9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering is the famous nine-performance event that took place in New York on October 13-23, 1966 as a part of a series of Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.). In these performances 10 artists collaborated with 30 prominent engineers from Bell Laboratories in order to create the most ground-breaking and ahead-of-its-time blend of theatre and technology. The experiments were conceived and organised by Robert Rauschenberg and Billy Klüver, who brought together artists such as John Cage, Yvonne Rainer, David Tudor and Deborah Hay, and innovative engineers including Max Mathews, Bela Julesz, John Pierce, Fred Waldhauer and Billy Klüver. The end result has been documented in a series of rare historical films, produced by Billy Klüver and directed by Barbro Schultz Lundestam which provide their audience with something highly original and significant in many ways and for various reasons. The case of John Cage’s Variations VII, especially, is worth looking into, watching and appreciating more for its prophetic quality, its future influence on most musical styles and the enlightenment it offers on certain music history matters than its art as a film.
John Cage has certainly been one of the most influential American composers of the 20th century. But his pioneering skills, musical versatility and impressive ability to look ahead in time and to incorporate every type of electronic equipment imaginable in order to create sounds that had never until that point been used in musical composition, is what makes this particular performance worth watching and examining. Variations VII has an attitude. It’s powerful, it’s odd, it’s revolutionary.
What’s worth noting more than anything else, is the meaningful anarchy and unexpected psychedelia that one finds himself in while watching this concert. A group of suited composers and serious-looking engineers and scientists are in between two rows of desks, playing with radios, fans, speakers, TVs, cables and plugs, smoking and creating music. Admittedly, perhaps not what one would call “music” in the narrower sense of the word. Even more admittedly, not something I would personally choose to listen to in my house. But definitely something ahead of its time, different and powerful. And certainly something that makes what we call today “noise music” much more respectable and acceptable. Actually, what struck me as extremely interesting was the fact that it made me look at this type of music, as well as many other types of electronic music, that I dislike simply because I can’t understand, from a new perspective and a completely different angle. John Cage’s performance definitely gives all kinds of electronic music an avant-garde and highly artistic leg to stand on.
Another thing that makes this particular performance and documentary so special is the reality that only sounds in the air at the moment of the event were included in the musical pieces. John Cage is shown in the film orchestrating sounds coming from the New York Times press room, the Times Square traffic jam, a restaurant on14th Street, the ASPCA lost dog holding facilities, a turtle tank, the New York Sanitation Department and the Con Edison electric power generating station, among other venues. All the sounds become available to the artist and his crew through ten different dedicated telephone lines. And then specific people in ten designated areas, some of them mentioned above, pick up their phones and allow the sounds surrounding them to be magnetically picked up by receivers which then feed them into the sound modulation system put together by David Tudor.
In no way a simple gig and in every way a powerful and thought-provoking documentary to watch. The idea that while one honks his car horn on Times Square, stuck in traffic, the sound he generates is not at that time seen as annoying and utterly pointless, but rather as a part of a ground-breaking musical piece that people have paid highly to attend, is alarming. In this magnificent way, the film shows how interconnected music can be, how much it needs its audience and how everyone takes part in the process of composing more than he perhaps realises. This is exactly why 9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering and chiefly John Cage’s performance of Variations VII is so significant and why this historical film documenting it should not be missed.
9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering – Variations VII by John Cage at 9evenings.org
Variations by John Cage at Wikipedia