Zen of John Cage

by Φ

Excerpts from Where the Heart Beats by Kay Larson


A    shorter    tale     would     be     read     slowly.

Each koan-like story was a fragment, self-contained, gleaming like a jewel in its setting. The setting itself–the gold that holds the jewels–was the Cagean principle of Indeterminacy.

Indeterminacy means, literally: not fixed, not settled, uncertain, indefinite. It means you don’t know where you are. How can it be otherwise, since you have no fixed or inherent identity & are ceaselessly in process?

Cage & his friends began writing graphic scores, which often resemble drawings; ordinary notes, for instance, might be replaced with elegant sliding marks that look more like calligraphy. Graphic scores require musicians to take on hair-raising complexities of interpretation. A musician thus becomes a collaborator with the composer, who shifts some of the responsibility & discipline to others & lets go of a piece of his own ego self-image. The composer gives up a bit of control. No performance is ever like another, and no idea of perfection is possible or desired. The audience is asked to accept uncertainty and chance—to be open to “whatever happens.”

After a long journey a young man arrived deep in a forest where the teacher of his choice was living in a small house he had built himself. When the student arrived, the teacher was sweeping up autumn’s falling leaves. Greeting his new master, the young man received no greeting in return. And to all his questions, there were no replies. Realizing there was nothing he could do to get the teacher’s attention, the student went to another part of the same forest and built himself a house. Years later, when he was sweeping up autumn’s fallen leaves, he became enlightened. He thought to drop everything, run through the forest, and say “Thank you!” to the teacher. Instead he stayed sweeping, calm & smiling. 

For Cage, Fountain was something more than Dadaist provocation. Either Duchamp absorbed Buddhist teachings from books, or he got the point all by himself, because in Fountain he proposed a view of the human mind that perfectly resonates with Buddhism.
In the readymades, Duchamp asks—with the urgency & rigor of a Zen master—What is this? What is this?
It’s an ordinary object—a shovel? But what do we mean by “ordinary”? Something we use without giving it importance? Something “not art”?
Then what is ‘art’? Something we value? Something we’ve worked hard over? Something “elevated”? Where do these mental valuations come from? Why do we believe in them or invest them with credibility?
When we look at a shovel, what do we see? A gorgeous form (an object)? The expectation of a broken arm (a mental projection)? The shovel will be used—is that why it’s “not art”? So art is only & exclusively useless?
Duchamp signed the shovel. Does that action make a shovel into art? So it’s only the artists intention that divides art from non-art? And so on.
“For Marcel Duchamp the question of art & life, as well as any other question capable of diving us at the present moment, does not arise,” Andre Breton presciently proclaimed in 1922.
The shocked outrage that greeted the urinal—what was it? As the Blind Man essay was quick to point out, there is nothing “immoral” in the urinal itself. The eruptions of violated sensibility were coming from human beings, whose unexamined expectations, habitual beliefs, moral rigidity, squeamishness about the body, conditioned responses, & exhaulted sense of propriety were causing howls of anguish. This raging cyclone of emotion is a succinct definition of dukkha—the Sanskrit word that sums up the suffering of cyclic existence, brought on by our ego fixations. Buddishts call this realm samsara, the troubled world created by our rigid ego habits: our clinging to the categories we invent, investing them with reality, punishing those who don’t agree. Had the spectators been able to rise to the challenge Duchamp set for them, they would have seen their own minds reflected back at them, as though in a perfect mirror.
Fountain seems to offer a comment on both samsara & nirvana. If all things have Buddha-nature, then the urinal is in the same category as bathtubs, monkeys, stars, and us: just the world as it is, experienced by an enlightened mind unhindered by aversions. Regarding Fountain, a Buddhist might say: Are you so consumed by your perfect storm of reactivity? Or can you get out of your own explosive conditioning long enough to see the buddha-form in all things?

Over & over again, at almost any point, I find correspondence between Duchamp & the Orient. 

