[This is a letter written in response to questions about John Cage posed by the editors of the Iranian music journal Music report.]
Griggstown, New Jersey USA
26 October 2012
To the readers of Music Report:
Thank you for the opportunity to answer your questions about John Cage. Your questions were about the path of Cage’s life and work; about its relationship to religion and spirituality; about how Cage’s music has been heard and criticized; and how it influenced other musicians. In my remarks here I will touch on those areas.
Cage’s life and work can be divided into two large periods: before and after his discovery of chance techniques in 1951. In his 1948 lecture “A composer’s confessions”, Cage describes the path of his life as a composer up to that time. He started out as an ambitious composer, yearning for new sounds, new techniques, larger audiences, and more resources to conduct his experiments in electronic music. His ambitions were not realized, however, and personal disappointments and unhappiness followed. He embarked on a spiritual journey in the mid-1940s, turning to religious sources searching for a larger meaning for his music and his life (many of these sources were from the East, although not, to my knowledge, the Middle East). During this period his music became quieter, more reflective and tranquil. He sought to express something more universal, eternal, larger than the confines of his own limited self. He began using systematic procedures in his composition as a means towards this end, to free his music from the limitations of his personality.
In 1951 he first used chance operations in the third movement of his Concerto for prepared piano. It was in the composing of this piece, I believe, that Cage experienced and understood what it meant to truly become empty and connect, through music composition, to a spaciousness that was free from the confines of his personality. Cage came to refer to this emptiness as “silence”: the silence of non-intention, of not identifying with a personal sense of self, the larger silence within which our individual lives—like sounds—appear and disappear. As I understand it, Cage’s experience of emptiness did not come from Zen Buddhism (Cage was not a Buddhist in any sense). Instead, I believe that it arose from his own path of experimental music, but was akin to the Zen experience of emptiness. Cage recognized the similarity and used the descriptions of emptiness in Zen writings to help explain this silence in his own compositions.
This experience changed his life and work forever: Cage used chance in all of his compositions from that point forward. All the compositions of these forty years have this emptiness as their starting point; they all appear out of this profound silence. This has nothing to do with the sounds or moods of the pieces, however, which vary widely over the years, following the trends of the time. Cage’s music of the 1950s is very complex and difficult, almost abstract. His music of the 1960s is loud, electronic, circus-like. Beginning in the 1970s and continuing through the end of his life, Cage returned to a simpler, quieter style. Some of Cage’s music is not easy to listen to, and some of it is just plain annoying (at least to me), but much of it (especially from his late period) is quite beautiful and moving. But all of it comes from this same empty space, this same silence of self that Cage first experienced in 1951. This silence is like the empty, blue sky: it doesn’t care whether it is a cloud, a swan, a kite, or a helicopter that flies through it.
This emptiness, this silence, has not always been understood by musicians and critics, and as a result Cage’s music has often been misunderstood. 4’ 33”, Cage’s silent piece, has been seen as a hoax, a joke, a concept, a philosophical stunt, or a piece of performance art, but I believe that Cage meant it as a celebration of the emptiness he encountered in 1951. It is significant that the first time he thought of composing a silent piece, he planned to call it “Silent prayer.” Because this dimension of emptiness is not well understood, there is a sense in which we can say that Cage did not have very many followers, even though so many musicians and artists feel indebted to him. It is common, for example, to hear people say that they count Cage as an important influence, but not for his music. But that silence that Cage stepped into in 1951 is a universal one. It is a place that has been visited and lived within by people throughout time all over the world. It is the silence that stands right next to each of us, wherever in the world we might be. If we turn to it and listen, the music that emerges and surrounds us will become apparent, as if we were all inhabiting a single composition.