Chance Operations Through the Oracular I ChingDutch filmmaker Frank Scheffer and composer Andrew Culver discuss John Cage
Wen Hao Wang
Contributing Writer At an event co-sponsored by Hunter College at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, experimental filmmaker Frank Scheffer presented films he made about composer and philosopher John Cage. Also present, via Skype, was Andrew Culver, a composer who worked with Cage for 11 years. The talk was presented as part of Hunter College’s exhibit “Notations: The Cage Effect.”
Scheffer’s work with Cage began when Scheffer was working on Time is Music, a film that juxtaposes John Cage and Elliot Carter, two composers with polar methods. When putting together the film, Scheffer edited Carter’s portion normally, but for Cage’s portion, he used chance operations through the I Ching, an ancient Chinese text on changing events that was a prominent tool in Cage’s compositions.
“When I got to John’s part, I clearly remember it was like complete bliss, enjoyment, and liberation,” he said.
The liberation that Scheffer follows is taken from Cage’s belief in composing music that was freed from subjectivity. For Cage, his studies of Zen Buddhism and the use of the I Ching were a way of creating such work.
“The ego has the capacity to cut itself off from the rest of the mind or to flow with it,” Cage said in an interview with Scheffer. “And it does that by developing likes and dislikes, tastes and memory. If you do as Zen wants you to do, you get free of your tastes and memory, likes and dislikes. My discipline was that of the I Ching, and shifting my responsibility from making choices to asking questions and getting the answers by means of the ancient coin tossing method of the I Ching."
The I Ching, as Culver explained, is done by tossing three coins six times, giving a total of 64 combinations. Each number corresponds to solid lines, broken lines, or changing lines. These lines create a hexagram corresponding to judgments and images. By reading through the judgments and images, what pops into your mind will be related to the question you asked when tossing the coin.
Culver gave an example of its use from his own life when he used its oracular properties in the late 1970’s to mid 1980’s. Living in Hong Kong at the time, he considered moving to New York without invitation to work from John Cage.
“When I finally tossed the coin, I was intensely in the mood of the question as well as the specifics in the same way you might be in the mood of music that you are playing or listening to, or the mood of making love, or of a poem you’re deeply involved in,” he said.
Culver tossed the coin, drew out the hexagrams, and searched its meaning in a book. The judgment returned was: “It furthers to cross the great water, it furthers to see the great man.”
After Culver eventually started working with Cage, he developed a computer program that replicated the coin tossing of the I Ching. In Culver and Scheffer’s film, 19 Questions, Cage used the program to answer a variety of questions that used chance operations to determine the subject and duration of his answers.
Scheffer and Culver also recalled the process of John Cage’s numbered piece 14. Performed live and filmed accordingly, chance operations determined the positioning of each musician and the film work coordination: the focus, zoom, camera movement and intensity of lighting. Editing was also influenced by chance, causing Scheffer to wince at some of the shots he liked that were excluded.
He stayed disciplined, nonetheless, and in the end, found the film to be a beautiful product that he could never have imagined before. Scheffer played a section of the footage, using chance to decide where to start and end. What followed was a work with a man playing the cello. A violin screeches intermittently like a siren call, and a woman strikes her bow upwards on her violin. Lights dim. A close-up of a drum’s bass goes in and out of focus.
“When you are using chance operation, it opens your mind," Scheffer said. “The ideas outside of you mind open the head better than the ideas inside of the mind.”
While showing chance at work, Scheffer got into the topic of Aphrodite, triggering a quick idea. He associates the goddess with Greek myth and decided to show a clip from his film Time is Music where Cage talks about Icarus. In a way that sums up his philosophy, Cage says, “I’ve never quite known what to make of the story of Icarus, a story meant to discourage going to the extremes. I’m an extremist so I don’t understand the story. If someone says don’t go to the sun, that’s exactly where I would go.”