Cage separated from Xenia in 1945. The old identities were shattering, and he had no help in putting things back together again. His mood found its way into compositions like Ophelia (1946), a tone poem to madness. The music tosses itself around: Ophelia is seemingly throwing flowers & singing fractured songs to herself as she dances toward the river. Margarent Leng Tan asked Cage why his portrait of Ophelia is so much harsher than Shakespeare’s. She recorded his reply that “all madness is inherently violent, even when it is not directed towards others, for it invariably ravages the sufferer internally.”
Hamlet, the madman, has destroyed Ophelia’s happiness, and she sank into the river & drowned.

When The Perilous Night premiered in New York on April 5, 1944, the press reactions were hostile & clueless. Although Cage put up with nasty reviews for much of his musical life, this time the pain was just too much. Already stunned & hurting, Cage came to a dead stop & asked himself whether he should be writing music.

I had poured a great deal of emotion into the piece, and obviously I wasn’t communicating this at all. Or else, I thought, if I were communicating, then all artists must be speaking a different language, and thus speaking only for themselves. The whole musical situation struck me more & more as a Tower of Babel. 

If nobody heard his feelings, then what was the point of “expressing” anything? In that case, just forget it. But then what about the whole Western idea that art expressed emotion? Maybe this whole model was wrong…
Chage’s deliberate turning away from self-expression begins here. The seed of a new idea was being watered by suffering. A little green tendril of doubt was beginning to unfurl.

An article in the June 1946 Harper’s Bazaar noted that Cage “has launched a trend in living: Artists, musicians, and writers are begining to invade slum & industrial districts bordering on the lower East River.”
The mood of the place [at 326 Monroe Street] was expansive & serene, Cage said; the new apartment “turns its back to the city & looks to the water & the sky.”

Eckhart: “To understand a man requires three things: to have conquered strife, to be in contemplation of the highest good, & be so master of himself as to be incapable of anger.”

I was especially convinced of the truth of the Hindu theory of art. I tried to make my works correspond to that theory.

Indian aesthetic theory promised to lead Cage toward his longed-for goal of tranquility. The minor or temporary emotions—the human panoramas of struggle & desire—are tamed by putting them in service to rasa, a high-level aesthetic emotion, sometimes compared to a perfume of the subtlest essence. Rasa is the “thrill that comes from sharing the mood & suddenly understanding the true essence of the art work.” Rasa is a healing. It gives a release from the hurting self, which finds itself instead immersed in the object of contemplation “to the exclusion of all else including oneself.” Through rasa you forget yourself.

The eight permanent emotions—the erotic, the comic, the compassionate, the heroic, the furious, the fearful, the odious, the wondrous—hover above the turmoil. They all lead toward the ninth, shanta, the tranquil.

Cage’s wish to emulate the Indians was leading him toward compositional methods that created tranquility, stasis, & silence. His music was headed toward disinterestedness—which is not “indifference.” The two words have nothing in common. Indifference borders on nihilism. It has a quality of “not caring.” It is “apathetic.” It expresses corrosive cynicism. It is poisonous, both to the practitioner & to the culture as a whole.
Disinterestedness, on the contrary, “is unbiased by personal interest or advantage; not influenced by selfish motives.” Disinterestedness is the natural outcome of meditation on the self & recognition of its lack of substance—then what can trouble you? Freeing one’s mind from the grip of the self leads to spiritual ease—being at home in your own skin, free of self-attachment, cured of likes & dislikes, afloat in rasa. It’s how you open your ears to the music of the natural world.

If one makes music, as the Orient would say, disinterestedly, that is, without concern for money or fame but simply for the love of making it, it is an integrating activity & one will find moments in his life that are complete & fulfilled. 

Cage had yet to actualize silence in his music or his life.

I felt that an artist had an ethical responsibility to society to keep alive the contemporary spiritual needs; I felt that if one did this, admittedly vague as it is a thing to do, ones work would automatically carry with it a usefulness to others.

