How to Make Fire Prints with John Cage


September 23, 2021 by The Citron Review

by Suzanne C Martinez


  1. John Cage crumples the musical score and drops it on the etching press bed. He is a legend. His face looks like a rubber mask stretched by hanging too long. 


  2. John Cage strikes a match that flares within his palm but doesn’t burn him. His hands are fleshy, as Celeste discovered when she shook his hands as he arrived at their studio in Brooklyn.


  3. John Cage touches the match to the paper which bursts into flame. He jerks back, though he knows what is planned. Earlier, they drank coffee and discussed the project with the publisher – a series of mono-prints from his musical scores lit on fire.


  4. John Cage’s young assistant drops a sheet of Arches 100% rag paper, which is soaked in water to soften the fibers then blotted, on top of the flames. He’s been with Mr. Cage a few years and caters to his every need, but this is new and slightly dangerous. He likes it.


  5. The photographer exhales. He is shooting pictures continuously since Mr. Cage approaches the press capturing the action from every angle. His photographs will accompany the mono-prints exhibit and hopefully lead to more work photographing famous artists, rather than the weddings and bar mitzvahs he despises.


  6. Ben, Celeste’s partner in the studio smooths the printing blankets over the damp paper and cranks the press as fast as he can because he is nervous with everyone watching and wants to show off his strength. The bed of the press carrying the score and the paper moves between two steel rollers. The pressure transfers the fire image onto the paper.


  7. As Ben cranks the press, the publisher lunges forward. He’s as anxious as a toddler on Fruit Loops. His father put him in charge of this project as a test to see if he will fail, again. His record is poor. Today he is drug and alcohol-free which is why his hands are shaking.


  8. Celeste approaches the group at the press with a fire extinguisher. In this project, she was given no role which she finds demeaning. She usually works the etching press. She’s not sure whether this rebuff is an example of misogyny or a random short straw. She never finds out.


  9. Celeste doesn’t know how the extinguisher works. She hopes it won’t come to that, though she sees the flames lick the ceiling. The extinguisher manufacturers must realize people can’t follow complex instructions when their studio is burning.


  10. Ben lifts the blankets, then peels the Arches paper from the press, and flips it face up onto a rack. He’s the first to see the image. Elements of the music staff and notes have transferred to the paper in a random display with soft tones of black, brown, and grey from the smoke. It is beautiful, subtle, and mysterious.


  11. John Cage scrutinizes the print and nods without smiling. “Another,” he mouths. He’s very soft spoken, which isn’t surprising to Celeste. She remembers hearing his famous concerto, 4’33” when it was played by Frank Zappa back in the seventies. She was interested in anything avant garde then.


  12. The publisher is relieved the first print is a success. He. There is a pleasing image on the paper. Nothing bad has happened yet. The flames are confined to the press bed. And John Cage, like a child at a carousel ride, wants to go again. His father may consent to trust him yet.


  13. Ben and Celeste hope the acrid ‘burn’ smell doesn’t linger too long in the studio. They live and work here. They agree to charge the publisher a premium because of the smell and insist on a signed Printer’s Proof, which is never delivered.


  14. The assistant and the photographer stand aside and let John Cage and the publisher bask in the glory of the first ever John Cage mono-print. They ask Ben to tack it up on a wall for all to see. The publisher is pleased to find a way to monetize his reputation.


  15. John Cage fills in a spreadsheet that records the number of music scores lit on fire and the amount of time it takes to extinguish the flames. This may sell at auction years later. Afterward, he goes to lunch at the River Café with the publisher and his assistant. The lunch doesn’t go well. The exhibit never happens.


  16. Ben and Celeste open all the windows and wash the smoke stains from the printing blankets. Not told the project is cancelled, the photographer develops the pictures. He is never paid but sends one to Ben and Celeste. They receive nothing else.


Suzanne C Martinez is a visual artist with a BFA/MFA. Her work has appeared in The Hong Kong Review, Streetlight Magazine, Flash Fiction Magazine, The Broadkill Review, and others. The Broadkill Review nominated her for a 2019 Pushcart Prize and 2020 The Best of the Net Anthology. Flash Fiction Magazine has nominated her for a 2021 Pushcart Prize. She lives in Brooklyn.


2 thoughts on “How to Make Fire Prints with John Cage

  1. Mary Maisie McAdoo says:

    Loved this John Cage story. I like stories that are told from the point of view of the workers who execute the thing, be it an artist’s vision or a utilitarian object. In this case, cleaning the studio after the great man left really resonated with me.

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