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John Cage Scholarship Awarded on Roll of a Die

John Cage Scholarship Awarded on Roll of a Die

: Photo by Mark Bocek.

In the spirit of maverick composer John Cage, the scholarship instituted in his name hinges on the roll of a die; chance favored Reilly Sinanan.

Students and staff who showed up for Cornish President Nancy Uscher’s periodical “Coffee and Conversation” time on April 5 were witness to an unusual spectacle. On the meeting table in her office, Uscher rolled a single die to determine the recipient of the annual John Cage Merit Scholarship. Just as in a John Cage chance-based composition, when the die came up a snake-eye “1,” other events were triggered. The cascade of chance ended with the selection of art student Reilly Sinanan as the 2013 winner.

The rules are not all that hard to understand. “In keeping with John Cage’s affinity for chance,” they state, “the scholarship recipient will be selected by the throw of a die by the donor or their designee.” For several years now, the donor’s designee has been the college president. “Each nominee will be assigned a number from 1-6, corresponding in alpha order to each department (art department will be 1, dance 2, design 3, etc.).” So the “1” on the die chose the art department.

So why John Cage and the roll of a die? John Cage, of course, is the renegade composer who redefined music in the 20th Century. Although he was associated with a number of schools, his seminal work was done during his time as a music teacher at Cornish. It was at Cornish that he developed his all-percussion compositions, his work with dancers and, most significantly, his first work for “prepared piano.” Later, he would compose works famously — or infamously, some would say — dependent on chance. Hence the roll of the die.

But it’s fair to ask “How can a merit scholarship be dependent on chance?” Here’s what the rules go on to say: “Each of the six departments at Cornish is invited to nominate a full-time student from their department who irrespective of artistic discipline or need, displays exceptional artistic potential and, in the spirit of John Cage, demonstrates an ability to stretch the currently accepted definitions of music, theater, dance or the visual arts in innovative ways.” In other words, all the possible results lead to a student of merit; in this case, Reilly, well known for his inventive pieces, was awarded the scholarship.

To add to the drama of the award, the scholarship was set up by an anonymous donor. According to Chris Stollery, the donor thought it wrong that famous alum Merce Cunningham had a scholarship in his name and none existed in John Cage’s name. It would be enough to celebrate Cage’s importance to Cornish and Cornish’s to Cage, but there’s also the importance of Cage and Cunningham to each other that’s worthy of note. They met at Cornish, worked extensively together and some years later became lifelong partners.

Stollery is Cornish’s director of development and alumni relations; part of her job is to help donors who want to set up scholarships for students. She gets a number of requests to set up scholarships, but few as interesting as this one. She is on hand every day at Cornish to help anyone inclined to set up another.

“It’s wonderful that the selection process of the scholarship reflects the master,” says Stollery of the unusual die-rolling event, “the man who made chance such an element in 20th century art.”


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