I want to be as though new-born, knowing nothing, absolutely nothing, about Europe; ignoring poets & fashions, to be almost primitive. Then I want to do something very modest; to work out by myself a tiny formal motive…& someday, through the repetition of such small, but original deeds, there will come one work upon which I can really build. 

Good music can act as a guide to good living. It is interesting to note that harmonic structure in music arises as Western materialism arises, disintegrates at the time that materialism comes to be questioned, and that the solution of rhythmic structure, traditional to the Orient, is arrived at with us just at the time that we profoundly sense our need for that other tradition of the Orient: peace of mind, self-knowledge. 

Ego Noise.

Zen “avoids what seems to the modern man’s religion’s greatest weakness—it’s tendency to unsubstantiated metaphysics. Zen is an empiric method for mental control & the total command of attention.” Zen is essential Buddhism, a method for freeing the mind, not a case for deserting life.

Suzuki: Zen in its essence is the art of seeing into the nature of one’s own being, and it points the way from bondage to freedom. Zen liberates all the energies properly & naturally stored in each of us, which are in ordinary circumstances cramped & distorted so that they find no adequate channel for activity.
This body of ours is like an electric battery in which a power latently waits. When this power is not properly brought into operation, it either grows moldy & withers away or is warped & expresses itself abnormally. It is the object of Zen, therefor, to save us from going crazy or being crippled. This is what I mean by freedom, giving free play to all the creative impulses inherently lying in us.

I-me-mine has no reality beyond its purpose of keeping us alive.  One can be run into the ground by the ego self: by its raging emotions, excitement & fear, ignorance & ecstasy. Emotions are ordinary human events. They can’t destroy you unless you believe in them & give them power. Why believe in an illusion? The self has no reality apart from the oceanic ebb & flow of conditioned existence. Emotions are just the play of light & shadow on the surface of the sea.

Zen instructions are clear: Watch thought as they arise. See the thoughts without judging them. Let your mind return to silence. When another thought arises, don’t cling to it. Let it go, it will dissolve of its own accord. Then where is the thought? By vanishing, it has proven its own unreality & has lost its power over you. In that case, what can disturb the mind? Nothing.

How can anyone judge a sound that has risen of its own accord? Ir rises & falls, appears & disappears, & has no ego content whatsoever. A single sound is like a thought: here one moment, gone the next. Each sound is free to be itself. Nothing can cling to it: no interpretation, no ideas; no anger, no hurt; no “masterpiece” judgement, no “less-than” judgement. All is of equal quality.

Zen & Taoism agree: Name it & you’re made it something other than what it is. Divide it with conceptual thought & you’ve created all dualistic thinking. Put yourself first & you’ve disturbed the Way. Try to “get somewhere” & you will lose contact with the ground. Embrace “not knowing” & you will know everything you need. The Tao, the “great way,” is unknowable. The world is unpredictable. Everything changes. Nothing endures. The “music of changes” is the “music of the world.”

Graphic scores idtroduce visual & performative openness & indeterminacy into the process of composing music. The graphic score is a kind of abstract art—a drawing that evokes a field of sound. It serves to “erect a nonlinear, ‘imagistic’ sense of time.” Experiments with notation proved to be Morton “Feldman’s battleground, the site of his negotiation between the visual & the aural, the timeless & the temporal.”
“Cage opened up the door to a vast world, willy-nilly,” Feldman said. “He opened Pandora’s Music Box. He opened a door for me where I saw a direction which had nothing to do with any model in this world.”

Thoreau got up each morning & walked in the woods as though he had never been where he was going to, so that whatever was there came to him like liquid into an empty glass. Many people taking such a walk would have their heads so full of other ideas that it would be a long time before they were capable of hearing or seeing. Most people are blinded by themselves. 

Tibetan Buddhism regards the devastation caused by the unenlightened ego as an ongoing trainwreck, spreading woe to bystanders. But, delusion is the fuel that can propel you toward enlightenment.
Self-identity in crisis. Being in the midst of a collision between an ice-cap & an icebreaker. All around encrusted ice: the frozen rigidity of social roles; the behavioral expectations, looming icebergs; conditioning, an enclosing of cold transparent walls. So who is torturing whom? The answer is inevitable. One tortures oneself, with thoughts. With likes & dislikes. With ego constructs & value judgments.

