Chance and Art: The Work of John Cage


River Rocks and Smoke  1990

River Rocks and Smoke 1990

John Cage: Every Day is a Good Day is a Hayward touring exhibition currently showing at Huddersfield Museum and Art Gallery– at least until the end of this week when it moves off to Glasgow. Catch it if you can, if you are interested in any way in the fusion of music, dance and the visual arts. It is an extraordinarily inspiring and thought-provoking exhibition, with snippets of music, interviews and performance as well as a huge number of Cage’s drawings, prints and watercolours.


I first encountered Cage’s prints through a brilliant book, Kathan Brown‘s Ink, Metal, Paper, Wood: Painters and Sculptors at Crown Point Press (1996). It is one of those books which opens the mind up to hitherto unimagined possibilities in the making of art, and Brown’s inspired invitation to Cage to work with Crown Point Press was probably always going to result in some interesting results from a composer who turned the notion of music inside out and upside down. Some of the prints on show – particularly the Ryoanji/Haiku series – are exquisite. He used the discipline of I Ching, a systematic operation of chance, to drive his compositions, and believed the purpose of art was not about self-expression but about the imitation of nature which is always random, and never repeats. Whether you agree with that or not, it reminded me forcefully that allowing marks and media in my work to find their own way invariably results in a more successful outcome.

A professional musician friend came with me to the exhibition, and commented that she was interested by the fact Cage’s art reflected the way he composed music; finding sound, letting it run, letting it do its own thing. The importance of randomness, chance. I always find it fascinating when connections and links are uncovered in terms of process and making across the arts, and the way in which we can identify common approaches and identify with the challenges faced by all creative artists (in the broadest sense of the term). It reinforces the importance of wider engagement across the arts, and common platforms for discussion.

One of the best bits of the exhibition was the selection of video and sound excerpts. There was an entertaining film of Cage at Crown Point press solemnly intoning in ritual form his requests for numbered stones to draw round, surrounded by print technicians and observers in immobile obeisance. Somewhat annoyingly, though, the batteries weren’t working on 4 out of 6  headphone devices, so I couldn’t hear the interview with Kathan Brown (found it luckily later in the catalogue), and one of the working sets of headphones cut out halfway through String Quartet in Four Parts (1949/50) which I was very much enjoying. A  film being broadcast with open sound in a small room was impossible to hear even when all around was silent, amply demonstrating Cage’s observation that silence is all of the sound we don’t intend. Clacking heels and juvenile shouts two floors below clearly fell into this category.

So go; and if you can’t, the catalogue is an excellent read and good value.


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