Accepting the senseless – listening to John Cage’s music as a spiritual practice

May 11-12, 2009
Paper: “Accepting the senseless – listening to John Cage’s music as a spiritual practice”.
Conference: Ear in Music I. Conference on listening.
Venue: Norwegian Academy of Music.

Accepting the senseless – listening to John Cage’s music as a spiritual practice – notes for the presentation

Cartridge Music

A music that changed
No beginning, no middle, no end
No causal relations between sound events
The ‘work’
Expression – in the work/from the performers
Where was the composer?


Write music so hard to understand (follow) that not even Cage himself could do it.

Was that an answer? Why do such a thing?

Meet an entity that does not make sense. Meet the senseless. Meet Zen, or perhaps we should say: by Zen, in Zen, and with Zen, as Suzuki put it

This presentation will discuss how Cage adapted Zen into an artistic practice. It tries to elaborate how Cage’s artistic practice was spiritual, and how listening to Cage – I am tempted to say in a historically informed manner – is to accept the senseless.

It is a mistake to see Zen as an inspiration to Cage’s oeuvre.
It is a mistake to believe that Zen can lead to anything at all.

True, the aim of Zen is satori – enlightenment – but in most strands of Zen, enlightenment is not accumulative but sudden.

Listening to 4’33’’ is not about discovering a hidden meaning in the ambient sounds, but it is about acknowledging how all sounds that are already present are profound. That is satori. It is not about suddenly tearing the veil of maya and suddenly all will stand forth in colors one could not have imagined before. No, satori is here and now.

Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki’s namesake, Shunryu Suzuki, claims that all we need to do to achieve satori is to sit in zazen, that we need to sit with crossed legs, and it is there. Or perhaps we do not even have to do that much. He says: “This is enlightenment. So there actually is no particular practice.”

Cage asked and answered: “the crux of the matter as far as a listener is concerned? It is this: he has ears; let him use them.”[ref] Cage, «Happy New Ears!,» 30.[/ref]

It’s all there – satori – to see and hear if we are open, or said with the poetry of Daito:

If you see with the ears
And hear with the eyes,
No doubts you will ever cherish:
How naturally falls
The rain dripping from the eaves![ref]Ibid.[/ref]

In For the Birds Cage says: “all I need to do is to listen to the sounds around me.”[ref]Cage, For the Birds, 95.[/ref]
In Juilliard Lecture he says: “All you can / do is / suddenly listen / , / in the same way / that when you / catch cold / all you can do / is suddenly sneeze / .”

Whatever happens, it happens. That is what is profound. The important lies not in what is made, altered or changed. The profound is found in what is.
Later in Juilliard Lecture he talks about the influence of European thinking:
s. 101 “actual things / that happen such as suddenly listening or / suddenly sneezing are not / considered profound.”

Yet again: It is a mistake to see Zen as an inspiration to Cage’s oeuvre.
It is a mistake to believe that Zen can lead to anything at all.
Zen is a practice.
Zen is what is already here.
Zen is to accept matters as they are.
Zen is not about later.
Zen is now.
Zen is not about what can be achieved.
It’s all in the doing.

Now, what kind of music can possibly go with this?
“My intention is to let things be themselves.”,[ref]Johnson, «Intentionality and Nonintentionality in the Performance of Music by John Cage,» 263.[/ref] said Cage, and what else is 4’33’’ than sounds being themselves for a period of time? (themselves is an interesting word – tathata)
But how can they be themselves?

As Cage started loving music, he loved the individual sounds. Then he learned that there were intervals and chords, and gradually the sounds were not sounds anymore, but they were assigned significance. What is a deceptive cadence, he asked, and answered:
“The idea is this: / progress in such a way / as to imply the / presence of a / tone not actually / present; then / fool everyone by not / landing on it – / land somewhere else.”[ref]Ibid., 117. See also: Cage, «A Composer’s Confessions (1948),» 34.[/ref]

“What is being fooled? Not the ear, but the mind.” (inte exakt citat)

In order to understanding how things can be themselves, we must understand how anything at all is. How did Cage understand reality? Can it at all be separated from Zen? No. Cage’s post-4’33’’ reality is a Zen reality, and a Haiku could illustrate it.

Night, and the moon!
My neighbor, playing on his flute –
out of tune! (Kojo)

The Haiku wants us to see the commonplace in reality as if it was profound as sneezing.
All is profound in itself. It is not through relating one to another (such as the deceptive cadence) that matters gain meaning. The moon is profound. The flute is profound. It is not profound because it is played in moonlight. It is not played because there is moonlight. There is moonlight. There is the flute. It is played. There is no causal relationship between the events. It is profound despite that was played out of tune – just as the roshi that Cage observed in his youth during a terribly poor performance. The roshi emanated beatific peace.

What did Cage do within this reality then? He made music, he wrote, he painted, he played chess, he collected mushroom, he laughed, he ate, he played, he discussed, just to mention a few thing that he did.

Art and music was the most important to him, but I believe that collecting mushroom was an activity that he saw some of the same spiritual possibilities in.

He said that Art is “a means of self-alteration, and what it alters is mind.”[ref]Kostelanetz, Conversing with Cage, 230.[/ref]

4’33’’ is but one example. It is an invitation to listen to the world of Zen, where all is profound, but that was not all.

