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September 5, 2010

Time Is Horizontal: In memory of John Cage, on his birthday

By Amanda Krugliak

To commemorate the September 5th birthday of legendary avant-garde composer and artist John Cage, Institute for the Humanities Arts Curator, Amanda Krugliak, reflects:

Portrait of John Cage (by Klosty courtesy of the John Cage Trust)

Time seems to slow down in the summer in Ann Arbor.  I sit at my desk at the Institute for the Humanities (on South Thayer Street, in the heart of campus)  and pretend I live in a resort town off-season.  The everyday sounds of the IH fellows bustling and conversing is missing.  Students are gone, streets are quiet, the coffee pot in the kitchen is empty, and the IH gallery is dark.

And then…September comes.  And it’s thrilling.   You can almost feel it, hear it, the momentum, the rhythm of the school year.  Time speeds up.

This year, the IH gallery opens with John Cage’s installation, “Lecture on the Weather,” a multi-media presentation based on the writings of Thoreau that brings together speech, music, lighting, and a weather soundscape.  The installation sets the stage for a year of fantastic presentations and programming university-wide that will consider experimental music, dance, and performance, and the value of revisiting and re-creating time-based work.

In some ways, “Lecture on the Weather”  is an atypical piece for Cage, because it’s overtly political.  It was commissioned in 1975 by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation to commemorate the American bicentennial.   The work engages 12 expatriate men who settled in Canada either during or soon after the Vietnam War. In the preface, that starts every performance or presentation of the work, John Cage expresses his dissatisfaction with American politics.

But what Cage more frequently did, both here and elsewhere, was embed political ideas into the very forms and practices of his composition.  “Lecture on the Weather,” like virtually all of Cage’s works from the 1950s forward, was conceived through a variety of chance means, and it comprises a delicate balance between what he called “law elements” and “freedom elements” – that is, law elements deliberately employed where he felt they were needed, and freedom elements everywhere else.

Accompanying Cage’s installation (in the Institute’s Osterman Common Room) are original programs, manuscripts, and photographs documenting the influential avant-garde ONCE festival, held annually in the 1960s in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and attended by Cage.   A now and then exposition, it reprises the phenomenon of the event, the brazen energy of the new-music scene from the era, and honors the talents of the ONCE founding composers Gordon Mumma, Roger Reynolds, Donald Scavarda, Robert Ashley, and George Cacioppo.  Cage and the ONCE composers ran parallel, overlapped, and intersected professionally and personally in their inquiries and collaborative efforts.

Cage spoke of time as horizontal rather than vertical, “the past is not a fact but simply a big field that has a great deal of activity in it.”  These exhibitions in duet continue the conversation in time, both real and imagined, without the notations of a clear beginning or end.


Amanda Krugliak is an artist and curator. She received her degree from the University of Michigan School of Art in 1985 and lived and worked as part of the artistic community in San Francisco before returning to Ann Arbor in 2002. She was formerly Exhibitions Director of the Ann Arbor Art Center, and co-proprietor of Gallery 4, an experimental exhibition space. Her paintings have been exhibited and collected throughout California and the Midwest. She is also a respected performance artist, having performed original monologues extensively in nightclubs and theaters in the San Francisco Bay area, earning honors at the San Francisco Fringe festival in 1998. Most recently, she performed and served on a panel with Holly Hughes representing the University of Michigan at the International Performance Conference at NYU in 2007 and was part of a curated performance presentation at the Detroit Institute of Arts in November 2009.