From Zero


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From Zero – Four films on John Cage by Frank Scheffer & Andrew Culver


mode 130 John CAGE: “From Zero” – Four films on John Cage by Dutch director Frank Scheffer with Andrew Culver. Featuring John Cage and the Ives Ensemble. (DVD onlyDVD

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From Zero – Four films on John Cage by Frank Scheffer & Andrew Culver

Four films on JOHN CAGE by Frank Scheffer and Andrew Culver

19 Questions with John Cage

Fourteen with the Ives Ensemble

Paying Attention with John Cage

Overpopulation and Art with Ryoanji with John Cage, Isabelle Ganz
and Michael Pugliese

Mode celebrates its 20th Anniversary in 2004 with the release of a major film on John Cage by renowned Dutch director Frank Scheffer in collaboration with Cage’s long-time associate Andrew Culver. The group of films, entitled From Zero, are:

  • 19 QUESTIONS: Cage answers 19 questions on a variety of subjects, using chance operations to determine the duration of his colorful and often witty answers. A unique opportunity to view the Cagean process of chance in real-time.
  • FOURTEEN: The acclaimed Ives Ensemble perform Cage’s piece of the same name. Filmed with multiple cameras using chance operations to determine the position, angle, focus and aperture settings of each shot-as well as to determine the editing process-make this a uniquely remarkable performance film. The extraordinary lighting was created by Andrew Culver, who did similar chance derived lighting plans for Cage’s Europeras.
  • PAYING ATTENTION: Agreeing on a predetermined duration, Scheffer worked with the video portion and Culver the audio from an interview with Cage. They treated their parts independently; the video and audio were then reunited during the editing in the same spirit as John Cage/Merce Cunningham music and dance collaborations – where the two aspects are presented together for the first time in the performance.
  • OVERPOPULATION AND ART WITH RYOANJI: The audio combines Cage’s spoken performance of his text Overpopulation and Art simultaneously with his Ryoanji for four voices and percussion. The video was shot at two locations where Cage lived: 6th Avenue in Manhattan and at Stony Point, New York. Scheffer used the graphic score of Ryoanji to track the camera’s movements for much of this work.



  • THE MAKING OF “FOURTEEN”: features Andrew Culver and the director of the Ives Ensemble talking about the visual and musical aspects of the film and piece along with footage of the setup and the actual filming of the piece.
  • ANDREW CULVER on working with Cage, Scheffer and the principles behind the creation of each of the films.
  • FRANK SCHEFFER speaks about his influences by and experiences with Cage, Culver and the principles behind the creation of each of the films.

Director Frank Scheffer has received numerous awards in Europe and the U.S. and was honored with a retrospective of his films at the 2002 Holland Festival. His unique focus on composers of the 20th century range from Mahler and Schoenberg to Boulez and Carter, to Zappa and Eno. From Zero marks the beginning of Mode’s series of releasing Scheffer’s films on DVD for the first time.


Elliott Carter – Quintets and Voices
John Cage – From Zero

Mode 128 (DVD)
Mode 130 (DVD)

DVDs a la Mode
A classical music video is a predictable affair. One can expect to see wide shots of the performers, with the occasional cuts to the audience and the hall itself to establish the atmosphere. Someone in the control room shows off knowledge of the score as the camera zooms in on a player just about to begin a solo. This annoying practice virtually commands the viewer, “This is what you should be listening to now.”

A different and more rewarding model for how such videos might work is presented in two recent DVDs on Mode featuring films by the Dutch director Frank Scheffer. Focusing on the music of Elliott Carter and John Cage, Scheffer’s works suggest that such films might convey the compositional principles behind the musical works they document. Of course his composer subjects could not be more dissimilar in those principles, and a very different kind of film emerges for each.

The film Quintet for Piano and Strings appears on the DVD Elliott Carter: Quintets and Voices (Mode 128, 2003).  It begins in near obscurity behind pianist Ursula Oppens, and the camera seems intent on revealing as little as possible about the identity of the performers. As the Quintet unfolds, the members of the Arditti Quartet gradually come into view, but rarely is more than one player at a time the focus of a shot. The players are attempting to work together, as furtive glances from one to another show, but the gulf between them is wide. A striking sequence early on confirms this. We see Irving Arditti, the first violinst, in a shot from behind cellist Rohan de Saram, looking up toward him with a serious expression. Immediately following we see de Saram from behind Arditti, and we feel almost as if they looked at each other from the opposite sides of a canyon. We also begin to get the sense that the piano is trying to insert itself into the gap, with Oppens visually in the center, striving to communicate with both sides – or perhaps as the driving force in the wedge between them.