You can become narrow-minded, literally, by only liking certain things, & by disliking others. But you can become open-minded, literally, by giving up your likes & dislikes & becoming interested in things. Things “as they are, in & of themselves.”

In Zen, nothing is either good or bad. Or ugly or beautiful… Art should not be different from life but an action within life. Like all of life, with its accidents & chances & variety & disorder & momentary beauty. 

Value judgments are the means by which the ego tries to shape the world to suit its desires.

The value judgement when it is made doesn’t exist outside the mind but exists within the mind. IT’s a decision on the part of the mind when it says, “This is good & that is not good.” It’s a decision to eliminate from experience certain things. Zen wants us to diminish that kind of activity of the ego & to increase the activity that accepts the rest of creation. And rather than taking the path that is prescribed in the formal practice of Zen itself, namely sitting cross-legged & breathing, I decided that my proper discipline was the one to which I was already committed, namely the making of music. And that I would do it with a means that was a strict as sitting cross-legged, namely the use of chance operations, & the shifting of my responsibility from that of making choices, to that of asking questions. 

Structure is properly mind-controlled… Whereas form wants only freedom to be. It belongs to the heart; and the law it observes, if indeed it submits to any, has never been & never will be written. 

Ego creates the appearance of separation, but the seeming divisibility of “me” & “others” is a fiction born of the self. Everything exists in mutually unobstructed interpenetration. All things are mutually dependent & co-arising. When one atom of the universe arises, so do all. Each being, itself most honored, is at the center of its own existence; each is also intimately dependent on all others. Every action—whether it promotes welfare or spreads harm—sends waves of causal reaction to the edges of creation.

Everyday life is more interesting than forms of celebration, when we become aware of it. That when is when our intentions go down to zero. Then suddenly you notice that the world is magical.

I think the history of art is simply a history of getting ride of the ugly by entering into it, & using it. After all, the notion of something outside of us being ugly is not outside of us but inside of us. And that’s why I keep reiterating that we’re working with our minds. What we’re trying to do is to get them open so that we don’t see things as being ugly, or beautiful, but we see them just as they are. 

Alison Knowles: “I think it’s when the concept of gay began to rise above something besides sexual metrics. I think of gay as having a very intellectual slant. In New York, anyway.”

There’s a tendency to think you’ve had the experience before it has taken place…
But I feel very differently: I think that the experience is very different from the thought of them, or the realization that they were going to happen. For them to actually happen, to actually live through it, …felt different than it had ever felt before. The environment that I looked out upon looked unfamiliar even though I had been living there. In other words, I had changed & the world had changed. 

As with sitting cross-legged in Zen meditation, this kind of experience doesn’t happen through intellection. It won’t happen, in fact, without you being there. You are either there are you aren’t. And if you aren’t, all you have is ideas. Showing up makes the difference. You give yourself to the experience & see what happens. You see what changes.
There is no conceptualism in Zen. A Zen teacher will set up experiences that shake the student loose from daily apathy & a rigid view of the world. Lifeless, habitual ways of seeing can be deeply entrenched, & sometimes only a profound shock will do the trick. Often, the chisel that opens the mind is the koan.

With Pierre Boulez, music has to do with ideas. His is a literary point of view. He even speaks of parentheses. All of it has nothing to do with sound. He has the mind of an expert. With that kind of mind you can only deal with the past. You can’t be an expert in the unknown. His work is understandable only in relation to the past. 

