Haunting Stillness

September 6, 2010

When I took a composition workshop with Merce Cunningham in 1974, one of his challenges to us was about stillness. To master the art of stillness, we worked in twos. Partners A held a position absolutely still while Partner B watched—for quite a while. Then we switched.



Half the group performed their partnered stillness while the other half watched. Watching someone being still takes a lot of concentration. After we fulfilled the exercise, Merce said something like, “You see, the person watching is actually more still than the person being still.”


How could that be? I think he was trying to show us that when you have a purpose, e.g. watching someone, you bring great concentration to it. Whereas when you are just told to be still with no underpinning idea, you may fidget.


I thought of this yesterday when I was on at the Guggenheim Museum to see the exhibit entitled Haunted: Contemporary Photography/Video/Performance. It was a beautiful show (sorry, it just closed). One of the first paintings as you climb the circular ramp, is a Rauschenberg collage. In its center is a white rectangle with a sketchy figure of a man dancing. The man, of course, is Merce Cunningham (for whom Rauschenberg created sets, costumes, and environments for years). Since Merce died a year ago, this is indeed quite ghostly.


But nothing compared with what I found at the top of the ramp, five long spirals later. There were several projected slides of Merce in his old age, sitting still in his studio. The very last photo is—wait a minute—is Merce moving?? His eyes are completely still, as though he were watching a still person, bringing me back 36 years. But his torso is—when you have the patience to watch closely—breathing very shallowly. It’s actually a film, not a still photo, shot in 2007 by Tacita Dean, and it’s called Merce Cunningham performs Stillness (in three movements) to John Cage’s composition 4’33.


Cage’s piece by this title, made in 1952, requires the musician to sit at an instrument and do nothing—the better to hear the ambient sounds of the moment. In Dean’s 2007 film, years after Cage died in 1992, Merce allows us to register our own reactions as ambient noise.


In this film, Merce seems halfway between life and death, and it reminded me of something Eiko (of Eiko & Koma) once said: “Older performers carry something that is almost between this world and the next, that itself is artistic and transcending.”


I’m pretty sure Merce knew this would be a powerful film after he stepped into that next world. I felt truly haunted by his transcending the difference between life and death. I was able to be totally still watching it and remembering what he said about stillness so long ago.


There are so many ways in which Merce is still with us.



Photo courtesy Guggenheim