Many of the shots that follow are closeups of the players, some decidedly uncomfortable. It is only within the last two minutes of the film that we begin to see something of the big picture, as the camera pans from one side of the quartet to the other. However, we never see all five players together, but an alternation between the viola and cello on one side, and the violins on the other. Grouped with the latter is the piano, which seems to succeed at last in fracturing the quartet. Here the camera feels most expressive, trying to bring the five performers together at the finale. But in a brilliant stroke Scheffer allows the camera to fail and a final unity is never achieved.

Readers who have spent time with Carter’s music will recognize several of its more prominent themes in the structure of the film. Perhaps most notable is how Scheffer captures the intensity of individuality that is at the heart of Carter’s approach to writing for instruments.  The film explores the interaction of those individuals in a variety of ways, some more cooperative, some more antagonistic. In fact, while the main tension is between the piano and the string quartet, the latter is not simply singing with one voice, either in the music or in the film. Thus, in idiomatically cinematic ways, Scheffer has produced a visual analogue of Carter’s compositional practice.

This process is more overt in Scheffer and Andrew Culver’s collaboration titled From Zero: Four Films on John Cage (Mode 130, 2004). Of special interest here is a performance of Cage’s work, Fourteen, by the Ives Ensemble. Like all of Cage’s late number pieces, the instrumentalists are assigned parts which contain mostly single notes and chance-distributed time brackets indicating the period of time (as measured by a stopwatch) within which the notes are to be played. Perhaps the most distinctive feature of Fourteen is the presence of a bowed piano which contributes sounds of extended duration. The piano, alone, plays continuously, as Cage indicates, “an unaccompanied solo…in an anarchic society of sounds.”

In order to film the work, Scheffer and Culver decided on some anarchic principles of their own, providing Cage-like scores for a team of  “undirected camera performers,” for lighting, and eventually for editing. The result is a mesmerizing essay in Cagean “anarchic harmony” in multiple dimensions that enhance one another, facilitated by the shimmering sonorities of complex harmonics that the composer draws from the ensemble.  In the film’s most arresting sequence a camera slowly pans across a trumpet and its player, mostly out of focus (characteristically, the trumpet is not being sounded at this point). The trumpet seems like three points of light, then several, and only gradually does the actual form emerge. Meanwhile a complex sound grows out of rich but uncertain harmonics that glisten much as the trumpet does as it moves into and out of focus. As for the solo piano, no one feature of the lighting or editing seems to correspond to it – until one remembers that the only constant through the film is the viewer, alone in an anarchic society of images.

The Carter and Cage DVDs contain additional materials of considerable interest. From Zero includes three other films by Scheffer and Culver, all of which incorporate chance operations to some extent. In 19 Questions, Cage speaks on randomly selected topics for periods of time also determined by chance. In Paying Attention, Culver and Scheffer work like Cage and Merce Cunningham, with Culver manipulating the audio portions of a Cage interview while Scheffer plays with the visual sequences, without either knowing what the other is doing. The last film, Overpopulation and Art, overlays the composition Ryoanji, interpreted both in sound and film, with Cage’s reading of a mesostic recorded in the last year of his life. The result is a moving memorial.  Valuable interviews with Culver and Scheffer place the films in context.

The Carter DVD contains an interview with Arditti, Oppens, Joshua Cody and the composer. But the most valuable parts of the DVD are the performances in very radiant sound. The Quintet receives a second, tighter, reading, but there is also the more boisterous Quintet for Piano and Winds and the beautifully paced Syringa and Tempo e Tempi performed by the Ensemble Sospeso.  Scheffer’s excellent new Carter documentary, A Labyrinth of Time, will be released soon by Mode.  Recently premiered at the 2004 Tribeca Film Festival, it is not to be missed.
—Anton Vishio, Institute for Studies In American Music Newsletter
Volume XXXIII, No. 2, Spring 2004
Conservatory of Music, Brooklyn College of the City University of NY

