Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Marcel Duchamp & John Cage Play Musical Chess

On a cold winter's night in 1968, a phone rang in an apartment on Spadina Road. The man who answered it was Lowell Cross, an American student at the University of Toronto. He'd come north to write his thesis on the history of electronic music, studying under Marshall McLuhan among others. Soon, he would become known as "the inventor of the laser light show," but he was already experimenting with new technologies — combining electronic music with electronic visuals. One of his multimedia projects had just been featured at Expo '67 in Montreal. He was gaining quite a reputation. That's why his phone was ringing. John Cage was calling.

Cage was the world's most notoriously experimental composer. Cross was a big fan — in fact, Cage featured prominently in his thesis. Now, the composer was calling to ask Cross for help: he needed someone to build a musical chessboard.

At first, Cross said no. He was just too busy; he had a thesis to write. But then Cage said two words that changed his mind:

"Marcel Duchamp."

Duchamp was one of the most famous and controversial artists of... well... ever. When he painted Nude Descending A Staircase (No. 2) as a young man in Paris, even the jury of a cubist exhibition his own brothers were helping to curate refused to show it. ("A nude never descends the stairs," they told him, "a nude reclines.") When the painting finally did appear in public, it was part of one of the most scandalous exhibitions ever: the Armory Show in New York City, which introduced America to modern art for the very first time. There were works by Picasso, Matisse, Manet and C├ęzanne. But Duchamp's Nude was the biggest attraction. Thousands of people showed up to get angry at it. The New York Times called it "an explosion in a shingle factory."

But lots of other people loved it. The Armory Show inspired New York City's first modern art scene. And before long, Duchamp was a part of it himself: when the First World War broke out, he fled the military patriotism sweeping France in favour of the United States, which was still neutral in those early days of the war.

In New York, Duchamp continued his attack on the old, conservative, academy-based art world. When one exhibition promised to display any artwork submitted to them, Duchamp sent them a urinal and called it Fountain. They refused to show it, but it was too late. Just the idea of it — the questions it raised about the definition of art and the artist and the gallery system — was a massive, giant, game-changing idea. A recent survey of five hundred art professionals found the urinal to be the most influential artwork of the twentieth century.

Duchamp wouldn't be in New York for long, though. When the U.S. joined the war, he moved on to another neutral country, heading south to Argentina. He'd spend the next few years living in Buenos Aires. And while he was there, something happened that would change his life forever:

Marcel Duchamp became obsessed with chess.

When he got back to Paris after the war, they say he wasn't even really a practicing artist anymore. Instead, he became an officially-recognized chess master. He wrote columns about the game. He played it so much his frustrated wife once glued his pieces to the board. Duchamp was only about 30, but for the rest of his entire life, until he died at the age of 81, chess would be his overwhelming passion. Not art.

"I have come to the personal conclusion that while all artists are not chess players, all chess players are artists," he announced.

John Cage, by comparison, kinda sucked at chess. But he was pretty good at composing experimental music. He came of age in the generation that followed Duchamp's — and he was deeply influenced by the French artist. "The effect for me of Duchamp's work," Cage once wrote, "was to so change my way of seeing that I became in my way a Duchamp unto myself."

There was, Cage said, "One way to study music: study Duchamp."

And so, inspired by the rebel artist, the young composer set about breaking down the walls of melody, tonality, scale and structure. He opened his music up to chance, using the I Ching and random luck to make decisions about what notes to place where. Duchamp used found objects; Cage used found sounds. His most famous piece, 4'33", was nothing more than four minutes and thirty-three seconds of a pianist not playing the piano, giving the audience a chance to listen to the ambient noise around them instead. When the piece premiered in 1952, even a crowd filled with fans of the avant-garde streamed out of the exits before it was over, muttering angrily. Forty years had passed since Duchamp's Nude, but not all that much had changed.

By then, Cage and Duchamp had already met. They'd been introduced by mutual friends and even worked together: Cage composed music for a film Duchamp helped make. But it wasn't until the 1960s that they became friends. As Duchamp grew older, his health began to fail him; Cage realized his time was running out. And so, he came up with an idea to turn his greatest influence into one of his closest friends:

He would ask Duchamp to teach him chess.

The plan worked. At least once a once week for the rest of his life, one of the most revolutionary artists of the twentieth century sat down at a chessboard across from one of the century's most revolutionary composers. And he beat him every single time. "Don't you ever play to win?" Duchamp complained, frustrated by his own dominance. But Cage was just happy to be hanging out with one of his heroes. Besides, the composer had an even bigger victory in mind.

Everyone assumed Duchamp was done with art forever — no one, not even Cage, realized he was secretly working on a piece to be revealed after his death. So Cage found a way to lure him into one final public appearance as an artist. He would turn their usual chess game into a work of art itself.

That's why he called Lowell Cross. Cage needed a chessboard that could turn the moves of the chess pieces into music. It would require the kind of innovative, interdisciplinary design that Cross was known for. Cage already knew about Cross' work; in fact, they'd already met — they'd both contributed to a recent event in New York City billed as the musical equivalent of the Armory Show. Cross was the perfect person to build the chessboard. And as busy as he was, there was no way he could say no to Cage and Duchamp.

Still, there wasn't much time. The big game was only a few weeks away. It would happen in Toronto. Ryerson was about to host something called the Sightsoundsystems Festival — a celebration of art and technology — and the showdown between Cage and Duchamp would be the headlining event, held on the opening night. They would call it Reunion, since the spectacle would bring together a whole team of groundbreaking composers who had worked together before. Cross scrambled to finish the board in time; it wasn't done until the night before the match.

