ONE11 and 103 • Arturo Tamayo, cond;1 West German SO Köln;1 John Kennedy, cond;2 Spoleto Festival O2 • MODE 174 (DVD: 166:00)
CAGE One(11) (a film). _103 (2 versions)Read more class="SUPER12">1, 2
This will be very much to the taste of a specific group, so I’ll try to describe as precisely and succinctly as possible, so that all readers will know what they’re getting into. I also think that this most unlikely of art pieces is profoundly and surprisingly beautiful.
John Cage’s One11 is the composer’s only feature-length film. This is not a documentary; rather, it is a piece Cage made—to paraphrase Seinfeld—about nothing. Or more exactly, he describes it as “a film without a subject.” And of course there is a subject, but it’s the play of light on a wall, in interaction with the actions of the cameraman filming it. The title comes from the structure of the “number” pieces Cage was making in his final period: i.e., it is the 11th in a series of works for one performer (in this case the cinematographer). It is 90 minutes long, and for its entirety it is accompanied by a contemporary piece of equal duration, 103 (for orchestra).
First, the visuals: The film is in black and white, and one watches slow changes of intensity and patterns of light and shadow cast on a white surface. These are often quite complex, because the compositional process required multiple cross fades between simultaneously shot materials. The effect is of a “transcendental” abstract painting animated. If you are familiar with the Suprematist work of Malevitch, late Rothko, or paintings of Robert Ryman or Agnes Martin, this starts to suggest the purity, starkness, and subtlety of the image. I also couldn’t help referencing X-rays and photos from outer space. It is quite dreamlike, and if one starts to internalize its pace, one can become mesmerized.
Second, the sound: it contributes to the effect described above. 103 uses Cage’s “time bracket” technique, which gives each player in an ensemble a part within which are indicated a series of prescribed periods where a sound (note or notes) must occur. Thus the players perform an action within one “bracket,” then move to the next and wait until its indicated time is reached, at which point they can choose to start anew somewhere within that time field. Though this may sound complex, it’s actually quite straightforward in its execution—all the performer or conductor needs is a stopwatch, and these pieces tend to open out into ample fields of sounds, with long sustained tones dappled by little pointillist outbursts. I don’t know if Cage knew Scelsi’s work at this point (which it resembles), but it does seem that he’d learned a thing or two from his onetime “student” Morton Feldman. Whatever the case, the music seems more “natural” than many would associate with the composer, but it still keeps the sense of non-directionality he prized, even if it sounds more continuous. When combined with the rather glacial pace of the images’ development, these tectonic plates of sound start to take on a real drama, even grandeur—though of course that’s my construction, not the composer’s. Mode also provides the neat option of two different soundtracks, a German and American performance of the same piece, which works because the original film was shot silently, and the accompanying piece’s duration is always exactly the same as that of the film.
The DVD includes two documentaries: one lasting 43 minutes from the West German TV made at the time of the piece’s completion in 1992, with a new English narration by Joan La Barbara; the other at 33 minutes and made for this release, where director Henning Lohner and cameraman Van Theodore Carlson are interviewed about their memories of the collaboration. Paired together, they are very revealing. The German film emphasizes the extreme rigor of Cage’s process: though all the light changes, camera angles, fades, and edits were determined by chance operations, they were then fed into a complex script that became a rigorously deterministic guide for the making of the piece. But what Lohner and Carlson reveal 14 years later is that Cage was very free in the process about altering the script and even making a new one when he realized there were visual possibilities he hadn’t foreseen. So Cage was willing to subvert his own initial structure with his taste. Some will see this as a betrayal of his aesthetic of avoiding any personality in the manipulation of artistic materials; others will see it as the mark of a great artist who was willing to seize any opportunity that presents itself. I tend to be in the latter camp.
This was in fact Cage’s last piece, and in some ways it feels like a summa. There is a poignant moment in an interview where he says he decided to make the film because “when one is this age one seizes any opportunity . . . because time is short [laughs].” He would be dead within the year, though there’s no hint of that in his wonderful impish demeanor. Cage was always a great innovator in media other than music (his visual artworks stand up beautifully in various museum contexts when I’ve encountered them), and it shouldn’t be too surprising that his film would be utterly original. What may surprise, though, is also how beautiful it is. Let me be clear—the effect is literally more like “watching paint dry” than the metaphor usually implies. Thus viewers are forewarned. But I was seduced by its purity and subtle sensuality. And having watched it with a visual artist who was thrilled by it, I think I’m not alone. In fact, this may be one of Cage’s great masterpieces.