Interview With MoMA Curator David Platzker About the New Exhibition on John Cage

The uniting of the worlds of visual art and music is a trend that is getting a boost from a major new exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, focusing on the composer John Cage and his monumental -- and some would say notorious -- work, titled.
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The uniting of the worlds of visual art and music is a trend that is getting a boost from a major new exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, focusing on the composer John Cage and his monumental -- and some would say notorious -- work, titled 4'33".

The composition 4'33" is a piece intended for any instrument, which comprises a total of four minutes and thirty three seconds of silence - no notes are played at all. However, as Cage stated, "there never will be silence." When it was first performed in 1952 it shocked the audience. It sent shockwaves through the music and art world which continue to reverberate today.

The exhibition There Will Never Be Silence: Scoring John Cage's 4'33" presents the oldest surviving copy of the score, hand drafted by Cage in 1953, along with a large selection of artwork drawn from the collection of The Museum of Modern Art that relate to 4'33" and its impact on culture. The exhibition is the second major recent show at MoMA to take up the subject of sound and music in the context of an art museum, the other exhibition being last year's show Soundings.

There is an immense amount of thought and artwork related to 4'33". Like meditation, and the TV show Seinfeld, Cage's work 4'33" shows us that a whole world can open up when you decide to do nothing.

Along with the exhibition, MoMA is staging daily performances of 4'33", performed by MoMA staff members as well guest artists and musicians.

One of the performers is David Platzker, the co-curator of the exhibition. Platzker joined MoMA last year after closing his project space and bookstore called Specific Object. He has worked extensively with the artist Claes Oldenburg, as his curator and as co-author of Oldenburg's catalogue raisonné of prints, graphics and ephemeral artworks. He has been a long time admirer of Cage's work. I recently interviewed him by phone.

Joel Garten: So first off, you're going to perform the John Cage piece 4'33" on Thursday?

David Platzker: Yes, exactly.

JG: Is that your first musical performance?

DP: The first time since I was maybe 12 or 13, I played the clarinet once.

JG: And did you rehearse for the performance of 4'33"?

DP: No. [laughs]

JG: So you are just going in cold ?

DP: I've watched many people perform the piece over the years, both live and on Youtube.

JG: So do you feel like different performers have a different slant on it?

DP: Well I think everyone does. The way we're presenting it here is we rolled a baby grand piano into a gallery space and twice a day for the last week and this coming week we're going to invite people twice a day to perform. We put an open call out to people who work at the Museum to perform. Some of them are trained musicians and others are staff members who are not musicians at all. One beauty of the work is that it really could be performed by just about anybody. The instructions are incredibly simple. I'm sure you've seen the score - it's four minutes and 33 seconds total, which encapsulates three individual movements that are timed. So the act of performing it is using a stopwatch or you can count. If you can do that then you can perform the piece.

JG: This show is about the intersection between art and music?

DP: Specifically it's a show that works in three movements. The first movement is mediated through Cage. We spent last summer reading through his many interviews and texts, trying to figure out where he's coming from in the 1930s, 1940s, and the early 1950s that brings him to 4'33". It's a great story. The way the show operates is based around the idea that Cage came to New York for the first time in February of 1943. He arrived at the invitation of Peggy Guggenheim and Max Ernst, who were then living together. Peggy Guggenheim had a gallery called Art of the Century and invited Cage to the city to give his first performance in New York at her gallery. And Cage was an aggressive young man at that point in his life, not at all sort of the affable warm and fuzzy guy we get to know him much later and he does what so many young artists do, he went around the city looking for other work, hustling up other jobs. He came to The Museum of Modern Art and the museum agreed to host an evening of percussion music as conducted by John Cage, which took place on February 7th, 1943. That was 71 years ago as of last Friday.

JG: Oh wow.

DP: And that was the same day that we began our performances here. On that evening in 1943 Cage conducted three of his own works, dating from the '30s to '40s, as well as pieces by other experimental composers that were producing percussion music. Life Magazine covers the performance, so in the March 14th 1943 issue of Life Magazine there's a two page spread in the magazine featuring photgraphs of Cage, in a tuxedo and an immaculate flat top hair cut, conducting his orchestra, which included Merce Cunningham, and Cage's wife as percussion players. If you look at the pieces that Cage conducted of his own music they're really traditional looking, that is to say they look like traditionally scored music. If you look at the score facsimiles we have, then you look at the pictures in Life Magazine , you come to realize that although the music itself was exceedingly structured, the instruments were of Cage's invention, that Merce Cunningham is playing sort of this funny looking xylophone style instrument, his wife is playing the the jaw of an ass. There's a percussion player playing bongos, there's another percussion player who's playing Asian bowls and then there's also a great image of someone using an automobile disk drum as a gong.

