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!


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.