The Reunion of Electronic Music and Chess
The Reunion of Electronic Music and Chess
Fig. 4. Teeny Duchamp, Marcel Duchamp and John Cage, just before the first game began. Duchamp had not yet removed his king’s knight. (Photo: Shigeko Kubota)
Other than the stipulation about contact microphones and his wish that the chess game would result in the selection and distribution of sounds around an audience, Cage made no requests about the actual operation of the chessboard. However, since I had an understanding of his aesthetic posture in the late 1960s, I made several decisions about the chessboard circuitry that I knew would please him. Immediately before the opening move, “silence” (in the Cageian sense) prevailed (see Fig. 4). The two pairs of ranks on each side, where the chesspieces repose before the game begins, were “off” (i.e. not passing a signal) when their 32 photoresistors were covered; the four center ranks were “off” when those remaining 32 photoresistors were exposed. With 16 inputs (allowing four signals each from the four collaborating composers) and eight outputs (each directed to a loudspeaker system), the complexity of the sound environment enveloping the audience increased as the early part of the game progressed; it then diminished as fewer and fewer pieces were left on the board.
I followed no particular plan while connecting the internal components of the chessboard except to ensure that each of the 16 inputs (designated 1–16) could appear at four of the eight different outputs (designated A–H). For example, during the course of a game, a signal at input 1 could appear at outputs B, E, F and/or G. My arrangement was arbitrary, unplanned and quasi-random, but any of the 16 inputs had a “chance” of appearing in as many as four of the eight loudspeaker locations surrounding the audience. If one assumes that the stage was “north” of the theatre seats, the loudspeakers were arranged as points on a compass: loudspeaker A was northwest; B, north; C, northeast; D, east; E, southeast; F, south; G, southwest; and H, west.
Cage’s hope for sound movement during the game was realized several times during the course of the evening. For example, if Duchamp (White) moved his queen from queen 1 (Q1; input 1, output F) to king’s bishop 3 (KB3; input 1, output B), the sound present in input 1 would move from the loudspeaker at back of the hall (F, south) to the loudspeaker facing the audience, just below center stage (B, north). Ancillary effects of sound choices and motion resulted from the shadows of hands and arms as the players moved pieces; these additional elements pleased Cage immensely.
While Reunion was supposed to provide a homey atmosphere, it was also quite theatrical, with well-defined roles for stars (seated at center stage) and bit players. The use of photoresistors, one imbedded in each of the 64 squares, required that the surface of the board be flooded with bright illumination. The chessboard was in the spotlight, and so were the stars. Cage did not wish to make the lighting requirements an issue, but he did tell me, “I’m so glad that Marcel will be in the spotlight.”
The photoresistors and fixed resistors form a passive resistive matrix. The inputs and the outputs are unbalanced “line level” and can operate with either consumer-grade or professional audio equipment; however, the outputs require a high-impedance load. The purely resistive circuitry attenuates the incoming signals. Accordingly, if a square is “on” (i.e., passing a signal), 12 decibels (dB) gain is required to overcome the attenuation in the two back pairs of ranks, and 24 dB gain is required for the four center ranks.
As seen, each signal is attenuated by a T pad. The two back pairs of ranks have the photoresistors at the input; the four center ranks have the photoresistors connected to ground. In their “off” conditions, the two back pairs of ranks (covered) attenuate incoming signals by an additional 62 dB; the four center ranks (uncovered) attenuate incoming signals by an additional 56 dB. The circuitry does not allow “off” to be completely off, but it was close enough for Reunion.
The purely resistive circuitry of the chessboard adds an insignificant amount of distortion to audio signals, and the frequency response is very uniform. After accounting for its broadband attenuation figures (see above), its response is down no more than 0.3 dB at 20 Hz and 1.3 dB at 20 kHz. The penalty, of course, is the requirement for gain makeup after attenuation.
I built the device with two tournament- size Masonite™ boards, one on top with the photoresistors mounted in the centers of the squares, and the other as the base. (The Reunion chessboard may be turned over for a game of “nonelectronic” chess.) The two Masonite™ boards are separated by ordinary two-byfours painted black. The two-by-four on White’s right-hand side has two openings: one for access to the 24 RCA jacks (16 unbalanced inputs, 8 unbalanced outputs) and the other for the nine cables to the contact microphones mounted inside (see Color Plate A No. 1 and Fig. 5). Its dimensions are 420 ´ 420 ´ 77 mm, or 16.5 inches square by 3 inches high.
