Thinking Outside The Cage: Sound With and Against Image


One would naturally look to film to enshrine a world-class 20th-century thinker as influential as composer John Cage. Yet many attempts to have Cage explain or demonstrate his work on camera appear contrived, and reduce him to a “far out” signifier—Dick Fontaine’s Sound (1967), for instance, finds Cage good-naturedly but somewhat artificially reciting questions about sound (intercut with footage of a sweaty club show by reed player Rahsaan Roland Kirk). Cage’s music is more often talked about than listened to—and doesn’t exactly beg for a visual counterpart. Moreover, Cage himself was no fan of film. “The images don’t interest me any more than the sound,” he wrote in 1956. “Nor am I interested in the artistic arrangement of sound to go with or against the images.”

Nevertheless, Anthology Film Archives has managed to round up over two dozen intersections of Cage, cinema, video, and television. In the festival’s opener, From Zero (1995), comprising four shorts, director Frank Scheffer bravely tries to adapt Cage’s aleatory techniques to film. 19 Questions is a chance-determined interview with Cage where he plays beat-the-clock by giving himself a strict number of seconds to discuss everything from Zen to Octavio Paz—it’s a rather charming portrait, with Cage chuckling at his own aphorisms. The chance-operation editing and filming of a performance of the Cage piece Fourteen is probably no more or less interesting than straight footage would be, but certainly more self-conscious; Ed Wood probably created a better, unintentional homage to Cage in the visual non sequiturs of Glen or Glenda. Paying Attention grows quickly tiresome in its distortion of image and sound in another interview with Cage, while Overpopulation and Art‘s random landscape shots again neither add nor subtract from the two Cage pieces on the soundtrack. Indeed, the best audio-visual answer to Cage’s music in the series is a 1960 chance meeting between Cage (as a contestant) and Zsa Zsa Gabor (as a panelist) on the long-forgotten game show I’ve Got a Secret.

More attractive are the documentaries about the works themselves. A little-seen gem is Jackie Raynal’s 1963 film of a Merce Cunningham/Cage performance in Paris, shot on stolen film stock with the Maysles brothers’ equipment. Variations V (1965-66) presents another Cunningham/Cage performance that incorporates films by Stan Vanderbeek, video by Nam June Paik, gizmos by Robert Moog, and rare appearances by classic new-music heroes David Tudor, James Tenney, and Gordon Mumma—a vital document of a first-generation Happening in full flower. HPSCHD shows an early ’90s restaging of another Happening, rendered poignant by Cage’s absence from the festivities but also illustrating how his ideas and pieces have taken on a life of their own.

Alan Licht performs in a live concert of John Cage music at Anthology on January 22.