On September 12, 2018, the Singleton Center roared with the chaotic sounds of Musicircus.
Scattered around the building’s ground floor were students and faculty from Music, Dance and Theatre, all performing disparate songs and improvisations. Two guitarists harmonized on the stairs. A saxophonist blared in the lobby while a drummer broke into a jazzy pulse. A marimba player by the restrooms played a dreamy tune. In the Sonia Vlahcevic Concert Hall, the sounds of instruments acoustic and synthesized bled into one another as dancers bounded across the stage and rose from the audience.
It was an evening of spontaneity, as none of the performances were choreographed with one another.
Conceptualized by composer John Cage in 1967, Musicircus is an invitation for any number of performers to gather and stage works in a space simultaneously. Audience members wander through and take in the “rings” of the Musicircus while experiencing a shifting sonic and visual landscape.
Cage’s innovative spirit could be felt throughout the Singleton Center that night. But you may not know that the composer himself performed in the same location 52 years ago.
In the spring of 1966, the art school at Richmond Professional Institute—the predecessor to VCUarts—was celebrating the annual BANG! Arts Festival. BANG! was a student- and faculty-produced event featuring exhibitions, concerts, panel discussions and film showings, where local and national artists were invited to join.
That year, faculty members Jon Bowie, James Bumgardner (BFA ’58), Bernard Martin (BFA ’59), Willard Pilchard, Bill Livingston and Richard Carlyon (MFA ’63) invited Cage to BANG! Once he arrived, he become fascinated with an old building known as the Scottish Rite Temple (located where the Singleton Center is today), and the ambient noise within.
“Listen to that beautiful sound,” Cage said. “There’s a very high, persistent sound that this room is making. I’d like to incorporate that in my piece.”
Cage tracked the source—a crack in the wood paneling over an old air shaft—and put a contact mic on it. In a 2005 interview with the late Richard Carlyon, who taught at VCUarts for more than 40 years, he recalled, “It was the sound that people heard as they walked in to the concert. He liked that the environment had provided the sound.”
Over the next couple of days, a group of students set about helping the composer rearrange the temple space to his liking. On the night of the performance, Cage joined fellow composer David Tudor to premiere Variations VI for RPI. The 40-minute piece involved microphones, radio, tape, clocks and other electronic gear. As Tudor manipulated the instruments, Cage shuffled transparent sheets with alternative notation that changed the music.
Scottish Rite Temple in the 1960s.
“What was remarkable was the attention of the student body,” said Carlyon, “because they didn’t know him. They weren’t familiar with his ideas, they hadn’t listened to his music, and they were totally attentive.”
At the end, Cage applauded his audience, saying the students and faculty at RPI were the best crowd he’d ever had.
“I think it changed more than a few lives that day,” said Carlyon. “All for the better.”
Images are courtesy of Special Collections and Archives, James Branch Cabell Library, VCU Libraries.
2018 marks 90 years of creative daring at VCU School of the Arts. To mark this occasion, VCUarts is spending this school year reflecting on our shared history and envisioning how we can continue to pave the way for creative practice in the 21st century and beyond. Visit the VCUarts 90th Anniversary website to learn more about the many stories that have shaped our school, and to share memories of your own.