Fig. 5. The chessboard partially connected. (Photo: Shigeko Kubota)
Fig. 6. John Cage makes a move; David Behrman and Gordon Mumma in background. Note bottle of wine at Teeny Duchamp’s feet. (Photo: Shigeko Kubota)
As in the design of the chessboard, Cage left the essential issue of wine entirely up to me. Knowing that Duchamp would defeat Cage handily in a couple of games within about an hour, I decided to buy the stars only one bottle of wine (Fig. 6). This decision was reinforced by the knowledge that I would be paying for it myself and that despite my financial status as graduate student, I would be expected to provide a high quality vintage. The result was a 1964 Château Kirwan, which I had to purchase with a special “license” to serve it in public, from the Head Office of the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO), on Toronto’s Front Street.
“How many bottles of wine?” asked the LCBO clerk.
“One,” I replied.
“How many people will be in attendance at your event?”
“It’s a public concert, perhaps 500.”
“And you’re buying only one bottle of wine, eh?”
He wrote this down, and then, with a quizzical shrug, he handed me my copies of the requisite forms and quickly produced a bottle of 1964 Château Kirwan from the large storeroom behind the counter. Nora provided the wine glasses for the evening.
After Duchamp soundly defeated his student-opponent in the first game (despite the handicap), 25 minutes and over one-half of the bottle of wine had been consumed. We still have the glass from which Duchamp drank; the other two and the empty bottle are gone. His glass is now chipped, after our several moves since 1968. If he were alive today, I am sure that Duchamp would comment that the chips only complete the original design.
The First Game
Shortly after the announced time of 8:30 P.M. on Tuesday, 5 March 1968, Reunion began. The collaborating composers “gamely” began producing sounds from their own pre-existent works, all of which utilized special equipment built, or custom-modified, by the individual artists themselves. Behrman’s contribution was Runthrough, Mumma performed his Hornpipe and Swarmer, and Tudor—who did not enter into this engagement with great enthusiasm—was content with the title Reuni on. The works of Behrman, Mumma and Tudor were all examples of “live electronic” music, performed continuously throughout the evening. My sonic contributions were two pieces of pre-recorded tape music, Video II (B) and Musica Instrumentalis, which also produced the oscilloscopic images on the television screens.
As noted above, Duchamp (White) gave his student-opponent Cage (Black) a handicap in this first game, removing his king’s knight from its square (KN1) and replacing it with a U.S. quarter dollar (Fig. 7). With this action, he demonstrated his understanding of the function of the chessboard—and, indeed, his understanding of the entire event. Duchamp played his role as chess master that evening with quiet, unruffled dignity, as though the event was nothing more than that intended: a part of everyday life. As reported above, he decisively trounced Cage within about 25 minutes— the handicap had no bearing on the outcome of that game (Fig. 8).
Fig. 7. The Reunion chessboard in 1998, set up with the Duchamp handicap. (Photo: Lowell Cross)
Fig. 8. Marcel Duchamp takes one of John Cage’s pieces. (Photo: Shigeko Kubota)
Cage had made a special point of inviting to Reunion Marshall McLuhan of the University of Toronto, then at the height of his fame as a media guru. McLuhan was one of the composer’s favorite “thinkers” of this period, and I was a student in his seminar “Media and Society” during that 1967–1968 academic year. Udo Kasemets later informed me that McLuhan was in the audience, remained for the first game, and left immediately thereafter. I never asked McLuhan about Reunion, and he never mentioned the event to me or to the members of the seminar.
The Second Game
While the star performers exchanged amenities, the break between games provided an intermission—and an opportunity for the exodus of a large segment of the audience. Then, at about 9:15 P.M., the scene reverted to the actual circumstances of the chess “lessons” at the Duchamps’ New York townhouse apartment at 28 West 10th Street: Cage played Teeny, and Duchamp observed (or dozed off; see Fig. 9). The collaborating composers again dutifully provided their electronic signals to the inputs of the chessboard, while the game between Cage and Teeny went on, and on, and on. They were well matched as chess players, and they played seriously and deliberately.
Fig. 9. The second game. Duchamp dozes off; David Behrman in background. (Photo: Shigeko Kubota)
Finally, at 1:00 A.M. on 6 March 1968, Duchamp made known his fatigue. Cage and Teeny agreed to adjourn and to continue the game in the future. The event came to its inconclusive ending.
