Great artists help to liberate us. Not only do they offer us a glimpse of truth or beauty, they also teach us how to use our senses; they show us whole new ways of perceiving the world. From great artists we can learn how to pay attention.
As a composer, author, poet and performer, John Cage has been working in the field of music for the past fifty years, trying to teach us how to listen. In order to accomplish this he has attempted to break down the distinction between “music” and the ordinary sounds of the world around us. Cage wants us to be able to hear it all as music, as the ever-changing unfinished symphony of our lives. First, however, we must learn to drop our value judgments and preconceptions about what music is, and simply listen with open ears from moment to moment. To train us, Cage has written many unusual compositions for the classical music stage, some of which were the first so-called “happenings.” These include a piece for instruments that can be found in an ordinary living room, and a piano piece in which the piano keys are never touched and there is no “intentional sound” made during the entire performance of the score. As Cage says, “My favorite piece of music is the one we hear all the time if we are quiet.”
Cage says he feels close to the philosophy of Zen, and both his method of working and his ideas reflect a deep sympathy with the principles of Buddhism. He uses chance operations from the I Ching to help him write his compositions so that he can get rid of “the likes and dislikes of the ego” and learn to accept whatever arises. If his art has any purpose, he says it is to help us “become fluent with the life we are living.”
Perhaps better than anyone else, John Cage has articulated the major artistic revolution of this century, a revolution with a “Buddhist” perspective, where there is no distinction between process and performance or between life and art. Through his medium of music, Cage has led the way, understanding that when we pay attention without judgment, theater is happening all around us and there is music everywhere.
Cage’s influence has been enormous and can be found in the music of Phillip Glass or Steve Reich or David Byrne of the Talking Heads, or in performance artists such as Laurie Anderson, in current poetry and theater, and in the work of visual artists such as Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol.
Now seventy-four years old, John Cage is still writing music and sounds and words. When I talked with him he was working on an opera, using chance operations with the help of a computer. His enthusiasm and playfulness is infectious, and it was a unique pleasure to be in the presence of this great artist whose stated business in life is “curiosity and awareness.”
The following article includes excerpts from a conversation I had with John Cage at his home in New York City in August of 1986, as well as pieces from Cage’s exceptional book Silence, published first in 1971 by Wesleyan University Press and distributed by Harper and Row.
In the 1930s I went to see a Jungian psychiatrist who had me take a Rorschach test. He said it was clear from the Rorschach that I was in a state of confusion. He said that he could fix me so that I would write more music, but I was already writing so much music that the notion of writing more was alarming. So I didn’t go to him as a psychiatrist.
In the mid-’40s I worked with a musician from India who came to study in the West and she was alarmed about the influence that Western music was having on Indian traditions. She told me that the traditional reason for making a piece of music in India was, “to quiet the mind thus making it susceptible to divine influences.” Meanwhile my friend Lou Harrison was reading a sixteenth-century English text and found the exact same reason given for writing a piece of music. Then I began to wonder: What is a quiet mind and what are divine influences?
In 1945 the great Buddhist scholar D. T. Suzuki came to Columbia to teach and I went for two years to his classes. From Suzuki’s teaching I began to understand that a sober and quiet mind is one in which the ego does not obstruct the fluency of the things that come in through our senses and up through our dreams. Our business in living is to become fluent with the life we are living, and art can help this.
I have never engaged in sitting meditation practice. My music involves me always in sitting so that any more sitting would be too much. Furthermore, by the time I came in contact with Zen I had already promised Arnold Schoenberg that I would devote my life to music which is concerned with the sense perceptions. So my meditation has been through my music, where I am trying to get rid of my own likes and dislikes and open myself to the flow of experience.
There is a Zen text, entitled The Huang-Po Doctrine of Universal Mind, which has been extremely meaningful for me. It contains this magnificent statement: “Imitate the sands of the Ganges who are not pleased by perfume and who are not disgusted by filth.” This could be the basis of any useful ethic we are going to need for a global village. We are going to have to get over the need for likes and dislikes.
In the early 1950s I began using chance operations to write my music, and after I became acquainted with the I Ching (The Book of Changes) I used it extensively. I apply chance operations to determine the frequency, amplitude, timbre, duration and placement of different elements in my music. The chance operations allow me to get away from the likes and dislikes of my ego, so that I can become attentive to what is outside of my own psychology and memory. By using chance operations I am accepting what I obtain. Instead of expressing myself, I change myself. You might say I use chance operations instead of sitting meditation practice.
If you develop an ear for sounds that are musical it is like developing an ego. You begin to refuse sounds that are not musical and that way cut yourself off from a good deal of experience.
The most recent change in my attitude toward sound has been in relation to loud sustained sounds such as car alarms or burglar alarms, which used to annoy me, but which I now accept and even enjoy. I think the transformation came through a statement of Marcel Duchamp who said that sounds which stay in one location and don’t change can produce a sonorous sculpture, a sound sculpture that lasts in time. Isn’t that beautiful?
