Generally Eclectic Review

Reviews of book on music - all sorts. Feel free to share your comments, criticisms, and replies with my readers!

Location: Fredonia, New York, United States

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Monday, December 05, 2011

“The Sight Of Silence: John Cage’s Complete Watercolors” by Ray Kass (distrib. by University of Virginia Press)

John Cage’s contributions to the musical life of the 20th-century were game-changing. What may less known to the public at large are his efforts in such fields as mycology, print-making, poetry/literature, and painting. Truth is, in a couple of these areas, he was essentially a dilettante, but this book/DVD gives us a chance to see and assess his attempts at applying his chance compositional techniques to the art of watercolor painting.

Cage was first invited to participate in painting workshops at Mountain Lake, Virginia in 1983. He was already in his 70’s, and had no need to break new artistic ground. But his enthusiasm for discovering and experiencing new (to him) things led to what was a fascinating new toy for Cage. Needless to say, his paintings were no more representational or carefully calculated than his music was. The I Ching, which served as the basis for assembling musical scores without the interference of artistic intention, once again was used to substitute for pre-conceived creative decisions. At least this was his original concert, though aesthetic decisions occasionally forced their way into the process.

Cage’s subjects were river rocks. No, he did not paint portraits of rocks. Rather, rocks of various sizes and shapes were selected, placed on paper (the specific paper chosen by reference to a randomly-generated number list) in a position dictated by the I Ching, after which Cage selected a brush with reference to his I Ching random-number list, dipped it in a color of paint chosen by reference to the I Ching list, etc. He then painted around the rock, so we are left with outlines of rocks, which were then painted over using a randomly selected wash. In all, 125 paintings were completed in roughly this manner over a period of seven years. Many are aesthetically striking, while others communicate nothing to the viewer (at least to this viewer). But Cage wasn’t concerned with how the viewer would react to these works, pro or con. It was the process that was most significant to him.

The book covers this process in quite a bit of detail, but not so painstakingly that it becomes tedious. Cage’s fascination with this “new toy” is readily communicated by the accompanying DVD, which is essential to any understanding of this intriguing experiment. The films make visual sense of many points that may be a bit difficult to fully comprehend through simply reading the text and viewing the still photos that are generously sprinkled throughout the book. It’s intriguing to see Cage apply the very compositional techniques he brought to his musical scores to an entirely different, fully visual medium, whether one finds them ultimately satisfying or not. Even so, the longer the project carried on the more Cage began to make decisions based on personal preference rather than leaving every single aspect to chance.

Of course, the “main event”, the reason for this book’s existence, is the watercolors themselves. Many of them are reproduced small-scale, several to a page, but in most cases such a view will suffice. The colors tend to be earth-toned rather than brightly colored, but this seems to blend well with the genesis of the project as a collection of rocks culled from a riverbank. The book’s author/assembler, Ray Kass, was the instigator of this art project, and was involved during every step of the operation. Thus, his text may be readily accepted as the definitive retelling of the events described herein.

The accompanying DVD not only illustrates the artistic process, there is a also performance of an early Cage work for prepared piano and percussion, a couple literary readings, and a stimulating question-and-answer session with the artist. In all, a satisfying document, which allows us a glimpse into “another side” of John Cage from the one we’re used to reading about.

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