Cage made numerous other compositions. Perhaps he could have stopped after 4’33’’ (and MoC). He had taken chance to its outer limits. Even so, he carried on. Why? Because those pieces were not statements; they were processes. The Zen student must solve 1700 koans before he can be a fully qualified master. “Solving” one koan requires one to see through the futile categorizations of our so called reality and language. Is not then the problem solved? Has he not understood the true state of reality? No, the student had to go on. The understanding is not finite. It is not conceptual. The understanding is in the doing, in being in the process. The student, and also Cage as a composer, had to live “by Zen, in Zen, and with Zen”,[ref]Suzuki, Living by Zen, 11.[/ref] as Suzuki puts it.

Writing as such was important to Cage. He did not toss coins for nine months to arrive at MoC. He tossed coins because he tossed coins. He said: “to use chance operations” is “a discipline [he trusted equally to] sitting crosslegged”.[ref]Cage, «More on Paik (1982),» 154.[/ref] He also said: “I have never practiced sitting cross-legged nor do I meditate. My work is what I do”.[ref]Cage, «An Autobiographical Statement (1989),» 241. See also Cage, «Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse,» 11.; and Patterson, «Cage and Asia: history and sources,» 58.[/ref] He worked because he worked, and that was his aim. He spoke of a “purposeful purposelessness”, which could be said about both the process of working as about the contents of his works. These words – “purposeful purposelessness” are, perhaps surprisingly, not a reference to the great philosopher from Königsberg, but a direct quote from Suzuki.

Cage wanted to emanate sounds that were: “with- / out purpose / but in their / purposelessness / expressing / life itself / which centers / out from them / , in / every direction.”[ref]Ibid.[/ref] He did this through chance operations.

Through them, he could remove his ego from the compositions. He could let the sounds be themselves. He did not make decisions, but chance made the decisions. The outcome was something he could not anticipate, just as he could not imagine that what he heard from the living room at his friends place was actually his own music.
The point is that the music of chance operations was not at all his music. He initiated it, but chance composed it.
He had to meet it as if he was any listener.
As this listener, he met a structure that did not make sense.
There was one event.
There was the moon.
There was another event.
There was the flute.
But there was no relationship between them.
There was no meaning.
Being out of tune did not mean anything.
Being in tune would not do so either.

Cage did not try to make sense out of the senseless. His ego probably did, and perhaps there was a voice inside of him that always tried to sort matters in categories, but the senseless was rather to be accepted than it was to be understood. Matters cannot be changed. All things are as they are. In Cage’s words, it is easier to “change [oneself] toward the liking rather than getting rid of it”.[ref]Kostelanetz: Conversing with Cage (2003), s. 234.[/ref] Reality is not to be possessed. It is. Cage’s chance works are. They are not anything in particular, but they are, just as there in Chinese is no requirement for a predicate to have subject. In Suzuki’s words: “Just use (it),[ref]Citatet innehåller en omfattande fotnot som jag kommenterar i min löpande text.[/ref] just act (it) – this is indeed incomparable.”[ref] ibid. s. 98.[/ref] There is nothing to be used. Nothing to be acted. Cage’s chance works are.

But there is one important paradox concerning Cage’s chance works. Although he tried to escape his ego through the process of composing the works, he was highly dependent on his intellect to create the structures that were later used to put his intellect out of order, so to speak. The fundamental precondition was that Cage identified structures in our everyday way of thinking and sorting information, and then he asked questions about these structures that chance answered. Thus, I believe that we could extrapolate a negative phenomenology from Cage’s practice. By scrutinizing what he did, we could say much about how our intellect works. Even so, to believe that that was what Cage aimed at through his works is a misunderstanding. Zen was not the inspiration to Cage. It was the practice. It was the doing. His works were to be used, just as, in Suzukis words: “the koan is compared to a piece of brick used to knock at a gate; when the gate is opened the brick is thrown away. The koan is useful as long as the mental doors are closed, but when they are opened it may be forgotten.[ref]Suzuki, Essays 2, 98.[/ref]

Cage’s works could be used until they turned predictable, until one could start anticipating what was to come next in the work. Cage’s works could be used until they were accepted. Then, other works had to be composed, played, listened to and accepted.

When Cage wrote music such as Cartridge Music
A music that changed from performance to performance
No beginning, no middle, no end
No causal relations between sound events
The ‘work’
Expression – in the work/from the performers
Where was the composer?
– he wrote music that was in accordance with his Zen views. He wrote senseless music that was to be accepted – it was not to be understood.
Accepting this is to listen to the senseless, and that is to close in on Cage’s spiritual practice.

What I have discussed here is primarily two aspects that I deal with in my dissertation on Cage.
1) All of what I have said is based on my parallel reading of Cage’s and Suzuki’s works. From this reading, I have coined a term to describe how musician, composer and listener alike meet Cage’s works, namely through:
2) Having a Cagean experience.
Meeting the seemingly senseless, and being forced to turn one’s attention from the matters to how we deal with the matters, i.e. from accepting matters as they are.

Does this sound confusing? It is.
Zen is confusing, and that is why it is not a simple matter to understand Cage’s practice even if we can establish hundreds or even thousands of references to Suzuki.
Let me end with a little Zen story, which illustrates the Zen reality, but which also illustrates how hard it is to grasp Zen, or Cage’s works for that sake.
It demonstrates that we must abandon our everyday intellect and simply accept matters as they are, be they, birdsong, MoC, a flute out of tune, Freeman Etudes or EXAMPLE FROM THE CONFERENCE