Opening the door into emptiness

The musical-spiritual journey of John Cage

This series of posts traces the path that John Cage followed in the 1940s and early 1950s. This is journey was both spiritual and musical, and it led ultimately to the turning point in his musical career: his adoption of chance operations in 1951.

  • Introduction — The still point (1951). To understand his taking up of chance in 1951, you have to understand this journey, and to fully understand the journey, you must be able to see it as a journey into both musical silence and inner silence.
  • 1 — Confessions (1948). John Cage’s “A composer’s confessions” tells the story of his professional ambition, its failed realization, and the resulting disappointment and self-doubt. Disillusioned in New York, he turned away from the world, looked inward, and began a search for meaning.
  • 2 — The purpose of music. “To what end does one write music?” For a composer like John Cage, this was not just a question about the meaning of his work, it was a question about the meaning of his life. It is not surprising, then, that Cage would turn to sources that combined the artistic and the religious to seek out answers.
  • 3 — Integrating opposites. In 1948, Cage was completely in alignment with Ananda Coomaraswamy’s severe criticisms of Western art. At the same time, it directly contradicted Cage’s own career, built by playing the role of the brash individualist, modeling himself on artists such as the “Art of Noises” Futurist Luigi Russolo. This conflict is a key factor in the history of Cage’s path in the late 1940s.
  • 4 — Law and freedom. In his writings “Defense of Satie” and “Forerunners of modern music”, Cage attempted to build a framework for music that could integrate what he needed in his life from both traditional and avant-garde music.  In the process his work and thought began moving in the direction of “self-knowledge through self-denial”.
  • 5 — Praising silence. Through the composition of his “String quartet in four parts”, Cage went further on the path of “self-knowledge through self-denial”. In it, Cage discovered a non-expressive use of harmony, and he did it by treating materials in a systematic fashion.
  • 6 — The poetry of soundsEnergized by the discoveries of the quartet, Cage created his first really great piece of writing in 1950, the “Lecture on nothing”. It eloquently presents Cage’s belief that self-negating discipline produces insight.
  • 7 — Following the master.By 1950 Cage had arrived at a style that celebrated emptiness. Paradoxically, by letting go any strong self-expression, he discovered a truer musical voice. His next major work, the Concerto for prepared piano and chamber orchestra, was to explicitly present this release from self-expression.
  • 8  — Letting go completely. Morton Feldman’s “Projection” showed John Cage the destination of his musical-spiritual journey. It was a revelation, the opening of a door to an entirely new world, “not just the musical world outside of you”, as he later described it, “but the musical world inside of you.”
  • 9 — Opening up another world. Morton’s Feldman’s graph music—a music that was silent about which pitches should be played—changed Cage’s work forever. Cage expressed his understanding of Feldman’s radical act in a new lecture, the “Lecture on something”.