Elsa Delage published a review regarding the exhibition Cage's Satie: Composition for Museum which took place at the Musée d'art contemporain de Lyon from September 28th to December 30th 2012 in Esse arts + opinions magazine, n°78, pp. 62-63, 2013.

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‘Cage’s Satie: Composition for Museum’

In autumn 2012[1], the Museum of Contemporary Art Lyon presented an exhibition that addressed the recurring presence of the French composer and pianist Erik Satie (1866-1925) in the work of John Cage (1912-1992), an influential figure in contemporary music who was at the heart of the American avant-garde. Best known for his work on the deconstruction of structure and musical harmonies and his thinking on the idea of subjectivity in interpretation, Satie was a crucial influence for Cage.

Titled ‘Cage’s Satie: Composition for Museum’, the exhibition was conceived as a piece of music by John Cage paying homage to Erik Satie. The curator of the exhibition, Laura Kuhn, director of the John Cage Trust in New York, rose brilliantly to the challenge of exhibiting music. The works co-exist without getting in the way of each other, so that the very conception of the exhibition echoes the process of composition in which Cage was so interested. We find an open space, polished and unified, in which twenty or so chaise-longues are placed, inviting you to sit down to listen to pieces of music or watch the various videos. The sound loops respond to the video loops in a total harmony of the senses. The pieces of music written by Cage using works by Satie are in dialogue with reproductions of the scores, enlarged manuscript notes, poems and drawings by the American composer as well as videos of the choreography of Merce Cunningham. The accent is placed on the graphic aspect of the notes and scores, which become signs. Above all, it is a question of transcribing a language. Music is a language and the writing of music is a conceptualisation of sound.

An entire room is given over to the work The First Meeting of the Satie Society (1985-1992). Cage invited numerous artists to fill a suitcase with their words and images, collected in eight books made by hand. On this suitcase made of cracked glass and metal directly inspired by Marcel Duchamp, there are twenty quotations by Satie, punch-marked on the outside. Artists such as Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Sol LeWitt, Robert Ryman and Merce Cunningham collaborated on the illustration of these books. This project is conceived as a series of presents, intended for Satie. Each book brings together mesostics by Cage. These poems, which have a very specific form, are a perfect reflection of Cage’s ambition to deconstruct all syntaxes, linguistic, musical or pictorial. Unifying poetry, performance, typography, visual art, sculpture and music, this collaborative work does not only bear witness to Cage’s desire to create a synthesis of the arts and thus push back the boundaries that separate them, it also underlines the relevance of this original poetic form.

Another room is dedicated to the work James Joyce, Marcel Duchamp, Erik Satie: An alphabet (1982), by Cage. This was originally a radio piece for a single voice. Working with the principle of collage, Cage assembled an imaginary programme with fourteen individuals, including James Joyce, Henry David Thoreau, Marcel Duchamp and Erik Satie, whom he invites to participate in a dialogue. Their conversation is made up of literary citations, liberally adapted historical texts and phrases that were quite simply written by Cage. In 2001, the idea of adapting it for the theatre raised the question of how it could be transferred to the stage. The solution was to create Alphabet, a kind of installation-performance where the text is spacialised and the time, sequence and movement are relegated to the background. The relatively static aspect of this form aims to imprint the essence of the image onto the work. Placed within a wooden structure, the actors essentially remain still. The music, a mix created digitally, includes both continuous background noises as well as intermittent sounds. Mikel Rouse, a New York-based composer, created it based on scores left by Cage in unfinished manuscripts. The sounds are as varied and suggestive as the dialogues themselves: a lawnmower, X-rays, an earthquake, a photocopier… Photographs of various performances as well as the recordings of Alphabet are also exhibited. In the same room, an installation refers to non-intentional composition, a route explored by Cage, and his interest in free sounds. Different sounds are broadcast in the space and the visitor can participate in this sonic environment by intervening using one of the four pianos installed in the middle of the room. Each key triggers a noise that lasts for a maximum of five seconds and that refers to a concrete action (a bell, a cymbal, a bicycle bell, the sound of scrawling, the noise of a spring, that of a page turning, that of two glasses clinking together…). We don’t know when someone will come to trigger a sound or which sound it will be, or if they will be alone or accompanied. The composition is different every time, and is executed in an undetermined way. This participative proposition thus seems to be particularly adapted to the idea of the aleatory, which was so dear to Cage.

Presented on the centenary anniversary of John Cage’s birth, this exhibition offers a new view on his art, revealing a practice based on a constant dialogue with those whom he admired, through playful references, borrowings, reprisals and echoes of all kinds. The exhibition allows us to approach the work of the composer through the interest he had, notably, in Henry David Thoreau, in Marcel Duchamp, in James Joyce and, of course, in Erik Satie. Between Satie and Cage, we see interconnections, closely linked material, music which has the same phrasing, the same rhythms, but which remains nevertheless completely distinct and original. The influence of Satie was essential to Cage’s structural, formal and methodological experiments with musicological material. The exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Lyon thus emphasises the decisive influence that he had on the life of Cage and the recurring homages that Cage paid to him in his works.

[1] From 28 September to 30 December 2012

Translation by Elizaveta Butakova-Kilgarriff.