John Cage and spirituality

I’ve discovered the excellent blog On an overgrown path, which has a number of posts concerning issues of marketing classical music. Catching up on old posts, I read this one on how spirituality could be a huge marketing opportunity for classical music.  Classical music, the author proposes, should drawn on its deep spiritual heritage and sell itself as the “kind of unique life enriching experience” that it actually can be.

Part of what makes me mention this here is that the author quotes Cage’s formulation of the purpose of music:  To sober and quiet the  mind making it susceptible to divine influences.* It’s nice to see a statement like this—to see anything said by Cage, for that matter—presented as a serious possibility for classical music.

There’s no doubt that music has the ability to facilitate an experience of something larger than oneself—whether you call that spiritual, religious, transcendental, mystical, or whatever. And Cage’s music can have that effect, at least on me.  Not, perhaps, the noisy circuses, but the quieter, more inwardly-looking works. I certainly felt transported and deeply, deeply moved by the performance of Fifty-eight that I heard in Buenos Aires earlier this year. There was a great beauty in watching the shifting texture of sound that filled the space, but more than that, there was an ineffable feeling of connectedness through this sound.

It is an aspect of music in general, not just Cage’s work, that is rarely highlighted or taken seriously. There is a certain embarrassment about spiritual matters in the study of music, which is no doubt the source of the failure to directly engage this by the classical music world at large. I recall giving a talk about Cage some years ago for musicology graduate students at a prestigious music department. I spoke about Cage’s essay “Forerunners of modern music”, and read this quotation from Meister Eckhart, which is cited by Cage:

Music is edifying, for from time to time it sets the soul in operation. The soul is the gatherer-together of the disparate elements . . . , and its work fills one with peace and love.

A light titter went through the room, and I was shocked. These scholars, some of whom no doubt were earnestly studying medieval music, found the sincere spiritual words of a medieval mystic fit for laughter!

I write about this now in part because it has been on my mind a good deal. I recently finished an essay on Cage for a forthcoming collection on contemporary music and spirituality. It is titled “John Cage’s journey into silence” and is a history of his spiritual journey from the mid-1940s through his first use of chance techniques in 1951. I include a close reading of  his 1948 lecture “A composer’s confessions” (the title itself a reference to St. Augustine), in which Cage describes the spiritual importance of his musical searching quite unambiguously:

That which formerly held us together and gave meaning to our occupations was our belief in God. When we transferred this belief first to heroes, then to things, we began to walk our separate paths. That island that we have grown to think no longer eixsts to which we might have retreated to escape from the impact of the world, lies, as it ever did, within each one of our hearts.

Elsewhere in the lecture, Cage describes music as providing “a moment when, awareness of time and space being lost, the multiplicity of elements which make up an individual become integrated and he is one.” Neuroscientists are coming to similar conclusions, finding that music is connected to the systems that release dopamine into the brain. Thanks to On an overgrown path for keeping me up to date on the developments in this area, and for realizing that spiritual experience is germane not only to Gregorian chant and Bach, but to experimental composers like Cage, too.

* Compulsive musicological footnote: This quotation is attributed to Gita Sarabhai, Cage’s friend who taught him about Indian music in the 1940s. And the story goes that Lou Harrison found the exact same statement in a book by Thomas Mace, thus proving its universality. However, if you read Cage’s lecture “A composer’s confessions”, given in 1948, the statement as attributed to Sarabhai is worded differently: “she told us that her teacher had said that the purpose of music was to concentrate the mind.” Harrison then found the “season and sober the mind, thus making it susceptible of divine influences” quotation in Mace and saw the connection. In later tellings of this story, Cage put those words in Sarabhai’s mouth, but I believe the version in “Confessions”, since it was told much closer to the actual event.

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