John Cage's Connections to Buddhism
The celebrated American composer found great inspiration for his life and work in Zen Buddhism.
John Cage is one of the most recognized names in contemporary experimental music. His audacity, talent and keen-edged intelligence have made him a polemical composer, swinging between the poles of genius and comedy, the masterpiece and the almost infantile joke.
In the recently published biography Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists, Kay Larson, a well known art critic and Buddhist practitioner, explores the relations and links between John Cage and Zen Buddhism, particularly the influence that this practice has had in his creative life.
Cage, after trying out various spiritual traditions and influenced by the writings of D. T. Suzuki, finally arrived at the teachings of the Buddha. Suzuki showed him a completely different way of regarding the world and became one of his most decisive teachers. Among many things, Cage learned to simply “insert the individual into the current in which everything passes”; to prefer questions over answers (having the 64 hexagrams of the I Ching as a guide); and, through a persistent study of Zen, to find the key to unfetter the “spiritual blindness” that was stifling his creativity.
Of course, his spiritual adventures soon started to have a profound influence on his compositions. Starting with the concept that the “function of music, like any other healthy occupation, is to bring together what is usually separated” –namely the conscious and unconscious–, Cage composed various pieces which combined, in a spiritual rather than a rational sense, moments of illumination, unexpectedness, and even absurdity.
To sum up, it’s worth reading a telltale account from Cage himself, in which he describes the development of his spiritual approach to music.
"My compositions come in the form of questions. I remember a moment in one of Schoenberg’s classes. He sent everybody to the blackboard. We were to solve a particular problem he had given and turn around when we finished so that he could check whether our solutions were correct. I did as directed. He said, “That’s good. Now find another solution.” I did. He said, “Another.” Again I found one. Again he said, “Another.” And so on. Finally, I said, “There are no more solutions.” He said, “What is the principle underlying all of the solutions?” I couldn’t answer his question; but I had always worshipped the man, and at that point I did even more. He ascended, so to speak. I spent the rest of my life, until recently, hearing him ask that question over and over. And then it occurred to me through the direction that my work has taken, that the principle underlying all of the solutions was the question he had asked, because they certainly didn’t come from any other point. He would have accepted the answer, I think. The answers have the questions in common. Therefore the question underlies the answers."
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