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Rolywholyover: A composition for museum by John Cage

The concept map of this paper


19 July 1994


Rolywholyover at the Guggenheim museum in SoHo is a collection of items relevant to the life and work of John Cage. The exhibition space has been divided into four sections:

When people think of John Cage there are usually two things that immediately come to mind — formal chance operations and "silence". In this paper I will analyze the different components of the galleries (except the performance space) paying attention to the way they reflect upon these themes.

What I understand about John Cage

Cage first used chance operations in a composition some time after his famous work for treated piano. In this composition, a traditional score was written which was to be played on a piano that was treated by the insertion of bolts, aluminum foil, and other bits of hardware between the strings. The procedure, which involved the production of specific (albeit unusual) sounds, was spelled out in detail in the score. The result was somewhat like having an entire percussion orchestra in the compact space of a piano and was fairly successful. Chance operations entered the picture when an attempt was made to reproduce the piece in a different location. The newly treated piano did not produce the same sounds as the original. This was caused, not by the oversight of the performer (the rules for the treatment were followed to the letter) but by the fact that the newly treated piano was not a standard grand piano of the sort used during the score's composition. This lead Cage to the conclusion that chance operations (such as which type of piano would be available) could have an effect on the performance of a piece that was beyond the control of the composer. The use of formal chance operations in musical composition transforms chaos from an enemy into an ally.

Every well-intended message is the perfect representation of an idea in the mind of its sender. What is received is something entirely different. The best that can be hoped for is that the concept in the mind of the receiver is accurate to the original concept within limits acceptable to the sender. The received message is never equal to the sent message. The received message is a mixture elements of the intended message modified through the processes of encoding, transduction, and decoding combined with the noise of the channel. This mutated message has a life of its own and — if we assume an intent to transmit an identical copy of a concept — is beyond the control of the sender. Cage avoided this dilemma altogether by intentionally sending metamessages. "This message and its noise is about this message and its noise." Noise and message are to remain connected. The receiver is not to separate the two — not that there ever was any choice in the first place.

In musical composition, the time when a note is not played is represented by a rest. This is a period ostensibly set aside for silence. When performers play a musical composition, the noise is there. When they do not, the noise is still there. Noise is everywhere at every time on every channel. The message interferes with the noise not the other way around. When a composer writes a rest he is really allowing the noise to be heard. Silence is noise. The composition 4'33" — a score for piano whose only note is a whole note rest lasting four minutes and thirty-three seconds — is about this proposition.

What I understand about Rolywholyover

Rolywholyover is, as the publicity sheet described it and as I believe it was intended, a composition for museum by John Cage. The application of chance operations to the location and selection of artworks follows the same dictum as that applied to musical composition. Rolywholyover is an isomorphic extension of Cage's metamessages to the medium of the museum.

In selecting the notes which make up a musical score, the composer has several degrees of freedom including (but not limited to) pitch, duration, intonation, loudness, instrument, and performer. The degree to which these variables are controlled by the score is, to a certain extent, the decision of the composer. Where a conventional composer would try to control most of these variables explicitly Cage gave the responsibility of many of them to the performer. His scores were, in the conventional sense, more like guidelines than decrees. Rolywholyover was prepared in much the same manner but using the variables relevant to an exhibition, namely location, item and museum of origin (exactly which variables were relevant, I do not know). Time in the musical composition is replaced by space in the museum composition as the relevant dimension. The museum-goer is forced, unguided to search for the method behind the madness. The mind does not like disorder. It looks for patterns where none exist. What is this thing? Why was it chosen? What is its significance? The metamessage is clear. This is not an exhibit of artworks, it is an exhibit about exhibits. Can I touch the cabinet? Can I open it? What's this inside? Should I read it? Help me somebody. I can't see this piece or that piece. Should I see it?

As with a musical compositions the noise of the background intrudes. The ticking of the clock and the motionless pianist are replaced with chess tables and the opening and closing of drawers. The "silence" of the performance space in 4'33" is replaced by the "empty space" of the eye level blank wall in Rolywholyover. If silence is noise than so too is empty space. Thus the blank wall is as much a part of an exhibit as are the works of art that hang there.

The concept map of this essay

This essay was prepared from a concept map (see below) of thoughts compiled after seeing and thinking about Rolywholyover. It is organized along the lines of an isomorphism between the Rolywholyover as an example of a composition for museum and 4'33" as a musical score. John Cage, chance operations, and noise are the central themes. Rolywholyover being a piece to honor John Cage and his seminal role in the philosophy of music, the node containing the words "composer, author, etc." appear at the top and "time" and "space" at the bottom. I feel that this map would work equally well upside-down as this paper is as much about the isomorphism between time and space as it is about creation.

The concept map of this paper


February 1997: Most unusual composer

Once upon a time in the American public school system education was considered important enough to spend money on. Partially-subsidized, low-cost paperback books were made available to students on a monthly basis. The following extended quote comes from one such book I purchased in 7th or 8th grade. This was my first exposure to music of John Cage, not through sounds but through words. Soon after I compiled this website I rediscovered the words that grabbed my attention nearly twenty years earlier.

Equally unconventional are the compositions of John Cage. His father was an inventor whose influence may go far toward explaining Cage's music. The foremost avant-garde composer for thirty years, Cage proved his durability at a recent retrospective at New York's Alice Tully Hall in honor of his sixtieth birthday; after all these years his compositions still drew enthusiastic cheers and heartfelt boos from the audience.

Cage's early work emphasized percussion. For example, his Third Construction (1941) was scored for rattles, drums, tin cans, claves, cowbells, a lion's roar, cymbal, ratchet, texponaxtle, quijadas, cricket caller, and conch shell. More recently, however, he has placed as much emphasis on the event as on the sounds. It is interesting to note the differences between Cage and Handel; in Cage's Water Music (1952), the performer repeatedly pours water from a full container into an empty one, carefully regulating the timing of the slosh with a stop watch; the composition also includes the riffling of playing cards and static produced by a radio. This is what the composer calls "everyday music," derived from a heightened awareness of the world around him. He explains it this way: "Now I go to a cocktail party. I don't hear noise. I hear music."

Cage's compositions also show the input of Eastern philosophy. Many works are scored to include the casting of Chinese dice (the fortune-telling process of the I-Ching) to determine the order of the sounds performed; this is known as "aleatory music." On other occasions Cage relates Zen parables as a part of his performance. The Zen Buddhist fascination with silence can also be detected in his music Four minutes, thirty-three seconds (1952) is intended for one or any number of instruments; it consists of three silent movements of 30", 2'23", and 1'40", during which the performers sit poised with their instruments without playing.

One of Cage's most remarkable works is Theatre Piece (1963), first staged in Rome. Fusing Marx Brothers' antics with neodadaist art, the pianist enters by throwing a dead fish into his instrument. One musician walks around the stage dragging a chair loudly across the floor, while another, wearing a nightgown, hands out soggy pizzas to the audience.

John Cage is now a musical director with the Merce Cunningham dance company. He spends much of his spare time collecting and writing about mushrooms.

Felton, Bruce & Fowler, Mark. Felton & Fowler's Best, Worst, and Most Unusual. Greenwich, CT: Fawcett Crest, 1975: 73-74.