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John Cage Was a Gamer

Cage, a musician, writer, visual artist, and performer, wasn't the obsessive Steam achievement-unlocking type of gamer—especially since he died in 1992—but he had all the traits.

This week would have marked John Cage's 102nd birthday. You might know the composer as the art world prankster who made audiences sit and listen to 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence in three movements. You may regard him as a highly influential figure responsible for breaking open discussions on chance operations in art or advancing "aleatoric" music. Or you may not have heard of him at all.

Rather than calling for a 4-minute, 33-second moment of silence, we spend that time to remember him not as a concept-art troll or hero, but instead as a fellow who did many amusing things over his career and seemed to have a lot of fun doing it. John Cage—no, not that John Cage, by the way—liked to structure his activities like games to the point where he might make a good new model for the increasingly embattled term "gamer."

Obviously, no one would go as far to say that Cage, a musician, writer, visual artist, and performer, was really the obsessive Steam achievement-unlocking type of gamer—especially since he died in 1992—but there's more than a handful of moments that reveal that he was someone who played with audiences and ideas, which is way more fun than being some weird lover of long silences or snooty conceptual artist holding his audience in contempt. 

Likewise, since the term gamer is either old hat, more resilient than ever, or at its end entirely, depending on who you talk to, why not seize the opportunity of Cage's birthday to try on examples from his game-like projects to see if there isn't some other meaning to making, playing and discussing games.

John Cage, Game Show Guest

Cage went on a nationally televised game show on in 1960, when he was already a noted composer in the experimental music world and a faculty member at the New School. It was as weird guest choice then, just like it would be now—Cage didn't fit the model of garden variety game show contestant or even celebrity guest. Nonetheless, Mark Goodson and Bill Todman, producers of the CBS show I Have a Secret, must have thought that his hidden talent for making experimental music with household items would make a good episode closer.

I Have a Secret was a panel show where celebrities would try to deduce a contestant's secret with yes or no questions. In the clip above, Gary Moore, the show's host, decides that Cage's "secret" of playing music with "a Water Pitcher, an Iron Pipe, a Goose Call, a Bottle of Wine, an Electric Mixer, a Whistle, a Sprinkling Can, ice cubes, 2 Cymbals, a Mechanical Fish, a Quail Call, a Rubber Duck, a Tape Recorder, a Vase of Roses, a Seltzer Siphon, 5 Radios, a Bathtub and a GRAND PIANO" was remarkable and time-consuming enough to skip the celebrity guessing game part of the show.

Instead Cage launches into something like a game of his own construction. Following his stop watch and hitting pre-determined moments where each object is used to make a sound, Cage runs through something of a musical platformer, hitting his marks in time with the relaxed and self-satisfied expression of someone who knows how to execute every move in front of them. 

Setting up a series of goals, mastering them, and then performing this mastery in front of a wide televisual audience might feel something like nailing a speed run on Twitch.

Cage as Programmer

Cage was interested in computer code long before being a programmer was fashionable or something all kids need to do. Like Warhol, Cage was an early advocate of computer art. 

In his essay "Are We an Audience for Computer Art?" he somewhat famously stated, "What we need is a computer that isn't labor-saving but which increases the work for us to do." Given the excessive virtual labor one can perform mining for gold or special items in any MMORPG, maybe contemporary video games can be seen as an answer to this challenge from 1966.

Cage tried to respond to his own challenge by collaborating with Lejaren Hiller in a sprawling harpischord-and-computer-driven composition called HRPSCRD (pronounced: harpsichord) at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana in 1969.

The band assembled for the piece featured a whopping seven harpsichord soloists accompanied by fifty-two tape decks playing back a variety of sounds from two-hundred and eight computer-generated tapes. The tape selections were controlled by programs written by Hiller in FORTRAN, the programming language released by IBM in 1957, which was highly popular in a lot of early computing and has a bit of a cult to this day.

The performance space was covered in a number of slide and film projections, and a sample of the piece made it to Youtube. The audience was encouraged to walk around the performance space, alongside the musicians. By all accounts, it was a slamming party full of sensory overload that many have further dissected and even recreated. It was re-staged in 2013 at New York's Eyebeam where it was described as a "mass-media orgy."

Earlier than this, between 1961-1964, a Cage study group model inspired the artist James Tenney to hold secret computer programming workshops for artists in New York. Art heavyweights such as Dick Higgins, Alison Knowles, Max Neuhaus, and Nam June Paik met up in Chelsea to learn FORTRAN in manner that resembled today's code meet-ups, hacker spaces and game dev co-ops. 

Accounts of HRPSCRD and James Tenney's FORTRAN workshops and all manner of other interesting early computer art is covered in Mainframe Experimentalism.

Cage as Chessmaster

In the spirit of both conceptual art, and the world's biggest chess match heating up in St. Louis, I'd be remiss not to mention the time Cage played responsive sound-chess with none other than Marcel Duchamp.

It was a true historical prize match moment for both art history and board game lovers, two titans of conceptual art squared off in what was both a way for Cage to get some game-time in with one of his biggest influences, as well as a live musical performance.

In a composition called Reunion, one decisive half-hour match was played between Duchamp and Cage at the Ryerson Theatre in Toronto in 1968. (A second game was also started between Cage and Teeny Duchamp, Marcel's wife, but went on too long and had to be finished in New York days later.)

The board used was a special music-generating chess board created by Lowell Cross and a group of collaborators. Each tile was rigged with photo-resistors so that the movement of chess pieces also triggered sounds in an musical composition governed by chance.

Marcel and Alexina Duchamp (left) perform Reunion with John Cage. Image: John Cage Trust

At the end of the thirty-minute match, Duchamp handily defeated Cage despite the fact that Duchamp has given himself the handicap of starting with one knight. Though who's the real winner, if Cage got to play a game, create a musical performance, and spend quality time with a mentor all at the same time? Few acts of gaming in history have been so productive.

Which goes to show just how elastic the concept of "gamer" can be. On the other hand, we could also stand to follow Cage's lead and learn something about silence every now and then.