JG: A really inventive choice of instruments!

DP: So on one hand the music is very Schoenbergian in terms of the way that it's structured and noted on the page but the instruments are very non-traditional, they're mostly instruments of Cage's invention. But there there's no use of 'chance' or indeterminate choices. Chance is not really part of the structure of his mindset at this point in his career. Indeterminacy is not a part of his vocabulary. And so the story goes that Cage gets this opportunity to perform at The Museum of Modern Art and Peggy Guggenheim gets wind of this and becomes irate. She decides to evict him from the townhouse that she's put him up in in the middle of a cocktail party.

JG: Oh my god ...

DP: As Cage tells it he has something of a nervous breakdown, he starts crying uncontrollably, he recognizes that he's come to the city essentially penniless and he thought that Peggy Guggenheim, who was fairly wealthy, was going to be his financial sponsor and it was going to be this long term relationship, but in the end he's managed to destroy it, destroy this perfect situation by being a very young, naïve and aggressive artist.

JG: Well I guess he was also very sensitive if he was crying so much.

DP: It was like a brick wall hit him in the face. The next part of the story was that the other person who's staying at the townhouse at the same time at the cocktail party is Marcel Duchamp.

JG: Oh wow.

DP: And this is the moment where the two of them become close friends, and this important relationship with Duchamp is something that Cage comes back to again and again in his life. Cage tells of being beckoned by Duchamp to come into his sitting room where Duchamp sits in a rocking chair smoking a pipe. In Cage's version of the story he says that Duchamp sits there sort of like a Buddha, absorbing all the woes that Cage is spilling out. He's telling him all of his troubles and what's transpired and you can imagine Duchamp being essentially like a passive analyst. Duchamp is not responding but Cage is working out the issues in his head and it's an incredible transformative moment where he really changes his outlook and how he approaches his life. He hasn't engaged with Buddhism yet, that's going to come a few years later, but its that pivotal point at which he sort of reassess who he is and what he's doing. And then the other really important thing is that Duchamp helps Cage reframe the way he thinks about both music and art. Duchamp is going to introduce him to chance operation and indeterminacy in the visual art. A piece that we have included in the show that really plays this out is a Duchamp work from our collection titled 3 Standard Stoppages, it's this hallmark Duchamp piece from 1913-1914 in which Duchamp takes three threads and drops them individually onto sheets of glass and then affixes them as they fall and uses that form to define a new system of measure. It's chance operating on top of the possibilities that's being put up as a scripted performative object.

JG: Yes, it reminds me of a Cage work where he uses acetate overlays with different lines.

DP: Exactly. So in the show, as you enter the gallery space, you look to the left you will see 3 Standard Stoppages, if your turn 180 degrees and look to your right is that piece from 1958 by Cage called Fontana Mix.

JG: Yes, that's the one.

DP: In Fontana Mix Cage has drawn wavy lines on paper, and he has also drawn dots on acetate overlays. The instructions for the work guides a performer to rearrange them in any which way, so that the acetates overlay the drawings any way that you want them to, then there are acetates with a lined graph you use as well. You read these overlays as instructions, a score, to make music. All these different layering elements become really informatic of this sort of notion of passing something through an operation.

JG: Actually I've played with that score ...

DP: Oh yeah, great.

JG: I went to Interlochen Arts Camp when I was 14 and in the music library they had that score, so I remember getting like all these little acetates and playing with them and overlaying them.

