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John Cage

Variations VII (background)

On May 21, 1966, a few months before 9 Evenings, John Cage took part in a round-table discussion entitled “The changing audience for the changing arts.” He began with a question: “Are we an audience for computer art? The answer's not No; it's Yes.” (1) A reader of Marshall McLuhan and Buckminster Fuller, Cage was at that time very alert to developments in telecommunications and their impact on society and art. One of his initial ideas for 9 Evenings is mentioned in a letter from Billy Klüver to John Pierce prior to the event, which was originally supposed to be held in Stockholm; it says that he wanted to use the means of communication afforded by transatlantic satellite TV. While this long-distance performance project, a precursor of Jacques Polieri’s Jeux de communication (1972) and Kitt Galloway’s and Sherrie Rabinowitz’s Satellite Arts Project (1977), was not to take place, Cage nonetheless preserved this idea of presence-at-a-distance in his Variations VII, which employed radios and telephone lines to broadcast onto a stage, and in real time, sounds originating outside the performance venue.

Variations VII falls within two series of Cage’s works: Variations (of which it constitutes Opus 7) and Theatre Pieces  (2). The Variations series began in 1958 and ended in 1967 with Variations VIII. These works’ common denominator is the exploration of indeterminacy in musical composition. The place of Variations VII within this series is explained in a text that Cage wrote in 1972. Entitled “Variations VII: 7 Statements Re A Performance Six Years Before,” it bears comparison with the artist’s rough draft. (3) Aside from the basic principles of the performance, the outlines of which are recalled, a series of Roman numerals, some of which are crossed out, indicate the connections between Variations VII and previous Variations. Cage establishes a direct correlation with opuses 3 and 5 and, ultimately, with Opus 6. Variations III consists of an amplified recording of the sounds produced by specific actions, such as the performer’s drinking of a glass of water, and this principle of amplifying inaudible or tenuous sound is undoubtedly what made it possible for Cage to draw a line between the two works He is more explicit when he describes the relationship between Variations VII and Variations V, which had its premiere in July 1965 at the Lincoln Center in New York. The link, as we shall see, is no longer aesthetic but technological, bound up with the use of photoelectric cells to trigger sounds. This principle had already been developed by par Billy Klüver, who described the performance as follows:

“The sounds for Variations V were short-wave radios and tapes of such things as the recording of an ordinary kitchen drain, a sound John particularly liked, according to David. At Bell Labs (Murray Hill, N.J., U.S.) we put together ten photocells which triggered switches that could turn on and off the audio. They were placed around the edge of the stage. When the dancers passed in front of them, sounds were switched on and off. Robert Moog had also contributed ten capacitive antennas, which were activated when the dancers passed close to them. The equipment was set up at the back of the stage behind the dancers, and everyone worked there during the performance. On the wall behind us was projected film material from Stan Van Der Beek and Nam June Paik.” (4) This is one of the first instances of the use of sensing devices in choreography.

Cage considered Variations V to be an “audiovisual performance,” in other words, a theatrical work, in accordance with his own definition of theatre as “something which engages both the eye and the ear. (5)” In this respect, the visual aspect of Variations V places it, along with Variations VI and VII, among Cage’s Theatre Pieces. The rough draft of “Variations VII: 7 Statements Re A Performance Six Years Before,” refers to shadow theatre. Shadows of the musicians and surrounding objects were cast onto huge white canvases, thereby making the manipulation of sound into a theatrical event. Lights placed under the tables played a twofold role, sending a signal to the photoelectric cells and creating giant shadows that took up almost the entire stage area of the New York Armory. Another of Cage’s concerns, one related to the visual aspect of the performance, was the relationship to the audience. “Seats and no seats,” say the notes. Viewers were free to move about onstage, or remain seated on the bleachers provided—in other words, to establish their own relationship with the work and develop their own experience of it.

Clarisse Bardiot © 2006 FDL

(1) John Cage, “Diary: Audience 1966” in A Year from Monday: New Lectures & Writings by John Cage (London: Marion Boyars, 1975) p.50. This is a reprint of the edition originally published in 1968 by Calder and Boyars Ltd.

(2) In regard to the Theatre Pieces, see William Fetterman, John Cage's theatre pieces : notations and performances (Amsterdam: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1996). (Contemporary Music Studies; 11).

(3) John Cage, Variations VII: 7 Statements Re A Performance Six Years Before (New York: Henmar Press, 1972) [3] p. JPB 94-24, folder 295, 296. Astor-Lenox and Tilden Foundation. Music Division, New York Public Library of Performing Arts.

(4) Quoted in Fetterman, ibid., p. 129-130.

(5) Michael Kirby, Richard Schechner, “An Interview with John Cage,” The Drama Review, vol. 10, no. 2 (Winter 1965) p.50.