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John Cage, ‘Essay’, 1987, installation view at La Casa Encendida in 2006

Madrid’s La Casa Encendida is a relatively new multidisciplinary space with an exhibitions programme featuring emerging visual artists in the four floors of galleries, and favouring contemporary music in the courtyard-come-theatre. In November it mounted an exhibition of John Cage’s installation, ‘Essay’, 1987, punctuated in mid-December with a week of performances, paying homage to the infamous inventor of genius, and giving substance to the historian’s mantra; that the future is revealed through the past.

‘Essay’ takes the form of six chairs, which are positioned in new locations and new directions each day, along with an overhead grid containing 50 lights and 36 loud speakers. The locations of the chairs, as well as the placement of the lights, were decided using chance operations, a technique Cage developed in his compositional practice that enabled him to evade personal tastes and preferences. The 50 lights slowly and continuously change intensity throughout each day, and begin at a different point each morning, while 36 auto-reverse cassette decks ensure that the audio continues without any repetitions for the duration of the exhibition.

Surprisingly, the dense soundscape one encounters has a paradoxically lucid beginning; ‘Essay’ is short for ‘Writings through the Essay: On the Duty of Civil Disobedience’ by HD Thoreau. The words of Thoreau’s text became the gamut of language for ‘Essay’. Cage wrote through Thoreau’s text 18 times, the words used in each writing through being eliminated from the gamut at the completion of each text, reducing its size, and consequently the length of the texts. Cage used these words to create mesostics, his poetic version of an acrostic, on Erik Satie’s title ‘Messe des Pauvres’.

Subsequently, recordings of Cage reading the texts at a constant rate of delivery, the differing lengths of texts resulting in different lengths of recordings ranging from 20 minutes to 30 seconds, were expanded or contracted using the technology available in the computer music department of CUNY’s Brooklyn College. The texts were to sustain the same pitch, but have a uniform duration of 16 minutes and 49 seconds, a duration that was arrived at by chance. These 18 tracks of tape were mixed together resulting in the exquisitely rich audio portion of ‘Essay’.

‘Essay’ illuminates Cage’s sophisticated palate of techniques, ideas and references. Language has been transformed into its musical form, poetry, and abstracted to become pure sound. Individual words and their meanings may be intermittently understood, but without their sentences these words have been stripped of intended purpose and constricting device. Released from familiar phrases they, like the sounds of his compositions, are heard rather than expected. The seemingly austere installation stretches the boundaries of the medium; the requisite three-dimensions are expanded to embrace a fourth, in time. The lighting’s slow undulation arrests the attention and clarifies perception—each day the chairs guide our gaze in a new direction. Twenty years on, this creation by a 75 year-old artist, rather than receding into the annals of art history, like most of Cage’s oeuvre, remains more innovative than much new work today.

Victoria Miguel is a writer living in New York