For over fifty years, John Cage (1912–1992) worked in the field of music, trying to teach us how to listen. To accomplish this, he first attempted to break down the distinction we make between “music” and the ordinary sounds of the world around us. Cage wanted us to be able to hear it all as music, an ever-changing unfinished symphony. To train us, Cage wrote many unusual compositions for the classical music stage, some of which were the first so-called “happenings.” These include a piece of music 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 said, “My favorite piece of music is the one we hear all the time if we are quiet.”
Buddhism had a profound influence on Cage, affecting both his method of working and his philosophy of art. He used chance operations from the I Ching to help him write his compositions so that he could get rid of “the likes and dislikes of the ego” and learn to accept whatever arises. If art has any purpose, Cage said, it is to help us “become fluent with the life we are living.”
I had the privilege of speaking with John Cage in 1986, when he was seventy-four years old. At the time he was working on an opera, using chance operations with the help of a computer. His enthusiasm and playfulness were infectious, and it was a pleasure to be in the presence of this artist whose stated business in life was “curiosity and awareness.” The following article includes excerpts from our conversation, originally published in the Winter 1986 issue of Inquiring Mind. —Wes Nisker
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 Louis Harrison was reading a 16th-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.
If I liked Muzak, which I don’t, the world would be more open to me. I intend to work on it.
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 titled 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 Chinese 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.
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.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 that stay in one location and don’t change can produce a sonorous sculpture, a sound sculpture that lasts in time. Isn’t that beautiful?
Theater takes place all the time, wherever one is, and art simply facilitates persuading one that this is the case.
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 that 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.
I gave a performance of my piece called Empty Words Part IV for the students of Chogyam Trungpa at Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado. 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.
In Zen they say: If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If it’s 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.
Our intention is to affirm this life, not to bring order out of 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 desires out of its way and lets it act of its own accord.
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.
Composers are spoken of as having ears for music, which generally means that nothing presented to their ears can be heard by them. Their ears are walled in with sounds of their own imagination.
Value judgments are destructive to our proper business, which is curiosity and awareness.
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.
What I think and what I feel can be my inspiration, but it is then also my pair of blinders. To see one must go beyond the imagination and for that one must stand absolutely still as though in the center of a leap.
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.
I have spent many pleasant hours in the woods conducting performances of my silent piece, transcriptions, that is, for an audience of myself, since they were much longer than the popular length which I have had published. At one performance, I passed the first movement by attempting the identification of a mushroom which remained successfully unidentified. The second movement was extremely dramatic, beginning with the sounds of a buck and a doe leaping up to within ten feet of my rocky podium. The expressivity of this movement was not only dramatic but unusually sad from my point of view, for the animals were frightened simply because I was a human being. However, they left hesitatingly and fittingly within the structure of the work. The third movement was a return to the theme of the first.
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.
The highest purpose is to have no purpose at all. This puts one in accord with nature in her manner of operation.