John Cage
From Zero
Mode 130 DVD

Don’t you love it when artists are so weird that they can’t even conduct a proper interview? The four films by Frank Scheffer and Andrew Culver on this DVD are not only on the subject of John Cage, they’re also stylistically influenced by him. An interview turns into timed responses to subjects that sound like they were picked out of a hat (for example: 29 seconds on chess). A performance of a Cage piece (mostly sustained, dissonant notes on various instruments) turns into shots that trail off to the sleeve of a performer’s shirt or out of focus shots of the instruments. One entire film is video and audio of Cage speaking put under the digital microscope. The video is zoomed in and heavily pixilated and the audio’s been stretched out so that it’s full of metallic digital filler. Although at times hard to pay attention to, these films document Cage in a way that fits him well.
— John Vogel,, August 2004

John Cage
From Zero: 4 Films on John Cage by Frank Scheffer and Andrew Culver
Variations on Chance, Anarchy and Silence
Mode 130 (DVD)

“Thoreau was very happy to be little known while he was alive. He said it enabled him to do what he had to do. I’m now very well known. It makes me very happy, because I’m able to do what I have to do.”

Thus a self-analysis of John Cage, rendered in 9187 in the brief film “19 Questions,” by Frank Scheffer and Andrew Culver. Not incidentally, that response was 23 seconds long, as dictated by Cagean chance operations imposed on the interview. The other replies ranged from one second (on Octavia Paz: “Indian”) to 48 seconds. “19 Questions” is one of four Cage films by Mr. Scheefer and Mr. Culver on a new DVD from Mode Records (, “From Zero.” The others vary widely. “Fourteen” is Cage’s chamber work of that name, played by the Ives Ensemble and filmed mildy chaotically. It is pointedly unconducted (by an “unconductor”) and undirected. “Paying Attention” reaps slim benefits from a filmed interview, with most of the speech slowed to a barely intelligible crawl and video as calculatedly jarring. “Overpopulation and Art” offers audio of Cage reading the title poem over his atmospheric work “Royanji,” and video shot near his homes, rural (in Stony Point, N.Y.) and urban (Manhattan). Cage’s inevitable preoccupations – chance, indeterminancy, anarchy and silence – play out in myriad ways. A 48-second disquisition on conversation is, deliciously, mostly silence. Ultimately, haltingly, a lone aphorism emerges: “I think conversation works best when the second thing that is said is not in the mind of the person who said the first thing.”
The films were shown last week at a festival of Cage music and videos at the Anthology Film Archives in the East Village. The festival ends today with a full schedule of events, including a screening of Cage’s 1960 appearance on the television game show “I’ve Got a Secret.” Indeed, for all that he revealed over the years, he had so many.
— James R. Oestreich, The New York Times, Sunday, January 25, 2004

John Cage
From Zero
En un Nuevo DVD – From Zero- dedicado a John Cage, el director de cine Frank Scheffer realiza un original acercamiento a la figura del compositor norteamericano y a su poética basada en el papel del azar
Mode 130 (DVD)

Es imposible hablar de la música de John Cage (1912-1992). Mejor dicho: es inútil. El propio planteamiento del músico norteamericano convierte cualquier afirmación sobre su obra en estéril e innecesaria. Para Cage, lo esencial no era teorizar sobre los sonidos sino experimentarlos. Su firme convicción era que la escucha puede despertar una nueva conciencia y convertirse en una experiencia auténticamente liberadora sólo a condición de aceptar cualquier acontecimiento sonoro – incluide el silencio – en su total gratuidad. Coherente con ese pensamiento, dedicó toda su vida a componer según los métodos más disparatados, asignando al azar un papel preponderante en muchas de sus obras.

Por supueslo se puede hab;ar de la música de Cage, pero todo lo que se diga se vuelve de inmediato ineficaz. El propio compositor, en sus conferencias, solía preparar de antemano un listado de respuestas y las contestaba una a una independientemente de cuáles fuesen las preguntas. Entre unas y otras no existía relación lógoca. ¿Para qué intentar argumentar algo que de por sí es inconsistente y variable? Sin embargo, eso no ha impedido que su música se convirtiera a menudo en terreno abonado para profesionales de la elucubración y comentaristas finos o capciosos. Todos ellos han proporcionado a los lectores unos apabullantes castillos teóricos, unas reflexiones sutiles e inteligentes que sirven para muchas cosas, pero no para acercarse en las mejores condiciones a Cage. Igual que el zen, su música habita un espacio antitético al de al comprensión intellectual.

