Marcel Duchamp and John Cage "Reunion"

by Macauley Peterson
10/19/2018 – Legendary artist and chess player Marcel Duchamp died in France 50 years ago this month. This year also marks the 50th anniversary of his collaboration with composer and music theorist John Cage, in a unique piece played on a hybrid chess board / musical instrument, and called "Reunion". It was avant-garde in its day and still feels novel in digital recreation today. | Pictured: Duchamp and John Cage at the Ryerson Theatre in Toronto, March 5, 1968 | Photo: Eldon Garnet / World Chess Hall of Fame

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50th Anniversary of "Reunion"

John Cage was an avant-garde composer who came to prominence in the 1950s and 60s. How avant-garde? Well, his 1952 work called 4′33″ — a shorthand for "Four minutes, thirty-three seconds" — consists entirely of musicians on stage not playing their instruments. The ambient sounds of the environment and the audience is the piece. Very Zen.

Marcel Duchamp was a French-American painter, sculptor, and quite a strong chessplayer.

Reunion premiered in 1968 in Toronto, when Cage played against Duchamp, who had taught Cage the game himself. Duchamp, of course, was Master strength and had competed alongside Alexander Alekhine for the French Olympiad team in the 1930s, so he won the game in short order despite giving Cage knight odds. Unfortunately, there is no record of the moves, nor any film or video recording. But, in any case, it was the resulting sound generated by the game that was interesting.

Reunion reconstruction

Recreation of the "Reunion" board by Robert Cruickshank | Photo: World Chess Hall of Fame

The website JohnCage.org describes how it worked:

Reunion is an event without a score; originally performed by playing a game of chess on a chessboard created by Lowell Cross. The game works as an indeterminate structure: as a game of chess is played, the moves of the players on the board activate four compositions and distribute them to eight speakers surrounding the audience.

Replay the original recording:

“Reunion” was Duchamp’s last public appearance; he died October 2nd, 1968 of heart failure at the age of 81

In 2008, on the occasion of the 40th anniversary, the board's designer Lowell Cross gave an account of the event (PDF), including some amusing misconceptions that emerged in the years to follow.

In 2010 the World Chess Hall of Fame Museum displayed a recreation of Cage's "Reunion" chessboard / musical instrument which also generated sounds from the movement of the pieces. Visitors to the gallery, including some well-known grandmasters, had the opportunity to play on this working replica.

Maurice Ashley and Yasser Seirawan

Maurice Ashley and Yasser Seirawan were among those who took the board for a spin | Photo: World Chess Hall of Fame

Digital Reunion

The original chess board instrument used sixteen audio inputs connected to eight speakers surrounding the audience in the hall. The squares of the chessboard acted as switches by way of photoresistors, which were activated whenever a particular square was covered or uncovered via the movement of the pieces.

Chris Jefferson and Ian Miguel have created a version which works in your web browser, allowing you to play against an engine, producing your own soundtrack as you go!

The online version aims to model the real version as closely as possible, within the restrictions of what can be delivered via the internet to a modern PC or tablet.

You can read more about the project in their explanatory essay or...

You can play a game against the app at JohnCage.org.

Links




Macauley is Editor in Chief of ChessBase News in Hamburg, Germany, and producer of The Full English Breakfast chess podcast. He was an Associate Producer of the 2016 feature documentary, Magnus.
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macauley macauley 10/20/2018 10:49
The essay explains that the web version does play different sound files, but the effect does depend on the moves played. It's meant to be a simplified example and the version for live performance more closely matches the original concept.
fons3 fons3 10/20/2018 02:32
Yes, when I change the quality the music starts playing.

Without me moving any pieces... Hmm, I get the impression they're just playing a sound file regardless of what you're doing on the board.

Which is a pity because it would -soft of- be interesting if you could indeed create independent "music" tracks by playing a game of chess.

Oh well what do you expect; modern art is a scam. Value is based on popularity of the creator, not on any value of the art itself.

(Which doesn't mean I dislike ALL modern art.)
macauley macauley 10/19/2018 11:05
It works for me, but if not, try changing the "quality".
fons3 fons3 10/19/2018 09:57
I'm not hearing anything when I play on that johncage webpage.

You can presumably also make music on lichess, though I haven't been able to make that work either. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oqaDMb6LmP4
KrushonIrina KrushonIrina 10/19/2018 08:01
Music didn't seem to respond to moves at all.
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