John Cage’s Themes and Variations December 3-9, 1980

John Cage presented his ‘Themes and Variations’ on November 11 at the School of Visual Arts. Like most of his work during the past few years, it is closer to poetry than to music. The piece follows Cage’s mesostic form, in which horizontal lines of text run across the name of particular individuals, spelled vertically. In this case the individuals are 15 people who have influenced him, such as Marcel Duchamp, Jasper Johns, Merce Cunningham, and Henry David Thoreau, and the horizontal text deals systematically with silence, anarchism, Buddhism, and other musical and non-musical subjects of particular interest to the artist.

The rules of the mesostic form are so restrictive that it is impossible for Cage to say very much very cohesively about any of these topics. But of course, that is the point, or one of the points. The text becomes fragmentary, elusive, disconnected, and poetic, and yet it somehow expresses his point of view more touchingly, more clearly, and more profoundly than many of his prose texts do. As the work drifted through references to musical rehearsals, chance operations, performer freedom, the work ethic, and so much more, I found that it reminded me of many earlier Cage works and seemed like a dense summary of the ideas he has fought for and the things he has accomplished. The effect no doubt had something to do with Cage’s own reading voice, which on this occasion was intimate, almost withdrawn. As he read the text, I suspected that he too must have been thinking about the many earlier works reflected in it.

It would be hard to say what the three or four hundred young art school students were thinking about, though I had the feeling their reactions were probably very different from mine. For me, Cage will always be a revolutionary, a highly controversial figure. For them, I think he is already a classic. They listened almost reverently and applauded warmly. I doubt that most of them had any trouble at all accepting the validity of chance methods, the idea that art need not express emotions, or the notion that a performance consisting solely of spoken words can be considered a piece of music.