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  • Empty Duration and the Generosity of John Cage
  • Kay Larson (bio)

I was almost 40 years old before I discovered what I needed—in Oriental thought. It occupied all my free time . . . I was starved—I was thirsty.

John Cage

Like some ancient rune, a yellowed page of ordinary unlined paper, flat and mute, sat inside a glass case in the exhibition Robert Rauschenberg: Among Friends, at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, in 2017. This odd artifact, which comes from the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, bore seven short lines in John Cage's handwriting:

Projector:Begin at 16 minPlay freely until 23 minBegin again at 24:30Play freely until 35:45Begin at 38:20Play freely until 44:25.

MoMA's label identified this object as a "time score" for Theater Piece No. 1, which Cage created at Black Mountain College in August 1952. (I have retained MoMA's updated spelling of the title.) The label said: "The scores designated a start and stop time, but left it up to the performer to decide how to fill the interval. This is the only surviving document from the event." It should be regarded as a national treasure. So much contemporary art started right here, with this single sheet of paper (and others like it). But translation is necessary.

I propose that the deepest meaning of this Cageian rune turns on that repeated phrase: "Play freely." From December 1950 on, Cage invented new forms of performance that replaced "personality" (self-expression) with Possibility. The [End Page 78] most precedent-shattering forms, such as chance, silence, indeterminacy, process, distribution throughout a field, and one I'm calling "empty duration," are Cage's impassioned response to teachings he heard from an important Japanese Zen scholar, Daisetz Teitaro (D.T.) Suzuki. Cage then gave these forms away to anyone who wanted to use or adapt them. Artists who borrowed Cage's forms unknowingly imported into their own work a Buddhist epistemology that was unlike anything ever seen in the arts of the West. Perhaps this "stealth" aspect is the reason why Cage's inventions proved to be so new and so difficult to fathom, even now.

In MoMA's exhibition, a brown floor-to-ceiling projection screen presented a sequence of quotes—drawn from comments by Cage, or by witnesses or participants in Theater Piece No. 1—that arose as paragraphs of text in blue-white light. As one observation faded away, another appeared, then another, and another. Layered and sometimes contradictory, these reminiscences skillfully evoked the ephemeral instability of memory and the textural weaving of multiple observational viewpoints.

A paragraph by Cage floated up: "During periods that I called time brackets, the performers were free within limitations—I think you would call them compartments—compartments which they didn't have to fill, like a green light in traffic. Until this compartment began, they were not free to act, but once it had begun they could act as long as they wanted to during it."

From poet M.C. Richards, who took part in the Black Mountain event: "As we came in, we were given a piece of paper that had the time on it—32" or 4'00"—for those of us who were performing, but how I knew what that time was, I can't remember." From David Tudor, Cage's friend and collaborator, and also a participant: "Almost certainly John had a plan, but I don't recall seeing it. This has happened many times over the years with people he wants to work with. He distributes a plan that you can use or not, but it's just a piece of paper with some numbers on it. This kind of thing doesn't get documented, and it gets lost." Cage called these "green light" intervals "time brackets" or "compartments," but their main characteristic is that they are durations: passages of time. Why do I call them empty? Empty of what?

We humans write numbers onto the seamless flow of our experience. If a train leaves Philadelphia at 4:44 in the afternoon, that's just a marker inscribed on the ceaseless...


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