When John Cage & Marcel Duchamp Played Chess on a Chessboard That Turned Chess Moves Into Electronic Music (1968)

Pho­to­graph by Lynn Rosen­thal

When is a chess game not a chess game?

When it’s played between Mar­cel Duchamp and John Cage.

Both the man who turned a uri­nal into a piece of mod­ern art and the man who reduced musi­cal com­po­si­tion all the way down to silence were fans of tak­ing things to absurd con­clu­sions. And they were both fans of chess; Duchamp the grand mas­ter and Cage the duti­ful stu­dent. Asked in 1974 whether Duchamp was a good teacher, Cage replied, “I was using chess as a pre­text to be with him. I didn’t learn, unfor­tu­nate­ly, while he was alive to play well.”

But Cage seemed to have lit­tle inter­est in com­pe­ti­tion. “Duchamp once watched me play­ing and became indig­nant when I didn’t win,” he said. “He accused me of not want­i­ng to win.” Instead, he approached chess as he approached the piano—as a decoy, a feint, that leads into anoth­er kind of game entire­ly. In a 1944 trib­ute to Duchamp, he paint­ed a chess­board that was actu­al­ly a musi­cal score, and, in 1968, he arranged a pub­lic game as a pre­text for a musi­cal per­for­mance called Reunion, per­formed in Toron­to with Duchamp and his wife Tee­ny (we have no film of the game-slash-con­cert; you can see Cage play Tee­ny in the video above).

Cage was an admir­er of the elder artist for over 20 years, play­ing chess with him fre­quent­ly. But he “didn’t want to both­er Duchamp with his friend­ship,” writes Syl­vere Lotringer, “until he real­ized that Duchamp’s health was fail­ing. Then he decid­ed to active­ly seek his com­pa­ny.” Play­ing on an elec­tron­ic chess board designed by Low­ell Cross, known as the inven­tor of the laser light show, the two cre­at­ed an extem­po­ra­ne­ous com­po­si­tion that last­ed as long as the audi­ence, and Duchamp, could tol­er­ate. “The con­cert,” Cross remem­bered on the for­ti­eth anniver­sary of the piece, “began short­ly after 8:30 on the evening of March 5, 1968, and con­clud­ed at approx­i­mate­ly 1:00 a.m. the next morn­ing.”

Debunk­ing a num­ber of mis­con­cep­tions about the chess­board, Cross explains that its oper­a­tion “depend­ed upon the cov­er­ing or uncov­er­ing of its 64 pho­tore­sis­tors.” It also con­tained con­tact micro­phones so that “the audi­ence could hear the phys­i­cal moves of the pieces of the board.” When either play­er made a move, it trig­gered one of sev­er­al elec­tron­ic “sound-gen­er­at­ing sys­tems” cre­at­ed by com­posers David Behrman, Gor­dan Mum­ma, David Tudor, and Cross him­self. Addi­tion­al­ly, “oscil­lo­scop­ic images emanat­ed from… mod­i­fied mono­chrome and col­or tele­vi­sion screens, which pro­vid­ed visu­al mon­i­tor­ing of some of the sound events pass­ing through the chess­board.”

As Lotringer describes the scene, the two mod­ernist giants “played until the room emp­tied. With­out a word said, Cage had man­aged to turn the chess game (Duchamp’s osten­sive refusal to work) into a work­ing per­for­mance…. Play­ing chess that night extend­ed life into art—or vice ver­sa. All it took was plug­ging in their brains to a set of instru­ments, con­vert­ing nerve sig­nals into sounds. Eyes became ears, moves music.” Duchamp had giv­en the impres­sion he was done mak­ing art. “Cage found a way to lure him into one final pub­lic appear­ance as an artist,” notes the Toron­to Dreams Project blog.

Indeed, Cage may have been for­mu­lat­ing the idea for over twen­ty years, each time he sat down to play a game with Duchamp, and lost. When Duchamp arrived in Cana­da for the per­for­mance at what was called the Sight­soundsys­tems Fes­ti­val, he had no idea that he would be par­tic­i­pat­ing in the head­lin­ing event.

What he found when he arrived was a sur­re­al scene. Two of the great­est artists of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry took their seats in the mid­dle of the stage at the Ryer­son The­atre, bathed in bright light and the gaze of the audi­ence. Pho­tog­ra­phers cir­cled around them, shut­ters snap­ping; a movie cam­era whirred. The stage was a mess of gad­gets. There were wires every­where; a tan­gle of them plugged right into side of the chess­board. A pair of TV screens was set up on either side of the stage. The Toron­to Star called it “a cross between an elec­tron­ic fac­to­ry and a movie set.”

Cage lost, as usu­al, though he was more even­ly matched when he played Duchamp’s wife. The three of them, wrote the Globe, were “like fig­ures in a Beck­ett play, locked in some mean­ing­less game. The audi­ence, star­ing silent­ly and sul­len­ly at what was placed before it, was itself a char­ac­ter; and its role was as mean­ing­less as the oth­ers. It was total non-com­mu­ni­ca­tion, all around.” The wires run­ning from the chess­board con­nect­ed to “tuners, ampli­fiers and all man­ner of elec­tron­ic gad­getry,” the Star wrote, fill­ing the room with “screech­es, buzzes, twit­ters and rasps.”

The Star pro­nounced the event “infi­nite­ly bor­ing,” a wide­ly shared crit­i­cal assess­ment of the night. (Cage explains the Zen of bore­dom in his voice-over at the top.) But we can hard­ly expect most review­ers of either artist’s most exper­i­men­tal work to respond with less than bewil­der­ment, if not out­right hos­til­i­ty. It was to be Duchamp’s last pub­lic appear­ance. He passed away a few months lat­er. For Cage, the evening had been a suc­cess. As Cross put it, Reunion was “a pub­lic cel­e­bra­tion of Cage’s delight in liv­ing every­day life as an art form.”

Every­day life with Duchamp meant play­ing chess, and there were few greater influ­ences than Duchamp on Cage’s con­cep­tu­al approach to what music could be—and what could be music. “Like Duchamp,” writes PBS, “Cage found music around him and did not nec­es­sar­i­ly rely on express­ing some­thing from with­in.” Fur­ther up, see Cage’s 1944, Duchamp-inspired “Chess Pieces” per­formed on harp and accor­dion, and above hear a piece he wrote for Duchamp for a sequence in Hans Richter’s 1947 sur­re­al­ist film Dreams that Mon­ey Can Buy.

To delve deep­er, you can explore the book, Mar­cel Duchamp: The Art of Chess by Fran­cis M. Nau­mann.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Mar­cel Duchamp, Chess Enthu­si­ast, Cre­at­ed an Art Deco Chess Set That’s Now Avail­able via 3D Print­er

Play Chess Against the Ghost of Mar­cel Duchamp: A Free Online Chess Game

The Music of Avant-Garde Com­pos­er John Cage Now Avail­able in a Free Online Archive

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.