Blog: MCA DNA

Sustained Silent Reading: Performing John Cage

By Erik Wenzel

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Performance view, William Pope.L, Cage Unrequited All images courtesy of the author

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Spanning the last two days of the show, William Pope.L's Cage Unrequited served as a climactic ending for The Freedom Principle: Experiments in Art and Music, 1965 to Now. Erik Wenzel, one of the invited participants, reflects on the performance.

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The invitations from William Pope.L’s studio went out months in advance, reading in part:

Cage Unrequited is a 25-hour marathon reading of experimental composer John Cage’s influential book Silence: Lectures and Writings (1961). Over 200 invited readers from our diverse Chicago arts communities will filter a bit of the past through their voices and attitudes in a contemporary re-enacting through reading.

. . .

We are looking for reading groups of at least 2 people with a maximum of 30. Readings of the text are somewhat open; we only ask that it be approached within the spirit of Cage and the limitations of our format.

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Pages for Art Present’s performance of Cage Unrequited

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We met up at a bar beforehand to plan and rehearse. We being Alejandro Figueredo Diaz-Perera, Cara Lewis, Dan Paz, and myself. Our group being Art Present, a continuum of artists and others from Cuba, Canada, and the United States organized by Dan Paz and Marilyn Volkman that has previously taken the form of symposia and exhibitions for the 12th Havana Biennial.

The text in the four pages of the book we were assigned ranged from prose to pictorialist poetry. It was decided that we’d each take paragraphs of the prose while the cascading verses of poetry would be divided by columns read in round robin fashion. Other elements of formatting would be represented. When reading sections in italics we’d tilt our heads. To account for the large amounts of space between words in the poems and the heavily indented margins, we would . . .

. . . Pause between each line.

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The temperature had dropped thirty degrees into the 20s by the time we arrived at the museum. Now late at night, the bustling Magnificent Mile had cleared of tourists who’d massed for another performative spectacle—a few hours prior, the trees along Michigan Avenue had been theatrically lit by Mickey and Minnie Mouse during BMO Harris Bank's tree-lighting parade. It seemed appropriate that the two should overlap.

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André Callot and Eleanor Russell. Performance view, William Pope.L, Cage Unrequited

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We entered the theater, performance in progress. It had the feel of a rehearsal. I was taken back to junior high and school plays. Back to the rehearsals nearing the dress rehearsal. The rehearsals where you’ve figured out your role, you’ve settled into the story, but you also aren’t in full costumes yet because its premiere is next week during 6th period.

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The stage was set with a table and microphones but also featured couches and throw pillows. This, along with the various colored gels lighting up areas in the audience, added to the not-quite-ready-for-opening-night atmosphere.

I was surprised at how crowded and lively it was. People waiting their turn to read, or having just finished, sat alongside the general audience. This had the feel of a rehearsal, too. You’re free to come and go, but also to be quiet, watch, and listen. It was a comfortable, warm feeling. Thinking about it now, the dimly lit theater also had the air of a candlelit midnight mass.

"Cage Unrequited" at the MCA. 1:00 am-5:30 am. All up in Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler's Files

A photo posted by g a b e m o r e n o (@ga_beh) on

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The group reading when we arrived had chosen to loudly interject the commas [COMMA] periods [COMMA] and other punctuations that appeared in their text [PERIOD]

Then William Pope.L came up and read. He read passages from Cage’s book reminiscing on childhood, playing outside, and the tastes of certain foods. Then Pope.L set down the book and began reading from a stack of printed pages. When referring to an online source he read the URL aloud, “w, w, w, dot, h, t, t, p, colon,” and all. After finishing each sheet, he held it at arm’s length and dropped it or tossed it over his shoulder with bravado in classic Pope.L form.

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William Pope.L, Cage Unrequited 2013, New York Photo: Paula Court courtesy of Pope.L and Performa

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This interpolated text was about Julius Eastman, a black minimalist composer who died in obscurity. It tracked how Eastman seemed to sabotage himself every time he was about to meet success. Such as the time he chose to stage John Cage’s Song Books in 1970 with the work’s author in the audience. Eastman undressed his boyfriend on stage and then attempted to do the same to his sister. The anecdote ended with Cage decrying the whole enterprise, lamenting that people think they can interpret his scores how ever they want. I couldn’t help but wonder if what we were doing with Silence was good or bad.

The reading was punctuated by the frequent reference to Eastman’s most known works, all from 1979, Crazy Nigger, Evil Nigger, and Gay Guerrilla, which, when said aloud, one assumes is “Gay Gorilla.”

Later, I sought out these pieces and they are beautiful, intense, and exhilarating. Their sound is in stark contrast to the provocative and amusingly offensive titles. But maybe those titles are perfect for the emotions expressed within. There’s a similar contrast between the way Cage’s scores are performed and his more melodic compositions. For instance, the other Cage work I’ve been involved in performing was Speech 1955 for 5 radios and a news reader at the Renaissance Society in 2008. It’s full of detuned radio static and is worlds apart from In A Landscape, a collection of Cage’s ambient piano works from the late 1940s and early 1980s that I’ve been in love with since I was a teenager. Listening to Gay Guerrilla as I write this, it feels in step with the Cage we hear on that album.

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When Pope.L finished his reading on Eastman he went back to Cage’s book. After that it was our turn.

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Page for Art Present’s performance of Cage Unrequited

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The silence was the hardest part.

Having finished our reading we sat waiting for the cue to exit. Bright spotlights on us, unseen people stirring in the dark like rats in the walls, I wanted to burst out laughing for some reason. You know the feeling? It’s the feeling of feeling. It’s when emotion becomes physical, like pressure building up before an explosion. You can feel it inside you and it wants to come out.