If I liked Muzak, which I don’t, the world would be more open to me. I intend to work on it.
I think that life is marvelously complex and that no matter what we do there’s room to be irritated. I don’t think we ever arrive at the stillness that we imagine. I love the story of the Zen monk who said, “Now that I’m enlightened, I’m just as miserable as ever.”
I’m not really trying to say anything in my music. I hope the music becomes an example, an instance that bridges more or less naturally to the absence of music. So that either you have the music or you don’t have it and in either case you have sounds. Hopefully, then people can learn to become attentive, with pleasure, to the world of sounds around us that are changing all the time.
I have always tried to move away from music as an object, moving toward music as a process which is without beginning, middle or end. So that instead of being like a table or chair, the music becomes like the weather.
What I really like to listen to is whatever surrounds us in the way of sounds. I really hear it as music.
Imaginary Landscape No. 1, 1939.
Played on variable-speed phonograph turntables.
Living Room Music, 1940.
All instruments are objects to be found in a living room.
Imaginary Landscape No. 4, 1951.
Twelve “live” radios make up the entire instrumentation of this piece.
4′ 33″, 1952.
The pianist comes to the piano and just sits there for four minutes and thirty-three seconds, silently deploying his arms three times in ways that suggest three different movements to the composition. However, no sounds are intentionally produced. The music consists of all the accidental noises in the room where the piece is being performed during the four minutes and thirty-three seconds.
Winter Music, 1956.
Winter Music may be performed by one to twenty pianists using all or part of the twenty pages of the score. The composing of the score involved both chance operations and observation of imperfections in the paper on which the score was written.
I gave a performance of my piece called “Empty Words Part IV” for the students of Chogyam Trungpa at Naropa Institute in Boulder. The piece goes on for two and a half hours and contains long silences of four and five minutes duration, and then out of that silence I just say a few letters of the alphabet following a score which was written through chance operations from the journal of Henry David Thoreau. Meanwhile there are these very faint images of Thoreau’s drawings being projected on a screen behind me, but they are very dim and hardly change at all; perhaps once every twenty minutes. I thought it was an ideal piece for a Buddhist audience, but they became absolutely furious and yelled at me and tried to get me to stop the performance. The next morning I had a meeting with Chogyam Trungpa and he asked me to join the faculty at Naropa.
Theater takes place all the time, wherever one is, and art simply facilitates persuading one that this is the case.
In Zen they say: If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, try it for eight, sixteen, thirty-two, and so on. Eventually one discovers that it’s not boring at all but very interesting.
Value judgments are destructive to our proper business, which is curiosity and awareness.
There’s a beautiful statement by Wittgenstein, the philosopher, who said that the word “beauty” has no meaning. It simply means that something “clicks” for us. Then he said that people should put a clicker in their pocket so that when something doesn’t appear to be beautiful to them, they can just take it out and click it.
Sound has four characteristics: pitch, timbre, loudness and duration. The opposite and necessary coexistent of sound is silence. Of the four characteristics of sound, only duration involves both sound and silence. Therefore, a structure based on durations (rhythmic: phrase, time lengths) is correct (corresponds with the nature of the material), whereas harmonic structure is incorrect (derived from pitch, which has no being in silence).
Each something is a celebration
of the nothing that
supports it. When we
re-move the world from our shoulders
we notice it doesn’t drop.
Where is the
Responsibility is to
oneself; and the highest
form of it is irresponsibility
to oneself which is to say
the calm acceptance of whatever
responsibility to others and things
If one adopts this attitude
art is a sort of
experimental station in which
one tries out living; one
doesn’t stop living
when one is occupied
making the art …
I am trying to check my habits of seeing, to counter them for the sake of greater freshness. I am trying to be unfamiliar with what I’m doing.
The highest purpose is to have no purpose at all. This puts one in accord with nature in her manner of operation.
All I know about method is that when I am not working I sometimes think I know something, but when I am working, it is quite clear that I know nothing.
There is no such thing as an empty space or an empty time. There is always something to see, something to hear. In fact, try as we may to make a silence, we cannot. For certain engineering purposes, it is desirable to have as silent a situation as possible. Such a room is called an anechoic chamber, its six walls made of special material, a room without echoes. I entered one at Harvard University several years ago and heard two sounds, one high and one low. When I described them to the engineer in charge, he informed me that the high one was my nervous system in operation, the low one my blood in circulation. Until I die there will be sounds. And they will continue following my death. One need not fear about the future of music.
Our intention is to affirm this life, not to bring order out of a chaos or to suggest improvements in creation, but simply to wake up to the very life we’re living, which is so excellent once one gets one’s mind and one’s de sires out of its way and lets it act of its own accord.