DP: That's exactly it, absolutely, you got it. So we have borrowed the original copy of the work for the exhibition. On the one hand you have these very formal scores, the formal scores then get reinterpreted through Duchamp and eventually by 1958 you end up at Fontana Mix which is a really radically transformed piece. So that's what the show is really talking about, it's really talking about how Cage has been influenced by the visual art relationships that he has been exposed to, largely mediated through Duchamp and Morris Graves, Mark Tobey, Richard Lippold, Barnett Newman, Anni and Josef Albers and Robert Rauschenberg, artists who crystallize the possibilities of chance operation and moreover the idea that one could use music in a structure that provides for indeterminacy. And so the Rauschenberg piece in the show is instructions on how one can make a white painting. Rauschenberg in 1951 and 1952 is making paintings that are just flat and white, flat white house paints with no lineation, no striation, no surface, just white. Cage is thinking of these things two ways. One way he's thinking of them is sort of clocks or metronomes, he's also thinking of them as airports for light and particles, dust and shadow. If you think about a completely white painting, think about what that would look like in a room with natural light through the course of the day. It starts out in the morning as being dusky as the sun rises, in the middle of the day under direct light they are pure white, and at the end of the day they become dusky again, and at night when there's no ambient light left they become black. And then you think about how shadows and dust and other materiality play against that surface through the course of the day and they really become transformative active objects, they become essentially like clocks or sundials.

JG: Interesting, reminds me of James Turrell.

DP: In 1952 when Cage sees these White Paintings for the first time at Black Mountain College he's really knocked out by them. He recognizes them as having these incredible properties that are really brought to them not by the physicality of the objects themselves, but the physicality of the world surrounding them. Cage report that for many years has been kicking around the idea of doing the silent artwork or a silent compassion. There's a really great short transcribed lecture called the "Composer's Confession" which Cage presented in 1948, in which he talks sort of tongue in cheek about wanting to compose a piece for the Muzak Corporation that would be silent.

JG: Oh, you mean Muzak like the music that is in elevators?

DP: Exactly. So rather than getting into an elevator and hearing banal music, you get in the elevator there'd just be silence and that would be Cage's piece. On one level you can take him exceedingly seriously but he also sort of frames it somewhat slyly. But by 1952 he's then talking about how he wants to complete this piece and by seeing the Rauschenberg paintings and recognizing that if an artist can successfully paint a white canvas that gets transformed through the environment that it's situated in, he can complete 4'33". He realizes now that he has the nerve to finish the work. In the middle of August of 1952 while he is at Black Mountain College, he's seeing these white paintings for the first time and he decides to stage an all of campus performance at the College. He invites dancers, including Merce Cunningham, musicians, artists, writers all to contribute to this piece that's going to be performed in the round. He uses Rauschenberg's white paintings as the backdrop, as active participants within this performance. After the performance he realizes that he can finish 4'33", he's seen how these works can get activated within time and space, and the other enabler being the pianist David Tudor. David Tudor says "complete the piece, I'm ready to perform it." So on August 29th, 1952 it's performed for the first time at Woodstock, New York. This performance takes place in sort of an indoor/outdoor rustic setting. Woodstock is a haven even in 1952 both for the arts community, people who are attuned to the avant-garde music, as well as tourists. Classically you hear the story about how people were both engaged by the piece having some knowledge about Cage as an avant-garde or experimental composer, as well as the tourists who started getting antsy and chatting over the piece. Being in a semi-outdoor environment you would have also heard the wind and light rain-the environment acting on the performance.

JG: Wow.

DP: What's so interesting about 4'33" to me is that if Cage is thinking of those white paintings as being these performative objects where the world is acting on them, 4'33" is not dissimilar. The performer isn't really the focus of the piece, but rather the mediator that takes you someplace. If you're thinking of the Barnett Newman painting that we've included which is about getting to the 'sublime' you now the notion of 4'33" is that you're supposed to embrace the impossibilities of what happens in the context of the piece. It's sort of like magicians slight of hand when the magician says he wants you to focus on one hand but in reality it's that other hand that's behind his back that's actually doing the magic trick.

JG: That's a good analogy. So do you think that Cage considered his music to be a form of art?

DP: Absolutely. There's no doubt that he saw it conceptualized on two levels, he most definitely saw it contextualized as audio and this aural experience, but he was smart enough to recognize that it fits into a broader context that when you're hearing music often it's just a component of something of a broader spectrum. At The Museum of Modern Art we have individual departments - I'm a Curator in the Department of Drawings and Prints, we also have departments of Painting and Sculpture, Film, Photogrpahy, Architecture and Design, and Media and Performing Arts and we traditionally have not collected scores or music. Yet music permeates so much of the context of the material that we bring forward. You think of film - film is embedded with so much music. Both my department and Media and Performing Arts have collections of artists' audio and video works both within which audio is the sole element as well as works for which music is a component part.

JG: Yes, and in your collection you have Mondrian's Broadway Boogie Woogie. That's one of the major works connected to the intersection between art and music, being inspired by jazz music.

