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There was a rich history of performance at BMC from the early years when Bauhaus theatre designer Xanti Schawinsky was employed to run the Stage Studies course. His two-year post was marked by two large scale multi-media performances SPECTODRAMA and Dance Macabre. These performances combined projections, music, pieces of abstract scenery, and extravagant costumes which were designed to limit body movements. Audiences were also required to wear masks, breaking down the division between performer and spectator. Schawinsky saw the stage as a space for holistic and multi-sensory learning:

“[…] teaching and learning has shifted from the classroom to the stage as a practice ground and a laboratory for demonstration.”

Xanti Schawinsky


There were also many parties and balls with themes such as DADA and Ancient Greece in which faculty and students created elaborate costumes and decorations for the college dining hall. Musical performances were frequent, as were stage productions often featuring both students and staff members. This was a key feature of the cross-disciplinary ethic developed at the college over its entire history from SPECTODRAMA to the famous ‘Theatre Piece No. 1’ staged by John Cage and others in 1952.


“At 8.30 tonight John Cage mounted a stepladder and until 10.30 he talked of the relation of music to Zen Buddhism, while a movie was shown, dogs barked, Merce danced, a prepared piano was played, whistles blew, babies screamed, coffee was served by four boys in white and Edith Piaf records were played double speed on a turn-of-the-century machine. At 10.30 the recital ended, and Cage grinned while [Charles] Olson talked to him again about Zen Buddhism, Stefan Wolpe bitched, two boys in white waltzed together, [David] Tudor played the piano, and the professors’ wives licked popsicles.”

Francine du Plessix’s diary entry, 1952.

In the late 40s and early 50s, Black Mountain hosted a series of Summer Institutes which brought together artists, musicians, writers and dancers from across America and beyond to perform, teach and live together for several weeks at a time. It was for one of these institutes that John Cage and Merce Cunningham first worked at Black Mountain, alongside Richard Buckminster Fuller, Elaine and Willem De Kooning, David Tudor, MC Richards, and many others. The institutes were intense and productive experiences in which many concerts and performances were staged and the interdisciplinary character of BMC fully exploited.

Theater Piece No. 1, often referred to as the ‘First Happening’ took place at Black Mountain College in the summer of 1952. Instigated by John Cage the aim, in his words, was to create, “purposeful purposelessness: it was purposeful in that we knew what we were going to do, but purposeless in that we didn’t know what was going to happen in the total.” To this end, he put together a random series of time brackets and asked a number of staff and students, including dancer Merce Cunningham, poets MC Richards and Charles Olson, musician David Tudor and painter Robert Rauschenberg to do whatever they liked within it. There are no pictures from the evening only this sketch made years later by MC Richards, and accounts vary as to what exactly took place – which was very much the idea! “The structure we should think about is that of each person in the audience. In other words, [their] consciousness is structuring the experience differently from everybody else’s in the audience.” John Cage


The First Happening was inspired, in part, by John Cage’s interest in Zen Buddhism. The principle was to allow things to take place using a formal time structure in which elements could exist side by side, none more important than the others. Watching Cage’s Water Walk performance we were struck by the play between control and chance, seriousness and humour  and his use of everyday objects. We began to make a series of films; performing small actions to camera using objects from around the house. We wanted to explore how we could create a score or composition from these actions, using the split screen video grid as a stage, and allowing them to exist side by side, playing with timings, entrances and exits, moments of humour and surprise. These are the results.

“In Zen Buddhism, nothing is either good or bad. Or ugly or beautiful. The actions of [people] in nature are an undifferentiated and unhierarchical complex of events, which hold equal indifference to the ultimate factor of oneness. No value judgments are possible because nothing is better than anything else. Art should not be different from life, but an action within life. Like all of life, with its accidents and chances and variety and disorder and only momentary beauties.”

John Cage discussing Zen Buddhism at Black Mountain College in 1952, recorded in the diary of Francine du Plessix.


John Cage performing ‘Water Walk’ on the U.S. game show ‘I’ve Got A Secret’ 1960. ‘It’s called Water Walk, because it contains water and because I walk during its performance.’ He explains to the audience. Cage also works with a stopwatch and a tight score. Whilst the actions are humorous, and deliberately so, his advocacy for chance operations, for all events having equal weight and significance (an ethos taken from Zen Buddhism), and his use of unconventional, everyday objects as well as traditional instruments and tape recorders, revolutionised modern music.




This experiment was made using a microphone and amplifier with a reverb setting. It is less a drawing than an event, an improvised performance, an excuse to play. The amplification is not strictly necessary for the exercise, but it focused our attention on the sounds we would usually ignore or take for granted. It made us focus on them and work with them. Once in the flow, working together to explore making marks that produced different sounds, the time passed surprisingly quickly. All events, as Cage said, are of equal importance. The drawing is a record of the performance as well as a type of score.


Image credits: Leap then Look, Collection of Michael Reid, Western Regional Archives, Josef & Anni Albers Foundation, Estate of Beaumont and Nancy Newhall.