Ronit Eisenbach, Storyteller
RONIT EISENBACH, Architect + Artist, Associate Professor of Architecture, UMD School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation
When I was a young college student at the Rhode Island School of Design, there was a lecture by John Cage. I didn’t know who he was and I had no idea what to expect. I just remember him sitting at a table at the bottom of this great auditorium, which was completely filled with people, and he told us that because we were students who might become makers ourselves someday, he wanted to explain something he was going to do.
…I was zoning in and out, sometimes frustrated, sometimes bored. But every once in a while, a phrase made sense and stimulated my own thoughts.
He was going to read a 45-minute poem, something he called a renga. I learned that day that a renga is a Japanese poem, like a haiku, that would normally be produced by a group of poets. But Cage informed us that although this was generally a collaborative effort he chose to make a renga on his own. He created seven renga poems and proceeded to cut them up line by line, making a bag of first lines, a bag of second lines, a bag of third lines and so on. He picked from each bag in order, randomly finding lines, and put them together to make a single poem.
Because this poem was randomly constructed, most of it did not make sense. As we listened we each heard a phrase or two that had individual significance but had no larger context to give it meaning. As Cage read this construct for what felt like a very long time, I was zoning in and out, sometimes frustrated, sometimes bored. But every once in a while, a phrase made sense and stimulated my own thoughts. One phrase I still remember today was “two Davids walking.” I heard that phrase as words with meaning while the rest of the poem I no longer heard as words. I heard it as sounds. Cage had created a machine that separated the sounds of the words of my mother tongue from their meaning, as if it was a foreign language.
This was a revelation. The work framed a particular aspect of the world that I did not notice before. When I think back upon the goals of my own work, it’s often to try to reframe something that already exists so that an idea I’m aware of — or that I may not even be aware of — becomes visible to myself and others. For this reason this experience has stayed with me and remains an incredibly, incredibly powerful memory.