DP: Music enters into us from many of avenues so it's certainly a substantial component and we even had a show this past summer called Soundings which was all about the intersection of visual art with sound.

JG: Yes, I saw that show. The curator of the Soudings show, Barbara London, is a very important curator in terms of bringing together the sound world and the art world. Its seems there's a trend now towards putting art and sound together.

DP: It's not a new trend. If you look back to the beginning of modernism many artists were directly engaged with audio in some format either as composers, aficionados or performers themselves. In the 1970s and 1980s there is an incredible profusion of artists issuing records.

JG: Like Basquiat had his band Gray.

DP: Exactly. There's Basquiat, but then there's also artists like Hanne Darboven, Mike Kelley or Rodney Graham, for example, who have lives as both as a visual artists as well as musicians or composers.

JG: Well that's my life, I'm also a visual artist and a composer of art music at the same time. I feel there is a lot that unites the two streams for me, for example, my music is influenced by visual artists such as Jackson Pollock and Giorgio Morandi. And many people have told me they can feel the music in my artwork.

DP: It's really fascinating how artists can act on many levels simultaneously. Not simply as a photographer, painter, filmmaker, etc. But as individuals who can produce works in multiple mediums.

JG: So where do you think that music and museums go from here?

DP: I'm for an art that does something other than repeat itself, for art without constraint. I'm thrilled to be at an institution that embraces that.

JG: Yes its great that MoMA is so supportive.

DP: This past October my department acquired a very large collection of audio by artists. In the acquisition we acquired almost 400 works dating from the 1950s forward. More and more artists are engaging with sound as an individual distinct element. If you saw the Mike Kelley show that just closed at PS1, you would see how Kelley was deeply engaged in music and audio. Now we have a wonderful deep collection of his audio work. Rodney Graham being another artist for which we have every recording he has made to date. There are many artists that we're going to continue to follow. People have this sort of bizarre tendency to think of records as being a lesser art as they are inexpensive. I'm fascinated by the fact that these are not only consumable works in terms of their monetary value but moreover they're objects that are intended to be consumable. As they can be produced in quantity they can be acquired by many different people, they're not unique or rarified typically at the point of creation.

And to me price is immaterial to their value. Which is to say their value as art is wholly independent of their monetary value. As we move forward at the Museum we will continue to aggressively collect audio because it's what artists do. It's one facet of what many artists are engaged in. When you present an artist you shouldn't just simply be myopic and represent an artist solely with a painting, sculpture, drawing or a print - we want to show the body of what an artist has the capacity to do and do well.

JG: Well that's a great thing. It's very interesting that there's a big disconnect in the market for art versus the market for art music. Major paintings sell for millions of dollars but the financial support for art music is very thin, so it's just an interesting disconnect.

DP: What ends up in a museum should not strictly be articulated by monetary value. We acquire works that are exceptional within their time.

JG: Okay great. So I just have one more question. For your follow up show are you going to have an exhibition of the score of Simon and Garfunkel's The Sound of Silence?

DP: No and the reason why is we've already done that.

JG: Oh really?

DP: In 2007 I was doing a radio show called Recorded Matter for WPS1 and I did an episode of an hour of cover versions of 4'33".

I called that episode the Sound of Silence.

[interview edited and condensed]

For the full perfomance schedule at MoMA, click here. For more info on the Exhibition, click here.

Joel Garten is a composer, pianist, artist, and writer. You can view his artwork and listen to his music on his website,


Listen: Joel Garten's "Improvisation for Barbara," a piano improvisation recorded in 2013, was composed for MoMA cuartor Barbara London, the curator of the Soundings exhibition. It shows Cage's influence in the use of interaction with the piano's strings: here Garten plays on the strings of the piano with an Indonesian gamelan mallet.

Video: Paul Walde's The Nature of Silence documents the moment and location of the 60th anniversary of the premiere of John Cage's most famous work 4'33". Shot on location at Maverick Hall near Woodstock New York, this work suggests that Cage's interests may not have been just about silence, but in landscape and the environment, as Cage's chosen venue Maverick Hall, is a partially outdoor venue in the Catskill Mountains

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You can also read Joel Garten's artist profiles of conductor Alex Pauk, pianist Vicky Chow, Composer Andy Akiho and pianist Claudia Chan, percussionist Ian David Rosenbaum, and read about how Garten composed new piano music during Hurricane Sandy.

This article was also published on the Arts Journal Fresh Pound

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