63. CAGE – 4 Notes in 33 Variations Light Verse Magazines Vol. IV

Edition of 33 copies
3 ½”x 2” x 1 ¾” music box
2 ¾” x 2 3/8”x 2” box

This is a sound piece dedicated to the life and process of artist, musician and composer John Cage(1912-1992). When the red handle is cranked clockwise, the resulting tune is created with truncated straight pins arranged in the letters of the alphabet CAGE, as if they were placed in their descending order on the musical staff. The sound does not replicate the musical notes CAGE, although, curiously, the notes bearing these letters form a symmetrically spaced, perfectly balanced design. The tune results instead from the comb of the music box being struck by the 27 pins making up these letters in a series of dots. A template was used to indicate where each dot, or pin, should be placed, but each of the 33 music boxes in the edition play a slightly different composition, due to the imperfect placement of the pins, hammered through cork and paper to a wooden dowel core at differing angles, and cut off with a wire cutter at slightly irregular lengths, allowing for quite a bit of chance, or play, in the process. Cage himself used the term “indeterminacy” for chance aspects of performance art.

The 4 notes in 33 variations recalls Cage’s famous composition 4’33”(1952) in three movements, which some people refer to as “Silence”, as the orchestra sits on the stage, but does not actually play music. The piece is always different, for it is in effect the ambient sound of the concert hall, including the noises of the public. In conceptual art, there is often not a lot to look at, as it might be composed purely of an idea. The art itself can consist merely of directions to follow. Cage studied under contemporary composers, including Schoenberg, but his conceptual innovations relate more to contemporary art via Eastern Philosophy. In the beginning of the 20th century, a tradition of non-objective painting arose, when artists attempted to make abstract art, minimizing intentions and ego. Dada and Surrealist artists created ways to generate text abstractly as well, which some people refer to as text engines. Cage took constellation charts and tried to lay them over the musical staff to make chance music. He adopted the I Ching, based on patterns of dots and dashes, to generate musical compositions. The chopped off pins, glittering as they turn, can be likened to Cage’s star charts, or I Ching dots.

Cage also manipulated musical instruments, most famously the piano. His “prepared pianos” had iron spikes and other materials driven into the piano guts, altering the sound of the keyboard. The CAGE music box was dismantled, manipulated, and reassembled with a substituted bobbin. This new cylinder is created from recycled, crude materials worthy of a Zen monk: scraps of wood, cork and paper, which happened to be lying on the artist’s desk, including sewing pins with colored heads stuck in a sewing basket. This assemblage came about unexpectedly, in a quiet moment of reflection, when it had become apparent that no technicians or specialized carpenters were willing to help on the project. The music box is mounted onto a recycled book cover of the itinerant preacher and tinker John Bunyan’s “The Pilgrim’s Progress”, resting on brass screws for piano legs.

Cage was the son of an inventor, and experimented with art materials as well as musical ones. His great passion for mushrooms inspired him to incorporate vegetables in paper he used for printmaking. There is a small scrap of printmaking paper in the cylinder, separating the two layers for cork. This helps regulate the thickness of the spool, and serves as a way for a groove to be created , when tamped down, where the plastic end caps may be inserted and glued in. Cage is famous in Italy for his adventures as a game show mycologist. He won several thousand dollars on “Lascia o radoppia?” with the classic television personality Mike Bongiorno through his expert knowledge of mushrooms in 1958. The bright red handle of the music box brings to mind the color of poisonous mushrooms, as well as the colored plastic heads of the pins inserted into the musical cylinder, before they were chopped off with a wire cutter.

CAGE – 4 Notes in 33 Variations is volume IV in the series Light Verse Magazines. It is a sound piece, or sound poem, in contrast to the other four volumes in the series, which contain standard poems. This project developed over a period of 10 years, independently of the Light Verse series, but when it became clear that the boxed poems began to assume the form and function of a cabinet of curiosities, it was difficult to resist the insertion of the Cage piece. Early museums contained not only mineral and plant collections, but also musical instruments and early robots or automata – mechanical curiosities that moved. Also, the sound piece serves as a musical interlude to lighten the mood after the increasingly somber poems of Vols. II and III.


I would like to acknowledge the assistance of Emilia Figliomeni in musical tutelage and assembly.

This piece is dedicated to my musical maven, listener and reader Liz Kaplan.

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