A Dip in the River – An interpretation of John Cage’s A Dip in the Lake for Lafayette Indiana


Over the past semester I did a re-imagining of Cage’s A Dip in the Lake for the Greater Lafayette, Indiana area. It was a pretty interesting process, and despite my love of recordistry, not something that I’d have usually embarked on.

Score for A Dip In the Lake

I think I’ve gotten deep enough into this piece that it’s a little hard for me to describe what it is concisely. The original A Dip in the Lake is a kind of Visual composition for a sound collage. I’ve not been able to find a lot of detail on his composition process, but it looks like Cage just selected random points on a map of the Chicago area. A list of addresses was created from this map. The composition was published in 1978 by Henmar Press, Inc, and copies are available in some libraries. 

Aside from the location list, little direction is provided in the original work beyond the text:


for performer(s) or listener(s) or record maker(s)

(Transcriptions may be made for other cities, or places, by assembling through chance operations a list of four hundred and twenty-seven addresses and then, also through chance operations, arranging these in ten groups of two, sixty-one groups of three, and fifty-six groups of four.)

Funny how seeing the above direction describes the work better than my earlier attempt. The lack of specificity is really nice. It opens the work up to be as simple or difficult as you want, and free for all kinds of interpretation. There are so many different ways you could go about this! One that just dawns on me is use of video instead of just audio..

The lack of specificity could also be a burden, depending on how you look at it. I generally like to have specific direction when I’m working on something like this. Having a logic, or an ideal outcome, or even a reason for doing the project in the first place are generally important, and not knowing these things can be crippling. [This is probably the biggest issue in my life right now as I go through a graduate program in Art and Design.. Specifically the areas of Industrial Design and Visual Design. I’m learning _creative_ professions, but in reality I’m just learning to spot and regurgitate trends.] This is where I really got into Cage’s philosophy. It’s almost like decision nihilism. The artist’s choice is totally irrelevant, or rather, the beauty lies in choas, and making decisions undermines that.

My Version
I’m getting too far into the theory. To step back, for my re-imagining and realization of this piece, I fought to use chance where ever possible, and beyond this, I used more technologically determinate methods for doing so than I suspect Cage did. I guess this really makes it easier to be “random”, which I think is a good thing. It also highlights our default use of technology for completing everyday tasks.

MapWithLinesTo start, I chose my locations randomly. I used a website called GeoMidPoint. It was really the first thing I found in a Google Search, but it turned out to suit my needs. It generated 20 GPS locations for me in a radius I specified that mostly encompassed Lafayette and West Lafayette, IN. I only used 20 points (down from Cage’s prescribed 427) to make this complete-able in the given time frame.

My next step was to visit all of these locations to record audio. The quickest means I could think of to get to each GPS position was to enter it into Google Maps. Interestingly, this resolved the locations to street addresses. This was a form much easier for me to use, but it also distorted the data a bit – Google Maps “thinks” in terms of streets, not in terms of locations, and this was evident in it’s translation of the GPS coordinates. For example, one of my GPS locations was in the middle of a corn field. Rather than giving me directions to get to the middle of the corn field, Google Maps gave me directions to the closest road to that point in the corn field, as well as a picture of that spot on the road. It was interesting what we lose in the augmented perception offered by Google Maps. ..You can’t see inside structures either.. or hear sounds from the location.. etc, etc.

I recorded 2 minutes of audio at each location and then proceeded to my next step, which was figuring out how to combine the audio together. Peter Gena, who did the first realization of this piece in 1982 was my primary source of information for the processing of the audio. [1. isn’t it interesting that the composition sat around for 4 years before it was ever performed? 2. In retrospect, I shouldn’t have relied on prior methods in figuring out my own] Gena had the luck of being able to ask Cage himself how the sounds should go together, and it was suggested that he use a similar method to one from another of Cage’s works called Rozart Mix. This involved some interesting (and random) editing of magnetic tape. My recordings started off in the digital realm, so I had to adapt. I initially planned to cut up the audio segments “by hand” in editing software and recombine them according to chance operations, but before long I realized that even with my reduced number of recordings, it would take a really long time. Instead, based on a suggestion of a friend, I used Cycling’74’s MAX software to build a processor that automatically did what I had planned to do manually. It worked wonderfully, and as a side effect, can run infinitely. This immediately made me think it would be something cool to use in a gallery show.

Long winded enough, I suppose. Here is a video for the first of the 4 pieces that came out of this. Photo’s of the 5 locations included in this work are shown – first what Google Maps showed me followed by what I found when I arrived there. There is also video of the MAX patcher at work.

Related links:
More details in the paper for this project
The MAX Patcher I used
Other realizations of A Dip in the Lake: Chicago, Washington DC, Luxembourg Germany, Potenza Italy


One thought on “A Dip in the River – An interpretation of John Cage’s A Dip in the Lake for Lafayette Indiana

  1. Songwriting process – life in the so called space age

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