History

50 Years Ago Today, Marcel Duchamp and John Cage Played Chess

Spoiler alert: Cage lost … twice.

John Cage, “Reunion,” Gordon Ryerson Institute, Toronto, Ontario on March 5, 1968. Players: John Cage, Marcel Duchamp, and Teeny Duchamp. Musicians: David Behrman, David Tudor, and Lowell Cross (photo by Shigeko Kubota, courtesy the John Cage Trust)

On March 5, 1968 in Toronto, Marcel Duchamp and John Cage played a game of musical chess. Titled “Reunion,” the event drew an audience of hundreds to the Ryerson Theatre, where the two creative giants would activate a unique auditory experience through a specially constructed chess board that triggered different electronic compositions with each individual move.

Program from “Reunion,” Gordon Ryerson Institute, Toronto, Ontario on March 5, 1968 (courtesy the John Cage Trust)

By the 1960s, Duchamp was known as a premier chess player. His brothers had taught him to play the game when he was a teenager, and he’d been improving by leaps and bounds ever since. In 1931, Duchamp served as a French delegate to the World Chess Federation, and in 1933, he played in the Chess Olympiad on the same team with Alexander Alekhine, the reigning world champion.

When Cage first met Duchamp in the 1940s, he was immediately enamored of the older artist, and by several accounts Cage eventually asked Duchamp to teach him to play chess merely as an excuse to spend time with him. After many nights of lessons at Duchamp’s New York apartment, it was Cage’s idea to play a public game of musical chess.

Cage asked Lowell Cross to create a specialized chess board for the occasion. At the time, Cross was a graduate student and research associate in the Electronic Music Studios at the University of Toronto. (He would later go on to invent the laser light show.) In an article celebrating the 40th anniversary of “Reunion,” Cross describes how his chess board functioned through the covering and uncovering of 64 photoresistors, which connected to four “sound-generating systems,” each activating a different composition by Gordon Mumma, David Behrman, David Tudor, and Cross himself. Internal microphones under the table amplified the sounds of the “thunks” of pieces moving across the board, while “oscilloscopic images emanated from modified monochrome and color television screens, which provided visual monitoring of some of the sound events passing through the chessboard.”

Lowell Cross’ chess board from “Reunion,” Gordon Ryerson Institute, Toronto, Ontario on March 5, 1968 (photo by Shigeko Kubota, courtesy the John Cage Trust)

Cross called the event “a performance in which games of chess determined the form and acoustical ambience of a musical event.” Unfortunately — or more so predictably, let’s be honest — Duchamp beat Cage in less than 30 minutes, even with the handicap of Duchamp playing with just one knight. The rest of the evening consisted of a more even matchup of Cage and Duchamp’s wife, Teeny, while the chess master sat at the table observing. That game lasted until 1 am, at which point Duchamp memorized the location of the pieces and everyone left. (By that time, the audience had dwindled to less than 10 people.) They’d finish the game a few days later. Teeny won.

Although the press was completely bored by “Reunion,” it went down in history as a unique experiment in creating art and music simultaneously through a random assortment of both strategy and chance. As Duchamp once said: “While all artists are not chess players, all chess players are artists.”

Marcel Duchamp watches John Cage make a move at “Reunion,” Gordon Ryerson Institute, Toronto, Ontario on March 5, 1968 (photo by Shigeko Kubota, courtesy the John Cage Trust)

Lowell notes that there is no record of the moves played in either of the games as a part of “Reunion.” Nor has there surfaced any video recording of the event. What remains are photographs and an audio recording — a copy of which is currently available from Alpha 137 gallery for $7,500 — together with re-imaginings and homages galore.

“Reunion” turned out to be Duchamp’s last public appearance; he died later that year of heart failure at the age of 81.

comments (0)