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VSW stages John Cage’s open-ended ‘Variations III’


Twenty-five years after his passing, John Cage remains an enigmatic and largely misunderstood musical and artistic figure in the public consciousness. The trailblazing composer is often seen as a solitary, almost shamanic philosopher-artist, perhaps best known for his highly conceptual "silent" composition "4' 33''," written for a single performer who never plays a note.

Visual Studies Workshop's upcoming December 1 staging of the composer's 1962 work "Variations III" reveals how active musical performance and collaboration were essential to Cage's artistic identity. Tara Merenda Nelson, Curator of Moving Image Collections at VSW, first had the notion of presenting "Variations III" in Rochester before she moved here, when she was a visiting artist in 2014. After she witnessed a performance of the work at Somerville Armory in Boston and subsequently saw VSW's auditorium space, the idea lingered. "Three years later, it finally felt like the time has come," Nelson says.

"Variations III" is not an improvisation. Instead of musical notation, it contains a set of instructions, which include 42 circles. Each circle signifies a single physical, sonic, or visual event. In preparation for the performance, each participant dumped the circles on a blank piece of paper or on the ground. The frequency of overlaps with the other circles directly determined the number of variables each performance event will have, which can change throughout the event. All other particulars of the performance —the sound, actions, and additional elements — are determined solely by the participant ahead of time.

As part of Cage's series of eight "Variations," this third iteration depends on the concept of musical indeterminacy, in which either chance or the performer's free will provide the outcome. These works, which were created between 1958 and 1967, are in many ways the offspring of Cage's "Theatre Piece No. 1," with its simultaneous performances of multiple artistic mediums by various participants. Also known as "The Event," "Theatre Piece No. 1" was performed at North Carolina's Black Mountain College in 1952 and is largely considered to be the first ever "Happening" in North America.

In advance of the performance on Friday, CITY interviewed Nelson and performance participant Ray Ray Mitrano — via phone and email, respectively — about Cage's "Variations III," its resonance with VSW, and what performers and audience members alike can expect. An edited, aggregate version of those interviews follows.

CITY Newspaper: VSW has a history of being conducive to performance art pieces and participatory art events. What about John Cage and "Variations III" make them so compatible with VSW and its artistic goals?

Ray Ray Mitrano: VSW aims to hub folks from all walks of life to engage in creative approaches to their work, whether they've got a BA in biology, psychology, run a bakery, or run marathons for a living. The VSW MFA program, artist residencies, open-access collections, and community-use auditorium are always poised to be shaped by whomever utilizes them.

John Cage's "Variations III" is an open-ended performance recipe for community engagement. Any number of people doing any type of action within their specific number of events, changes, and pauses, which were determined by the chance operation of dropping circles on the ground by participants in the weeks preceding. It has the potential to bring new people into the VSW arts community — not only as an audience, but active participants — all on a level playing field, regardless of their past artistic experiences.

What are your expectations for this "Variations III" performance?

Tara Merenda Nelson: It's a great event for kids. When I saw it at Somerville, it's really uncanny how well children seem to understand. It's very much related to the psychology of playing. It's like a mix of concentration and imagination ... I think Cage's philosophy in many ways is just that: to become aware of your own senses and your own listening, and understanding sound as a complex and meaningful aspect of our perceptual reality — and that's a joyful thing.

What distinct opportunities does "Variations III" offer in terms of engaging with the audience that other artistic performances or installations may not?

Mitrano: A few dozen people committed to engaging this work. Many are not fully aware what it entails. No one knows exactly what everyone is doing and how it will look, sound, feel, and maybe even taste? A high level of focus, timing, and execution will be underway amidst a very unknown, improvised, work as a whole.

It's a perfect environment for humor, horror, tenderness, discomfort, and intrigue for an audience. No real lines are drawn for how someone happening upon this event should navigate it.

How has your participation as a performer affected how you view the relationship between you, the artist, and your audience?

Mitrano: I'm working audience interaction into the logistics of my "score." As someone who cultivates art concepts through social engagements and interactive meetings, I'm very excited for this to be happening at such a high level of participation locally. For others not used to embracing chance in their work, it may be scary at first, but ultimately I feel confident everyone will take away value from the experience in the end. It's all about how we react to interruptions and the unexpected. Adapting our previous plans. Realizing how even in your solo-work, we're all working together.

What excites you most about this staging of "Variations III"?

Mitrano: These types of highly structured frameworks for improvised chaos can become rich, powerful metaphors for democracy in action. Especially for the participants, who get to see how their actions engage with others around them all at once. We're always working together. Whether we take advantage of that is up to each individual.