Bill T. Jones, John Cage, and Random Chanceposted on January 21st, 2012 by Sara Wintz
As the neon green strobe lights dotted the smoky dance floor, I stepped away for a moment and took a sip of water. On the opposite side of the dance floor, the DJ leered from beneath the brim of his baseball cap and monitored the perimeter of the room from behind his turntable, nodding to the beats of the music approvingly while facing the crowd of dancers. I was just busting a move at a warehouse party in Baltimore when—strangely—I was reminded of John Cage.
Although Cage’s music doesn’t sound like Aphex Twin, John Cage and his compositions have influenced the course of electronic music, dance music, classical music—pretty much every kind of music—for the past 50 years. Not only have his ideas made a lasting impact on music from the mid-20th century onward, but his theories on art and art making have extended to writers, visual artists, and choreographers, like Bill T. Jones. (More on Bill T. later.)
First things first: who is John Cage? John Cage (born 1912, died 1992) was an experimental composer whose work questioned the boundaries of music. In one of his most well-known and most controversial compositions, 4’33” (composed in 1952), Cage walks on stage, sits at the piano as though he is about to play, and instead leads the audience into silence. Wrappers are crinkled, people in the audience cough, a door opens or closes, a car honks its horn outside. All this noise happens by chance. The only part of 4’33” that’s pre-planned is the amount of time that audience and performer sit silently listening to the “music” around them. 4’33” encourages all of us to embrace the sounds of the environment as music.
Cage’s acceptance of everyday noise as a potential ingredient in a work of art has had a huge impact on the kinds of music that you, me, and my friends in Baltimore enjoy.
For example: sampling!
The idea of recording an electronic or organic noise and then adding it to a composition in a percussive or melodic way is one result of Cage’s artistic philosophies. In fact, a number of the choices he made as an artist were results of his studies in Zen Buddhism and Indian philosophy. For many of his compositions, Cage relied on the I Ching, an ancient Chinese text written about changes and events in the world.
Cage’s composition Indeterminacy is similar to 4’33″. Indeterminacy is a collection of 90 one-minute stories. David Tudor, an instrumentalist who performed many of Cage’s compositions, improvised alongside Cage’s reading. Many of the stories are memories from Cage’s life. (An awesome web site, courtesy of computer scientist Eddie Kohler, is filled with Cage’s stories from Indeterminacy, as they appear on the page, along with information about John Cage and his compositions.)
The idea that writing and verbally expressed memories could be music—the very same thing as, say, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony—was and still is very new. Cage’s ability to mix media like visual art, music, and writing into new forms and genres has created an even broader range of possibilities for artists today. Here is a great clip of Cage himself reading from Indeterminacy:
When Bill T. Jones (born 1952) was thinking about creating a dance theater piece that involved storytelling, Cage and Indeterminacy became an inspiration. As in most of Jones’s work, his creative process for Story/Time, which debuts at Peak Performances this weekend and was co-commissioned by Peak Performances and the Walker Art Center, started with a question. In this case, the question was, “What about me?”
Jones had retired from performing with his dance company, but, after five years, he was eager to get back on stage and do something. Storytelling piqued his interest. In a recent interview with the Walker Art Center’s Phillip Bither, Jones comments, “If you’re going to do something that is spontaneous and tell stories, then maybe what you need is form. And then I thought, ‘Whose form?’” That’s where John Cage came in. Cage experimented with new forms of channeling artistic expression. Jones was ready to create choreography in a way that was new to him.
In Indeterminacy, Cage’s one-minute stories are strung together within a non-narrative structure. In Story/Time, Jones chose to do the same with the addition of the dancers of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company on stage beside him. The dances that result are sequences of brief and varied moments that accompany and provide a counterpoint to Jones’s personal stories. In another nod to Cageian experimentation, the sequencing of the stories and movement is subject to random variation.
While taking chances in a new phase of his life, Jones looked to Cage for confidence. By the time Jones completed Story/Time, he regarded Cage as an “unofficial mentor.” Thinking about Cage and his long-time partner, the equally innovative choreographer Merce Cunningham, Jones reflected, “I love them both for what they represent….They are ideas, and ideas that I cherish. They are badass artist types who really were able to do something that maybe I’m not able to do. They could thumb their nose at the world and expectations of the world, at least at a certain point, and they did something that was strong.”
Check out the full conversation between Bill T. Jones and Phillip Bither, including more on Cage, randomness, and chance operations, on the Walker Art Center web site.
And then don’t miss Story/Time, appearing at the Alexander Kasser Theater through January 29.
Sara Wintz’s writing has appeared in The Poetry Project Newsletter, Jacket, HTMLGIANT, 6×6 and HARRIET: The Poetry Foundation Blog. She was communications assistant at Peak Performances from 2009 to 2010 and is a 2010 graduate of the MFA program in writing at Bard College.
Tweet YOUR story: Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Co.’s Story/Time brings together 70 one-minute stories from Bill’s life—moments that moved him, people who inspired him, places and journeys that were important to him. Help us tell YOUR stories: share your memories on Twitter using the tag #storytimeMSU to tell a 140-character story of your own. Our audience’s own version of Story/Time will scroll continuously in our lobby during the run of the show!