Cage and Duchamp: A Toronto Chess Game

It’s got a good index. Good if you are mindful of names. Look up Cage and you find the reference to the section you had browsed and made you buy the book and lug it home (it’s a big tome). However about a month later the memory has been rearranged and you want to use place (Toronto, Ryerson) to find the section. No luck. So we go to the activity “chess” and leaf through the “hits”.

Whatever the move, we are lucky to retrieve from Arturo Schwarz (The Complete Works of Marcel Duchamp) an account of the evening orchestrated by John Cage in which Duchamp plays a prominent part.

Among his [Duchamp’s] last public chess performances, the ones in Amsterdam, Pasadena, and Toronto ought to be recalled.[…] Finally, on February 5, 1968, Marcel and Teeny performed in Toronto in an event organized by the composer John Cage at the Ryerson Polytechnic High School Auditorium. Other performers, in addition to the Duchamps and John Cage, included David Tudor, David Behrman, Gordon Mumma, and Lowell Cross. At Cage’s suggestion, a special chessboard had been made by Lowell Cross. Each square of the chessboard had a built-in photoelectric cell. The moves made on this board controlled the outputs to eight amplifiers and loudspeakers, with each move generating a different sound. The performance consisted in one and a half games of chess. The first, between Duchamp and Cage, in which Duchamp gave the composer a Knight as advantage, was nevertheless won by Duchamp. The second game, between Teeny Duchamp and Cage, was left unfinished at the performance (it was completed the following morning after breakfast and ended with Teeny’s victory). Even though the outcome of this collective work called Reunion may have been of the greatest theoretical interest, the audience thought differently. They were left in the dark, and not only metaphorically — they couldn’t even follow the moves of the game — and they silently abandoned the hall in the course of the evening. Thus, when the lights were turned on at midnight, at the end of the performance, which had started at 8:30 P.M., the chess players realized that they had been performing for an empty hall. Fortunately, Columbia Records recorded the resulting sounds and everyone was paid musician’s union scale wages. In a letter to the author, John Cage explained his intentions: “Musically speaking Reunion is an instance of a number of people working together practically but anarchically.”
Found a competing version of the end of the evening thanks to an article by Adam Bunch in Spacing: Out in the audience someone shouted: “Encore!” An example of Canadian irony? Adam Bunch’s article first appeared as a blog entry (with reference links) on The Toronto Dreams Project Historical Ephemera Blog.

And so for day 1389
02.10.2010