John Cage is a pioneering avant garde musical artist. Best known for embracing unconventional sounds and textures, Cage opened up the soundstage to anything that could be found, created, or conjured. Perhaps the most famous (or infamous) example of his philosophy of accepting found sounds as music is 4'33" (four minutes and thirty-three seconds), a three-movement piece for any instrument, where the musician is instructed not to play the instrument for the duration of the piece. The resulting sounds of the environment become the composition.
Of course, Cage wasn't always so passive, often going to great lengths to use new technologies and systems in his art. A great example of this was his "Variations" series, which were often complex, but always allowed for the performers to make it their own. Variations VII was originally performed at a nine day performance art event in New York. The score looks more like an engineering schematic than anything musical. Cage used a series of electronic systems, combined with telephone lines and household appliances, to create a sonic soup that must have sounded unimaginable at the time.
Listening to the piece now, it sounds like something you might find on the soundtrack to one of David Lynch's bleaker works, such as Eraserhead or Lost Highway. Perhaps it's a testament to how many of Cage's innovations have been accepted by our culture at large, or perhaps it's just a coincidence (although I imagine Lynch would have been influenced by Cage). What this DVD offers is a rare film recording of the original performance. It even looks like a Lynch film, shot in grainy, black and white, with people inspecting the devices. Cage lords over it all, a smile on his face.
Variations VII isn't going to be for everyone. It's highly experimental, and the footage looks more archival than anything else. But for those who spend their time in the musical deep end, it's a brilliant piece, and any footage we can get is worth having.
Microcinema International presents Variations VII in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The footage is black and white, and grainy. It's rough, with scratches on the print. On the plus side, digital noise is kept to a minimum. It's not the best looking disc in the world, but given the source, I didn't expect it to look much better.
The DVD has a Dolby Digital 2.0 track, which does a good job of conveying the bizarre and multi-layered sounds on the track.
The disc has two major supplements. The first is a twenty minute documentary about the creation of the piece, featuring interviews with many of Cage's friends, collaborators, and contemporaries. This includes Terry Riley, David Behrman, Merce Cunningham, and more. There's a good mix of interview footage and period footage. The other extra is the full audio recording of Variations VII, running 85 minutes.
Variations VII isn't for everyone. But for those whose musical sensibilities stray towards the realm of the avant garde, this is a great disc. Not only do we get rare footage of John Cage performing one of his most interesting pieces, but there's also a good documentary on how it was done, and the full audio recording of the piece. For those who enjoy John Cage, this is a disc worth checking out. Recommended.
Daniel Hirshleifer is the High Definition Editor for DVD Talk.