If you type “indeterminacy” into Google, you get four categories of response. The first references are to John Cage. The second group cites quantum physics. The third categories points to literature; the fourth, philosophy.
What do they have in common? All four systems call into question the all-too-human proposition that we can ultimately know what we’re talking about.
The physics term “quantum indeterminacy” is succinctly summed up in Wikipedia: “Prior to quantum physics, it was thought (a) a physical system had a determinate state which uniquely determined all the values of measurable properties, & conversely (b) the values of its measurable properties uniquely determined the state.”
Newtonian physics was determinate; it suggested that the world could be subjected to precise description.
A different picture was taking place in the 20th century. “Precise description” was turning out to be a great cosmic prank.
In 1958, as John Cage prepared to present musical indeterminacy to an audience, Werner Heisenberg’s autobiographical account of his development of the Uncertainty Principle entered the book market in English translation. In the 1920’s, Heisenberg had noticed that the observer perfectly interpenetrates both with the act of observation & the thing being observed. Nobody knew what to make of it.
By that point, “relations of uncertainty” or the “principle of indeterminacy” had displaced Newton’s laws of certainty & had obliged Heisenberg to come up with his Uncertainty Principle. Heisenberg described a quantum reality in which “probability functions” rule. He proposed that “observations play a decisive role in the event & that the reality varies, depending upon whether or not we observe it or not.”
The exact location of a subatomic particle can never be known with perfect certainty. The only physical thing, say physicists now, is the wavefunction probability itself. Other than that, nothing “real” exists here on our existential plane.
Looking collapses the probability wave & creates the so-called objective reality we all rely on. Once looking happens, the “objective” world comes into existence & presents itself in the consciousness of everyone.
Quantum events are studied within a tiny, coherent realm where no other phenomena are present to confuse the experiment. When quantum events are allowed to interpenetrate, their quantum qualities disappear from our view & the macro world exerts its familiar hold on our senses. “Decoherence” is the formal term for this process. Decoherence describes the infamous boundary between the quantum realm & the ordinary world.

I like to think that each thing has not only its own life but also its own center, and that this center is always the very center of the universe. 

There is no rest of life. Life is one. Without beginning, without middle, without ending. The concept: beginning middle and meaning comes from a sense of self which separates itself from what it considers to be the rest of life. But this attitude is untenable unless one insists on stopping life and bringing it to an end. That thought is in itself an attempt to stop life, for life goes on, indifferent to the deaths that are part of its no beginning, no middle, no meaning. How much better to simply get behind & push!

CEASELESS ARISING: Each being & thing is codependent with all other beings & things, sharing equally the nature of reality. When one being or thing arises, the whole universe arises. When one sensation or thought arises, the whole of “me” arises. Arising & dying in each moment, we are in constant flux.

The light has turned on. Walk on. The water in fine. Jump in. Some will refuse, for they see that the water is thick with monsters ready to devour them. What they have in mind is self-preservation. And what is self-preservation but only a preservation from life? Whereas life without death is no longer life but only self-preservation. (This by the way is another reason recordings are not music.)

NO GAP ANYWHERE: Where is the gap between art & life? What gap? Only words & ideas divide the seamlessness of all Creation.

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 & things comes along. 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.

PROCESS IS FUNDAMENTAL: If nothing has inherent nature, & change is the defining characteristic of all things, then the reality of the universe is process. The reality is flux. Change is the fundamental condition.

You say: the real, the world as it is. But it is not, it becomes! It moves, it changes! It doesn’t wait for us to change… It is more mobile than you can imagine. You are getting closer to this reality when you say as it “presents itself”; that means that it is not there, existing as an object.
The world, the real is not an object. It is a process. 

Merce Cunningham: “The clearest expression about meaning in movement, for me, is that although we all walk, using the same mechanism & pattern, we all walk differently. We become ourselves in our walk as well as in our speech. We don’t have to give the walk a meaning to convince someone. We do it.
I think that’s what makes dance character. It’s not simply doing the steps. It is the person being himself completely, not in a mannered way but in a full way behind the step, that then makes both the step come alive & the dancer. The dancers are not pretending to be other than themselves. They are in a way realizing their identities thought the act of dancing. They are—rather than being someone—doing something.”

I like the things I have. If you like the things you don’t have, you’re not as happy.