John Cage and Marcel Duchamp

In 1968, John Cage and Marcel Duchamp played a game of chess involving pieces that generated electronic sounds and a very expensive bottle of wine. The details of what actually happened that night were pored over by historians for years after 

It’s just after 8:30pm on the evening of 5 March 1968, and everyone at the Ryerson Theatre in Toronto has taken their seats. There’s a hush of anticipation as the distinguished forefather of conceptual art looks to play his opening gambit. Marcel Duchamp sits enveloped in a plume of his own cigar smoke, staring intently as he replaces his king’s knight with a US quarter – a self-imposed handicap to give his opponent an advantage, such is the unfairness of the fight. 

Sitting beside Duchamp is his wife Alexina, who is also known as “Teeny”, an elegant black coat draped over her shoulders. Teeny accompanies Duchamp everywhere he goes. The 80-year-old Frenchman’s opponent, sitting opposite him in a smoking jacket and open collar, is the 57-year-old John Cage, smiling contentedly and occasionally drawing on a cigarillo suspended from a dainty holder. 

On this occasion, it’s definitely not the winning but the taking part that counts for Cage. A good job too, as Duchamp is a bona fide master who’s represented France at no fewer than four Chess Olympiads. 

Cage first met Duchamp in the 1940s. Charmed by modern art’s most important conceptualist, he cooked up a plan to spend more time with Duchamp by asking him for chess lessons. Cage had form for tracking down the greatest artists of the 20th century to learn from them. An early mentor was Arnold Schoenberg who he wore down by attrition. “I’ve always gone, insofar as I could, to the president of the company,” he once said. 

Throughout his eight chess lessons – which took almost 20 years to coax out of Duchamp – Cage would normally play Teeny. Duchamp would pace around the room of their New York townhouse apartment at 28 West 10th Street, pipe in hand, insulting the pair’s desultory machinations. 

If Cage was in awe of the revered art prankster, there was another reason to seek him out. Cage has often been called the father of indeterminism, but it was Duchamp who composed ‘Erratum Musical (For Three Voices)’ using aleatory (chance) means, generating sounds by choosing from three sets of 25 separate cards. He did this the year after Cage was born.

The event in Canada – named Reunion – was to work on similar principles, with the music and visuals generated not by cards but by chess moves. The audience would have immediately noticed a plethora of cables jutting out from under the board, with each connected to a square fitted with a photoresistor. So when a piece was moved, lights and sounds were generated. David Tudor, David Behrman and Gordon Mumma were on hand to perform electronic music, a multimedia cross-mate in anticipation of a checkmate.

The board itself had been designed at short notice by Lowell Cross, a graduate student at the Electronic Music Studios in Toronto and an associate of Cage. At home one cold winter night in early 1968, Cage telephoned Cross to ask if he would build an electronic chessboard that would select and spatially distribute sounds around a concert audience during a chess game.

In a 1999 paper, Reunion: John Cage, Marcel Duchamp, Electronic Music And Chess, Cross addressed many of the factual inaccuracies that had inadvertently perpetuated over the course of the previous 31 years. It’s a revealing article, written for the Leonardo Music Journal, that’s more amiable than academic. 

At the time Cage contacted him, Cross was in the process of completing his graduate work at the University of Toronto, so at first he politely refused the request.

“Perhaps you will change your mind if I tell you who my chess partner will be?” Cage is reported to have said, going on to reveal his opponent would be Marcel Duchamp.

“I was persuaded, of course, and I immediately began to design the chessboard, thesis or no thesis,” wrote Cross. 

Another entertaining passage in the paper concerns the uncomfortable situation regarding who should buy the wine. Cross eventually stumped up for one bottle of 1964 Château Kirwan – a decent vintage to satisfy Duchamp’s renowned connoisseurship – though serving it in public had first to be cleared with Ontario’s Liquor Control Board. The money for it came not from Cage’s pocket but from Cross’ own at a time when he was a student, and it seems this fact still rankled seven years after Cage’s death. 

Sadly, nobody had the foresight to film Reunion. Only two recordings survive, which were made by the composer David Behrman. They last around three-and-a-half minutes each and are taken, one presumes, from the beginning and the end of the match. These recordings were released as a flexi disc in a slipcase attached to a limited edition photobook by the Fluxus artist Shigeko Kubota in 1970, with only 500 copies made available for sale. The audio from the acetate is available on YouTube. 

At the outset, Cage is heard explaining what will happen. As Duchamp makes his opening gambit, a wan, organ-like, sustained note is triggered and Teeny can be heard to say, “That’s a very nice sound”. Perhaps inspired by Terry Riley’s ‘In C’, all of the composers appear to agree to play a G, four notes up from middle C. 

It’s impossible to deduce from the recording which composer is doing what, but as the game unfolds, the extended notes begin to coalesce and consolidate, with wild oscillations in the background, ultimately creating a cacophony that might have put off a chess player who would prefer to work in silence – something Cage knew plenty about. 

Duchamp, on the other hand, knew plenty about chess, and dispatched his opponent in 25 minutes.

The Reunion event turned out to be Marcel Duchamp’s final appearance in public, other than a brief curtain call in Buffalo, New York a month later. He died of heart failure at his home in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France in October that same year, after an evening spent entertaining the artist Man Ray and the art critic Robert Lebel. 

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