The famous game that inspired ChessBard

In 1968, John Cage and Marcel Duchamp played a chess match. Duchamp, by that time, was considered a chess master, and Cage was his student. Duchamp won handily—but that wasn’t the point. The match took place in front of a live audience at Ryerson University, and they played on a board designed by Lowell Cross to transform the moves of the match into a musical performance. The event was titled Reunion.

According to Chris Jefferson and Ian Miguel, “the squares of the chessboard acted as switches” that controlled the way in which the musical inputs would be output through speakers to the audience. Jefferson and Miguel describe this control mechanism as “fixed but random.” Cross himself described the connection between the board and the musical outputs it controlled as “arbitrary, unplanned, and quasi-random.”

Cross reports that “the Toronto Newspaper critics were unanimous in their indignation about Reunion.” That’s not surprising, given that the musical result of the experiment mirrored the indirect process of composition. Cage and Duchamp were controlling one thing—the chess match—through which they indirectly controlled another—the sounds. This is not a formula aimed to impress music critics, but in Cross’s words it agreed with Cage’s “aesthetics of indeterminacy” and his “wish to remove his personality from his art.” Cross, who sympathized with Cage’s aesthetic, nevertheless concluded that “the ultimate realization of the work was inconclusive.” But he finds value in how “elegantly” the project realized Cage’s quest for “purposeful purposelessness or a purposeless play.”

So while the music produced may have been forgettable, the concept behind Reunion remains intriguing. It has spawned a remount as well as an online version, and now, more contemporaneously, it has helped inspire the ChessBard.


ChessBard is the creation of Jody Miller and Aaron Tucker

Jody Miller and Aaron Tucker are the creators of the ChessBard, which translates online chess games into poetry. After a game is complete, the moves that comprise the game are converted into poems, one for each side of the game. The translation process involves source poems, word pools, algebra, and algorithms.

Miller and Tucker have also translated famous games—like the one between Deep Blue and Kasparov—into poems. Interestingly, Cross and others have blamed Reunion’s questionable result partially on the quality of the chess play involved. So by harvesting famous games, the ChessBard can translate both your games and also those of the great chess masters into poems.

Like Reunion, the poetic results of the ChessBard depend on the whims of an impersonal compositional process. The essential non-human element constructs the poems. At the same time, the human element—exerted through the chess game—is also integral to the poetic composition. The interaction of the human and non-human elements is at the heart of the ChessBard, and there is much to unpack when exploring that interaction.

And then there is the question of what the ChessBard reveals about the nature of poetry itself. I’m tempted by two claims in that regard: that the ChessBard strips the poem of the ability to be meaningful, and that it frees the poem to mean differently (and thus reveals how all poems can mean differently) than we might assume. Needless to say, there are many elements at play.

Next week, I discuss the ChessBard with its founders. Stay tuned.


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