A large part of Cage’s aesthetic of indeterminacy centered on his wish to remove his personality from his art. He was able to accomplish, and to justify, his indeterminate “system”—and that is what it was, a well-defined system—by utilizing extramusical means to realize his works: the I Ching, pitching pennies to arrive at chance operations, making use of the imperfections on score paper, randomly dropping squiggle-lined transparencies on top of each other, and so on. The idea of using a chess game to realize a musical-theatrical work was one of his most creative: it simultaneously exploited his never-concealed penchants for high theatre, the appeal of chess to intellectualism, and the living of everyday life. If nothing else, John Cage was an intellectual: self-taught, American and as original as they come.
His quest for “purposeful purposelessness or a purposeless play” was elegantly defined in his concept of Reunion, but as a musical performance, the work’s ultimate realization was indeed inconclusive. One game ended too quickly to allow the underlying ideas to be fully experienced by the audience; the other dragged on for so long that it had to be postponed due to the exhaustion of the principals and the dwindling audience. Finally, the circumstances attending Reunion permitted no correlation between Cage’s elegantly proscribed application of his system of indeterminacy and his underlying hope that elegant games of chess could bring forth elegant musical structures. The games clearly were not elegant, and I, for one, held no expectation that they could have brought forth elegant, or even interesting, musical structures. After this inconclusive event, what remained of Reunion? High theatre, Cage’s appeal to intellectualism, and everyday life.
The Toronto newspaper critics were unanimous in their indignation about Reunion, as evinced in the 6 March 1968 afternoon editions of the Star and the now-defunct Telegram. William Littler, music critic for the Star, produced a headline saying the event was “mighty boring.” His colleague and cultural observer Robert Fulford found it “infinitely boring” and an example of “total non-communication, all around.” The Telegram’s Kenneth Winters concluded that the “fusty, dusty, illustrious for reverent immurement in a university.” The editors of the conservative Globe and Mail did not condescend to send a reporter to Reunion.
Two additional performances of the work occurred that spring: one at the Electric Circus in New York, the other at Mills College in Oakland, California. Even though they lived in New York, the Duchamps stayed away from the Electric Circus event; Cage found as his chess partner the editor of The Saturday Evening Post. In addition to setting up the chessboard, I instructed Cage’s friend Jean Rigg in the fine art of margarita-making—in the absence of the Duchamps, no wine was served. A contact microphone was affixed to the Waring Blender, margaritas were served all around as long as there were ingredients, and a grand time was had by all.
At Mills College, I was Cage’s opponent at chess. In keeping with the Cage- Duchamp dress code, I wore a dark suit and tie, but Cage was dressed less formally. The reporter for the Oakland Tribune, Paul Hertelendy, suggested that Cage’s opponent looked like a member of the Mafia, or perhaps an FBI agent, in the incongruous role of chess player. I visitors are just about sufficiently fossilized was White, and I made a very bold opening, a variation on “Fool’s Mate.” Cage commented on my aggressiveness as I took some of his pieces, but that opening is dangerous when facing a practiced opponent, and he went on to win decisively. After all, he had been practicing quite a bit of chess over the past weeks, while I had been endeavoring to end my career as a graduate student.
I did not document either the name of the editor of The Saturday Evening Post or the dates and times of these later performances. By this time, Reunion had become part of my everyday life, and I was content to let it go at that.
Henri-Robert-Marcel Duchamp was born at home in Blainville, France on 28 July 1887. He was one of the most influential figures in twentieth-century avantgarde art. He died on 2 October 1968 at his apartment in Neuilly-sur-Seine (5 rue Parmentier), France.
John Milton Cage, Jr. was born the son of an inventor in Los Angeles on 5 September 1912. He became one of the leaders of the twentieth-century musical avant-garde. Cage died of a massive stroke on 12 August 1992.
Alexina (Teeny) Duchamp was born Alexina Sattler on 20 January 1906 in Cincinnati and married Marcel Duchamp in 1954. She died on 20 December 1995 at her home in Villierssous-grez, France, at the age of 89.
