‘Ideas are One Thing, and What Happens is Another’: Conceptual Materiality after John Cage


John Cage: Giving up control over our experience.

From Silence:

For over twenty years I have been writing articles and giving lectures ... just hear about it.

In other words he's changing the form of lecturing, you're not hearing about the experience you're having it.

1948 lecture at Black Mountain College

With Beethoven the parts of a composition were defined by harmony. With Satie and Webern they were defined by means of time lengths. The question of structure is so basic, and it is so important to be in agreement with it.

Vexations by Eric Satie. 20 bars of music, with instructions to repeat it 800 times. Cage admired this for taking the romanticism out of music, making it more intellectual.

A rare photograph of Cage conducting:

Cage didn't like conductors, he wanted orchestra players to play as individuals. His partner Merce Cunningham had similar ideas about dance - removing the narrative element. He says in the Dancer and the Dance

Time didnt have to be measured in meter, but it could be measured in minutes ...

[45' for a speaker]

Cunningham, Cage and Robert Rauschenberg were part of the first Happening in 1960. Cage at Juliard (in the 60s):

... a piece of string, a sunset: each acts.

[canned chance]

The string possibly a reference to Canned Chance by Marcel Duchamp. Three 1.00 metre lengths of string dropped from 1.00 metre in height onto a metre rule. We see him using these rules in studies for the large glass


[] Man Ray, Dust Breeding

4'33'' (1952)

The piece isn't about silence, but about musicians not playing. Note that it actually comes in three movements - all very precisely planned out.

The large glass is fundamentally about transparency - Cage's work similar. See for instance Fontana Mix (1958).

Atrlas Eclipticalis (1962) is an early attempt to project a star chart onto a score. Often these scores would come with pages of written instructions to help musicians read the score.

Cunningham also goes beyond standard forms of dance notation. If we base everything around duration, we can work together with other disciplines: Cunningham working with video.

Variations V (1965) A collaboration between Cunningham and Cage. Using proximity sensors and cameras (the 1960s versions of those things) to have dancers trigger sound events. Basically the entire musical avant garde of the 60s were working on this piece together: Paik, VanDerBeek, David Tudor, Max Matthews, Bob Moog.

Robert Watts: Event Scores

Casual Event

Drive car to filling station
Inflate right front tire
Continue to inflate until tire blows out
Change tire
Drive home

Pina Bausch (1978): Cafe Muller

In Empy Words (in the 1970s), Cage explores non-syntactical demilitarised language.

On Kawara on Twitter.