El director de cine halandés Frank Scheffer conoció por primera vez a Cage a comienzos de los años ochenta. Lo hizo aconsejado por una amiga, sin saber nada del compositor. A Cage le gusto mucho el hecho de que su interlocutor no tuviera sobre él ideas preconcebidas, ni teorías, ni interpretaciones o valoraciones.

From Zero, la extraordinaria película que Scheffer ha dedicado a Cage en colaboración con Andrew Culver y que ahora edita en DVD el sello Mode (Diverdi), se beneficia de esta circunstancia. Su mérito fundamental consiste en carecer de voluntad didáctica. No pretende analizar, comentar o explicar. En lugar de rodar una película “sobre” Cage, has hecho una película “a la manera de” Cage. Scheffer y Culver saben muy bien que, en la música del compositor americano, el “cómo” importa más que el “qué”: los procedimientos empleados (el I-Ching es el más conocido) priman sobre el resultado final. Por eso, su aspiración consiste en trasladar al ámbito del video los mismos procedimientos (aleatorios) que el compositoe siguió en sus piezas, con el objetivo de hacerlos perceptibles para el espectador.

Un temperamento irónico

From Zero se divide en cuatro partes. La primera es la única en donde vemos al sompositor. Aquí Cage contesta a diecinueve preguntas. El tema de cada pregunta (sobre las matemáticas, Einstein, la muerte, la opera, el zen, Ronald Reagan, John Cage…) y la duración de cada respuesta son determinados en directo por un programa informático que actúa de forma aleatoria. Las respuestas – que oscilan entre uno y cincuenta segundos – ponen de relieve el temperamento irónico de Cage y su capacidad de resumir en una imagen todo un mundo.

La segunda parte consiste en la interpretación de una de las últimas piezas del compositor – Fourteen – por el Ives Ensemble. Las piezas “numéricas” de Cage aluden al número de los instrumentos que aparecen, y consisten en largas notas -de ahí su carácter meditativo y nebuloso- que los músicos tienen la libertad de empezar y finalizar dentro de unos márgenes temporales establecidos en la partitura. Scheffer y Culver han hecho algo similar, sometiendo a operaciones aleatorias previas elementos tales como el movimiento de las cámaras, las luces, la posición de los músicos en el escenario y el proceso de edición del video.

La tercera parte –Paying Attention– es la más cerebral y la menos interesante. Está basada en una entrevista de Cage en 1982, pero la parte visual y la parte Sonora han sido elaboradas de manera independiente por cada uno de los dos realizadores y luego superpuestas (una forma de trabajo que se daba muchas veces en las colaboraciones entre Cage y el coreógrafo Merce Cunningham). La cuarta y última parte -sin duda la más poética y sugestiva-acopla la grabación de la última conferencia de Cage, Overpopulation and Art, y una de las más hermosas obras del compositor: Rioanji, en versión para voces y percusiones. El tono casi de letanía que tiene la voz de Cage se funde de manera admirable con la pieza musical, mientras que la parte visual muestra imagines de dos lugares importantes en la vida del compositor: Manhattan y Stony Point. Los dos scenarios -uno urbano y otro natural-se alternan y superponen, pero el aspecto más curioso es que los movimientos de la cámara utilizan los mismos gráficos que Rioanji (cuya partitura no reproduce notas sino fragmentos de curves moldeados en los perfiles de las rocas del jardín zen del monasterio de Rioanji).

Como bonus, se añade un documental sobre la realización de Fourteen, y una esclarecedora entrevista con los dos autores hablando de su relación con Cage y explicando los principios seguidos en la realización del video (una adventencia: el DVD está en ingles con subtítulos solo en francés).

En From Zero, Scheffer y Culver demuentran una comprensión de la música de Cage y una cercanía a su espíritu soprendentes. Y esto sin hablar nunca de ella, sin recurrir a complicadas explicaciones. Para ello, se han limitado a girar a su alrededor, describiendo sus mismas órbitas, otorgando expresión visual a los procedimientos de composición utilizados por el compositor americano. Al final, su aportación es mucho más instructive y eficaz que una clase de Historia de la música.
— Stefano Russomanno



Frank Scheffer – “Quintet for Piano and Strings”:
film on Elliott Carter’s piece (mode 128)

John Cage Profile/Discography

Andrew Culver Profile

Frank Scheffer Profile