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Merce Cunningham (1919 - 2009)

July 29, 2009

Merce Cunningham passed away last Sunday.

Variations V, 1965
Music: John Cage
Film: Stan VanDerBeek
TV images: Nam June Paik
Dancers: Merce Cunningham Dance Company

John Cage made «Variations V» in 1965 for the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. He and David Tudor settled on two systems for the sound to be affected by movement. For the first, Billy Klüver and his colleagues set up a system of directional photocells aimed at the stage lights, so that the dancers triggered sounds as they cut the light beams with their movements. A second system used a series of antennas. When a dancer came within four feet of an antenna a sound would result. Ten photocells were wired to activate tape-recorders and short-wave radios. Cecil Coker designed a control circuit, which was built by my assistant Witt Wittnebert. Film footage by Stan VanDerBeek and Nam June Paik’s manipulated television images were projected on screens behind the dancers.

The score was created by flipping coins to determine each element and consisted of thirty-five «remarks» outlining the structure, components, and methodology. The specific sound score would change at each performance as it was created by radio antennas responding to the dancers’ movements.

In this photograph «Variations V» is performed for a television taping session in Hamburg. The photocells were located at the base of the five-foot antennas placed around the stage. Cage, Tudor, and Gordon Mumma operate equipment to modify and determine the final sounds.

The project was also presented at the Philharmonic Hall in New York, 1965.


Changing Steps, 1975
Music: John Cage
Design: Charles Atlas (Mark Lancaster, 1978)
Dancers: Merce Cunningham Dance Company

Beach Birds For Camera, 1992 (a 35mm film directed by Elliot Caplan)
Music: John Cage
Design: Marsha Skinner
Dancers: Merce Cunningham Dance Company

Chance Conversations: An Interview with Merce Cunningham and John Cage.