David Eugene Tudor was born in Philadelphia on 20 January 1926. He became one of the premier avant-garde pianists and electronic composers of our time, and began working with Cage as a member of Merce Cunningham and Dance Company (MCDC) in the early 1950s. He took over as the Company’s Musical Director when Cage died. Tudor died in his sleep on 13 August 1996 at his home in Tomkins Cove, NY at the age of 70.
Gordon Mumma was born on 30 March 1935 in Framingham, MA. From 1966 to 1974, he was a composer/musician (with Tudor and Cage) with MCDC and was one of the first composers to utilize electronic circuits of his own design. He is retired from the music faculty at the University of California at Santa Cruz.
David Behrman was born on 16 August 1937 in Salzburg, Austria. He formed the Sonic Arts Union in 1966 with Mumma, Robert Ashley and Alvin Lucier and was a composer/performer with MCDC from 1970 to 1977. He has since taught electronic and computer music at Bard, Mills and other U.S. colleges.
Lowell Merlin Cross was born in Kingsville, TX on 24 June 1938. He has taught in the School of Music at The University of Iowa since 1972.
I am grateful to Juan Maria Solare, an Argentine composer living in Germany, whose many email questions about Reunion prompted me to write this article 30 years after the event. I am also very grateful to Professor Elizabeth Aubrey, musicologist, colleague and dear friend, who patiently read the manuscript and made many helpful suggestions.
(Lowell Cross; Reunion: John Cage, Marcel Duchamp, Electronic Music and Chess, Leonardo Music Journal, 1999, Vol. 9, pp. 35–42.)
References and Notes:
 Calvin Tomkins, Duchamp (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1996) p. 446.
 Nicolas Slonimsky, ed., Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, 6th ed. (New York: Schirmer, 1978) p. 267. In the seventh and eighth editions of Baker’s (1984, 1992), with my prompting, Slonimsky corrected the spelling of Duchamp’s name and reported on a singular chessboard, but retained the erroneous statement about a computer and “laser rays.”
 Lowell Cross, “The Audio Control of Laser Displays,” db, the Sound Engineering Magazine 15, No. 7, 30–41 (July 1981).
 David Revill, The Roaring Silence—John Cage: A Life (New York: Arcade Publishing, Inc., 1992), p. 223.
 Tomkins , pp. 445–446.
 Lowell Cross, “The Stirrer,” Source, music of the avant garde No. 4 (1968) pp. 25–28.
 Lowell Cross, “Electronic Music, 1948–1953” Perspectives of New Music 7, No. 1, 32–65 (1968).
 See Tomkins  pp. 410–411.
 See Tomkins  p. 411.
 See Tomkins , p. 289.
 The château where this 1964 Margaux was produced, Château Kirwan, was confirmed to me in May 1998 by Mr. Wally Plahutnik, wine merchant for John’s Grocery, Inc. in Iowa City, after he carefully inspected the wine label seen in Shigeko Kubota’s photographs.
 The only work heard during Reunion that was released as a recording was my tape music, Video II (B), issued on Source Records No. 5, 1971. The “live electronic” pieces by the other composers were improvised and ephemeral, never to be heard again as they were on that evening. However, the entire event was recorded for possible release by CBS/Columbia (David Behrman, producer); present location and condition of the tapes are unknown.
 John Cage, “Experimental Music,” in Silence (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan Univ. Press, 1961) p. 12.
 The Toronto Star (6 March 1968).
 The Toronto Telegram (6 March 1968).
 See Tomkins  pp. 18, 449–450.
 See Slonimsky , 8th ed. (1992) p. 282.
 Laura Kuhn, Executive Director of The John Cage Trust, e-mail correspondence to me (3 and 4 December 1998). The Reunion chessboard is part of the collection of The John Cage Trust.
 Teeny Duchamp’s birthdate and birthplace were confirmed to me by her children, Jacqueline Matisse Monnier (via fax) and Paul Matisse (via
telephone), on 2 September 1999.
 Calvin Tomkins, fax correspondence to me, 20 May 1998.
 See the biography section of the David Tudor Pages, hosted by the Electronic Music Foundation web site; accessible at <http://www.emf.org/tudor/ Life/biography.html>.
 See the Gordon Mumma page in the on-line artist catalog for Lovely Music, accessible at <http://www.lovely.com/bios/mumma.html>.
 David M. Cummings, ed., International Who’s Who in Music and Musicians’ Director y, 15th Ed. (Cambridge, UK: International Biographical Centre, 1996) p. 65.