The following afternoon, a wintry Tuesday, March 5, Marcel Duchamp arrived in Toronto. As he checked into his hotel (the Windsor Arms near Bay & Bloor), he was worried. He told a friend he had no clue why he was in Canada. Cage hadn't told him anything, just that they were going to do something at Ryerson that night.

Reunion (photo by Shigeko Kubota)
What he found when he arrived was a surreal scene. Two of the greatest artists of the twentieth century took their seats in the middle of the stage at the Ryerson Theatre, bathed in bright light and the gaze of the audience. Photographers circled around them, shutters snapping; a movie camera whirred. The stage was a mess of gadgets. There were wires everywhere; a tangle of them plugged right into side of the chessboard. A pair of TV screens was set up on either side of the stage. The Toronto Star called it "a cross between an electronic factory and a movie set."

Duchamp was an old man now; he was 80. "A grave, quiet figure in a dark blue suit," the Globe and Mail called him; "his skin had the transparent quality sometimes seen in those who are at once very old and very well preserved." In fact, he only had a few months left to live. But he still played with a quiet confidence in the midst of the electronic chaos, calmly smoking a cigar and drinking wine while he studied the board, his wife Teeny sitting at his elbow with a cigarette. Across from him, his younger opponent anxiously puffed away at the cigarette holder clutched between his fingers. "Cage looked nervous," the Star said, "like a man who knows he's going to lose."

They were, said the Globe, "like figures in a Beckett play, locked in some meaningless game. The audience, staring silently and sullenly at what was placed before it, was itself a character; and its role was as meaningless as the others. It was total non-communication, all around."

It was Duchamp who made the first move. And as the players began to play, so did the music. Cross had rigged each square in the board with a photoresistor — so that every time a chess piece moved to a new square, it blocked the light and sent a signal through the wires.

Those wires were hooked up to an elaborate sound system. There was a series of speakers spread out across the theatre, along with a team of experimental composers armed with strange instruments they'd either made or modified themselves. "Tuners, amplifiers and all manner of electronic gadgetry," according to the Star. As the composers coaxed bizarre noises out of their instruments, the moves on the chessboard decided which sounds were heard and which speakers played them. They were echoed on the TV screens, too, which flickered with scrambled, oscillating images. One of Cross' prerecorded compositions was also added to the mix.

As the game progressed and the positions of the pieces became more complex, so too did the music. The room filled with "screeches, buzzes, twitters and rasps." The peak of the racket didn't last for very long, though. Before the match had started, Duchamp had given Cage a handicap — removing one of his own white knights — but it didn't make much difference. One by one, Cage's black pieces were being removed from the board. And as the pieces disappeared, the music grew simpler in response.

Reunion (photo by Shigeko Kubota)
It was all over pretty quickly. Duchamp took less than half an hour to beat Cage. They didn't even have time to finish their bottle of wine.

A second game followed; this time Cage faced off against Teeny Duchamp. They were much more evenly matched, locked in battle for hours, their stalemate stretching long into the night. The audience gradually grew tired and bored; people trickled out into the cold. After a few hours, there were fewer than ten of them left. Even Duchamp dozed off. By one in the morning, the old artist had had enough. They agreed to call it a night.

Out in the audience someone shouted: "Encore!"

The reviews the next morning weren't much kinder than the initial reviews of Duchamp's Nude or Cage's 4'33". The Star called Reunion "infinitely boring... Among great cultural events of the decade, this wasn't one of the exciting ones..." The Globe agreed: "a case of the blind leading the blind."

But the reviews, of course, weren't the point. The artists had done what they set out to do, what they had both been doing since the very beginning of their careers: breaking down the walls between life and art. It was Lowell Cross who put it best. Reunion, he said, was "a public celebration of Cage's delight in living everyday life as an art form."

Duchamp passed away a few months later. Cage followed him a couple of decades after that. But the memory of their strange chess match lives on. Nearly half a century after the two icons of the avant-garde took to the stage at Ryerson, artists are still performing their work. A version of Reunion's musical chess match was part of the Edinburgh Fringe festival in 2013. A year before that, a Chilean artist mounted his own version at the National Museum of Fine Arts in Santiago. Another version was performed in Oslo that same year. And in 2010, during Toronto's Nuit Blanche, Reunion returned to the very same stage where Duchamp and Cage had battled with queens and knights and bishops — and squeals and buzzes and rasps — all those years ago.


The most invaluable source in all of this was Lowell Cross' own account of Reunion. You can read it in a PDF via here.

You can also read the Star's reviews (if you have a Toronto Public Library card, I think?) here. And the Globe's here. The Globe's preview is here. And they have a scathing review of another event from the festival here. There's an ad for the festival here.

But William Littler — famous for his balanced reviews — did actually kind of get the point of the event in his review for his Star:

"There really are no objective value judgments to apply... [Cage] sees no valid distinction between art and life, between sounds suitable for making music and the sounds around us... From breaking the barriers between his art and life, the artist moves to the associated task of breaking the barriers between the various art forms... Reunion is a total affirmation, an environment which offers us sights and sounds which claim to be no more than they are... last night at Ryerson, one man's opinion was literally as good as another's."

There are more great photos of the chess match here and here.

I found lots of information about the chess match here and here and here and here and here and in French here. The CBC has a timeline of Cage's Canadian connections here.

Read more about 4'33" here and here. Or about Duchamp's Nude here. And the Armory Show here.

There's a brief biography of Lowell Cross here. And he's got lots of information on his own website, with the time of Reunion covered here.