John Cage was arguably one of the most fascinating and enigmatic composers of experimental music of the 20th century. In this book, Where the Heart Beats; John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists (Amazon.com, Amazon UK), Kay Larson, art critic and Zen Buddhist, looks at Cage’s life and the relationship between his work and Zen Buddhism.
The book is a sort-of-biography, covering Cage’s early life, his student years, and his first forays into composition. A curious man, Cage had begun delving into the works of the Orient, and the turning point in his life, and in his approach to art, came in 1950, when he met D. T. Suzuki, a Japanese author and lecturer who settled in New York City. His earliest book, which had been published in the United States in 1927, came out in a new edition at that time. Suzuki was to start teaching Zen to all and sundry, and Cage absorbed all that he could.
Cage had been involved in many experimental works, including “happenings” and works with what was considered to be non-musical sounds. In the 1940s, he developed the idea of the prepared piano, where he inserted objects and and between the strings of the instrument to give it a more percussive sound. His Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) was his first major work using this technique.
Wherever we are, what he hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating.
But the discovery of Zen, along with the I Ching – the Chinese oracle book – which was given to him in 1951 by Christian Wolff, led him to embrace indeterminacy and chance. He was later to use chance operations in all of his compositions.
I believe that by eliminating purpose, what I call awareness increases. Therefore my purpose is to remove purpose.
They proceed thus, by chance, by no will of their own passing safely through many perilous situations.
Cage was to develop this procedure over the years, and it became his main method of composition. But he was also a lecturer and author, and some of his writings are more profound than his music. (See, for example, his 1961 collection Silence (Amazon.com, Amazon UK).) In his Lecture on Nothing, he made the very Zen-like statement:
It is not irritating to be where one is. It is only irritating to think one would like to be somewhere else.
But Cage was just an intellectual Buddhist. Suzuki didn’t teach meditation, and there is no suggestion that Cage practiced meditation at all. He clearly internalized many Buddhist concepts, but he was not a Buddhist.
It’s hard to pin down John Cage, and this book offers more questions than answers. It ends more or less in the 1960s, and doesn’t discuss much of Cage’s work after that period. One could say that Cage had done all he had to do by then; he had made his statements and developed his technique, and the rest – the next three decades – were merely more of the same.
I have very mixed feelings about John Cage. To me, he was a brilliant man, but he was also a bit of a charlatan. In writing, for example, 4’33”, a piece where a pianist sits in front of his instrument for four minutes and thirty-three seconds, playing nothing, Cage showed us that the sounds around us can be music. But at the same time, this piece was just a joke. Cage defends it, likening it to the white paintings of of Robert Rauschenberg from 1951, but those – just like Richard Stella’s later black paintings – say nothing. Cage made an interesting statement with 4’33”, but it was an empty statement. To me, his work stagnated once he settled into his aleatoric process.
I met John Cage in late December, 1986. At the time, I was living in Paris, and was editing a journal about the I Ching called Hexagrammes. I was very interested in the idea behind the I Ching at the time (something that is no longer important to me), and together with sinologist Cyrille Javary, who directs the Centre Djohi in Paris, I translated several books on the subject, and edited this journal. I had contacted Cage to ask if I could interview him the next time I was in New York, and he graciously accepted.
Cage was one of the most charming people I’ve ever met, and the smile on his face that you see in the photo on the left, was his default expression. He gave me the feeling of being a true bodhisattva, and everything he said was carefully weighed and to the point.
He explained his process, which turned out to have little to do with the I Ching itself. He had simply adopted a method of using random numbers to fit into preset conditions for his music. His assistant would run a simulation on a computer that was the equivalent of throwing coins (a method used when consulting the I Ching). He would use these numbers to determine notes, durations, rests, etc., all based on decisions he made for each piece. While I was there, he composed a few notes of one of his number pieces, Music For…. It is described as follows:
This work consists of 17 parts for voice and instruments without overall score. Its title is to be completed by adding the number of performers, i.e. Music for Five, Music for Twelve, and so forth. Each part consists of “pieces” and “interludes,” notated on two systems and using flexible time-brackets. Some of the “pieces” are made up of single held tones, preceded and followed by silence, and should be played softly; they can be also be repeated. Others consist of sequences of tones with various pitches, notated proportionally. Tones in these parts are not to be repeated and have varying dynamics, timbres, and durations. The “Interludes”, lasting 5, 10, or 15 seconds, are to be played freely with respect to dynamics and durations of single notes, and normally with respect to timbre. The work uses microtonal pitches. The piano is played by bowing the strings with fishing line or horse hair. The percussionists have 50 instruments each, chosen by the performer with the caveat that selected instruments are able to produce held tones. The string parts follow the notation of Freeman Etudes. The players may decide on the number of “pieces” and “interludes” to be performed, resulting in a maximum duration of thirty minutes.
Cage recounted, in detail, how he proceeded, telling me that he had just begun writing the fourth part of the piece. The process seemed sterile to me, but Cage’s goal was to get out of the way of the music, and let the process do everything, without him making any value judgements. (I have a detailed description of the process, in French, in issue number 3 of Hexagrammes. One day, perhaps, I’ll translate it; I’ve lost the original English tapes and transcriptions.)
But in spite of this, Cage was a fascinating man. We shared two favorite authors: James Joyce and Henry David Thoreau. It turned out that Cage was to be the first reader in a marathon reading of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake a few days later in a gallery in Soho, and invited me to attend. Cage read this work – the opening section of the novel – with grace and style, which is no mean feat:
riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs…
No matter what, John Cage was a fascinating man. This book, Where the Heart Beats, tells the story about how Cage discovered the tools he would use for his compositions, and for some of his writing. Like his music or not, he was one of the most important people in experimental music in the 20th century. I grew up listening to some of his music: his earliest string quartet, his Sonatas and Interludes for Prepared Piano, and Music of Changes. While there’s a lot of his music that I find uninteresting, it’s fair to say that Cage was unique.
Watch an interesting video of John Cage on the TV quiz show I’ve Got a Secret in 1960, here he performs his percussion work Water Walk. Many laughed, but Cage took this very seriously, and so did the host of the show. It’s quite surprising that someone playing this sort of music was on national television in the United States.
You can also listen to an interesting conversation with John Cage and Morton Feldman.