

The length of the performance, obviously, was dictated solely by the length of the game of chess played. At its premiere, Cage played Duchamp. Unsurprisingly, the game finished very quickly, with Duchamp winning easily despite having given Cage odds of a knight. Presumably to save the audience from disappointment, a second game was played, this time between Cage and Teeny Duchamp. They proved much more equally matched, and the game continued for five hours before being adjourned in the early hours of the morning (it was finished a few days later; Teeny won).

The story of the performance, and of a 2010 recreation of it at the World Chess Hall of Fame in St Louis is told in more detail in Marcel Duchamp and John Cage “Reunion” by Macauley Peterson. While the moves of the game between Duchamp and Cage were not recorded, here is an audio recording of the concert:

As a work of music created by a game of chess, I find Reunion oddly frustrating. On the one hand, its structure is directly dictated by the moves played on the board; but on the other hand, the aural experience, to me, is entirely separate from the experience of playing the game. This extends to the method of triggering the pieces of music by covering or uncovering squares on the board: there is no differentiation between pieces (not even which colour they are), and although Lowell Cross intended the density of sound to diminish as the number of pieces on the board decreased, it is the rate at which moves are made rather than anything else that determines this aspect of the music. Reunion certainly fits into Cage’s practice of seeking to create music that cannot be predicted in advance; but as a chess player as well as a musician, I wish there was more of an organic connection between the two domains linked through the piece.

In 1968, the technology for the performance of Reunion required a cumbersome work of bricolage. Nowadays, of course, the coordination of moves an a board with triggers for a sound system is much easier to achieve via a computer or a website. And, predictably enough, there is an app for Reunion that allows you to recreate the piece for yourself, using specially-composed new music. It is hosted by The John Cage Trust, and there is a page describing the pieceand in addition an essay describing how the app interprets Cage’s original work. Finally, there is the app itself, although when I try it, the music seems to start immediately, which isn’t how I thought it should work. Anyway, click on the link and hear how your favourite opening sounds!


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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