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John Cage’s “Indeterminacy” Celebrated in Scholarship Award

John Cage’s “Indeterminacy” Celebrated in Scholarship Award

: Cornish President Nancy J. Uscher with the award-determining die. Photo by Mark Bocek.

John Cage’s “Indeterminacy” Celebrated in Scholarship Award

: Dr. Uscher building up to the throw. Photo by Mark Bocek.

John Cage’s “Indeterminacy” Celebrated in Scholarship Award

: The die rolls ... Photo by Mark Bocek.

John Cage’s “Indeterminacy” Celebrated in Scholarship Award

: … and comes up as a "snake eye," a "1" designating the Art Department's Coulliette as the scholarship winner. Photo by Mark Bocek.

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At Cornish, genius composer John Cage established himself as a maverick; the awarding of his namesake scholarship with the role of a die celebrates that reputation.

The single, red-plastic cube tumbled and clattered across the tabletop. It came to a stop on the heavily figured hardwood surface with a lone, white pip showing on its upturned face. Was this scene set in some smoky gambling den? No, this took place on May 7 in the office of the president at Cornish College of the Arts. President Nancy J. Uscher was dispatching her annual duty as a donor’s “designee,” facilitating the choice of this year’s recipient of John Cage Merit Scholarship. The donor, who, sadly, has requested anonymity, has stipulated that the scholarship be awarded on the throw of a die to honor the spirit of Cornish icon John Cage and his theory of “indeterminacy.” The “1” on the die’s surface steered the award to Cornish’s Art Department and to its candidate, Coulliette (John Marc Powell, AR ’15).

The rules of the die roll 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 president of Cornish. “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, again, the “1” designated the Art Department.

For John Cage, “indeterminacy” in music referred to “the ability of a piece to be performed in substantially different ways.” We all wish that our lives could roll out with the satisfying precision and clarity of a classical composition. The basic idea of indeterminacy in music is to relate music closer to life, which is largely chance-driven. 

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, Coulliette, known not only for his own work but for his collaborations with Pendleton House and iET+I, was awarded the scholarship. Coulliette is from Atlanta, Georgia.

The scholarship was established in 2007. This year marks the second time chance has smiled on the art department. In 2013, the throw of the die also came up “1,” awarding the John Cage scholarship to the art student selected for his “exceptional artistic potential and … ability to stretch the currently accepted definitions” of his discipline, Reilly Sinanan. Two weeks ago, Reilly graduated from Cornish summa cum laude. Other past winners include Angela Rose Sink, theater, 2012; Sam Picart, dance, 2011; Koji Minami, design, 2010; Christin Lusk, dance, 2009; Sarfraz Bhatti, design, 2008; and Kay Nahm, theater, 2007.

In establishing the honor, the Cage scholarship donor thought it wrong that famous alum and dance pioneer Merce Cunningham had a scholarship in his name and none existed for John Cage, who was an artistic and life partner of Cunningham and whose career caught fire at Cornish. It makes perfect sense that the scholarship be awarded to an artist in one of several disciplines; before settling on composing, Cage studied painting, writing, theology and poetry.

Chris Stollery is Cornish’s major gift officer; 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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