Thursday, 13 April 2017


John Cage: “What I do, I do not wish blamed on Zen.”

During the period following the recent blogs on rigour and flexibility Nurtan and I have been discussing randomness, our starting points were different, his a mathematical perspective, mine its historical place in 20th century music. Inevitably one line of thinking colours and informs the other; this took us to imposing random elements on a plainsong to test out some of our ideas. While all this is fascinating it emphasised that our starting point in recent blogs regarding rigour and flexibility requires further exploration. Even when reduced to a focus on Boulez and Cage it is a wide ranging subject, one every novice composer needs to understand as part of his or her “musical toolbox”. Having written about some of the aesthetic elements of Boulez’s work, and having considered his concept of the “pure” work where reason and rigour are fundamental to the composing process, it is timely to look at some of the ideas behind Cage’s approach, to clarify the essential differences, and similarities between the two, (a matter which should be all the easier as they both wrote a great deal about their artistic intentions).

I used the term random in the introduction and it is one of a number of terms that crop up alongside indeterminacy, aleatoric music and chance-controlled music, all of which can be associated with the term ‘flexibility’.  The three questions that can be examined in the context of a short blog are what effect does the use of flexibility have on a composition, can it coexist with rigorous planning, and does it produce similar or dissimilar musical results?

The opening quotation suggests that Cage understood that relating any artistic endeavour to a philosophy like Zen is going to generate contradictions and debate. Even in his pre-Zen days Cage was pushing the boundaries of traditional approaches to music making. His early music had a mathematical foundation and his interests took him to study with Cowell and Schoenberg, the latter composer reveals to us an element of Cage’s alternative thinking in his often mentioned quotation regarding his pupils:

  "There was one...of course he's not a composer, but he's an inventor—of genius."

There is a clear progression to Cage’s work starting with his interest in the flexibility of events in the work of Ives through to Cowell which later leads to his development of chance-generated music.  This progression could be explored purely in terms of musical consequences without reference to Zen, but if that approach was taken we would miss out on the developing interest in oriental philosophy and its effect on the arts in the latter half of the 20th century.  Let us consider a few ideas which were influential in providing fertile ground for flexibility in the arts:

The world can be represented as it is, the artist only needs to make “uncoloured” observations.

Occidental thinking views nature as requiring control while oriental thinking places an emphasis on an affinity between man and nature.

Oriental art historically endeavours towards economy and simplicity.

It can be argued that European art and music in particular also aimed at economy, but from the period where music modulated and changed key, greater complexity became inevitable, pushing composers further away from the pull of the tonic. Webern sets out the case in his lectures covered in a previous blog. The affinity between man and nature and uncoloured observation takes us towards a frequently discussed outcome of Buddhist enlightenment, a direct experience of the world. In this state everything is connected (oneness), there is no hierarchy.

Adapting the above ideas to music generates some radical outcomes:

No one sound or event is more significant than any other.

Attempting to control experience (or our experience of music) is valueless, attempting to control everything is impossible. Every action or event we perceive can become music/art, as Cage says:

I saw that all things are related. We don’t have to bring about relationships.

The religious implications of the process of enlightenment are well represented in Cage’s writings, and its thinking is also well represented in the psychedelic sub-culture of the 1960’s and presented by such authors as Aldous Huxley in his “Doors of Perception” .

Music can involve us in “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.” (Cage).

The next statement directed at the audience demonstrates a difference in emphasis between Eastern and Western values, the first part could be applicable to both (if we are talking about listening to music) while the second is distinctly oriental:

What is important is to insert the individual into the current, the flux of everything that happens. And to do that, the wall has to be demolished; tastes, memory, and emotions have to be weakened. (Cage).

What is also evident is that such actions come with a cost, one that would be wholly unacceptable to Boulez:

…if we want to use chance operations, then we must accept the results. We have no right to use it if we are determined to criticize the results and to seek a better answer.

The Canadian scholar of Eastern thought Victor Hori makes an interesting observation regarding “Pure Consciousness”, such a state

…without concepts, if there could be such a thing, would be a booming, buzzing confusion, a sensory field of flashes of light, unidentifiable sounds, ambiguous shapes, color patches without significance. This is not the consciousness of the enlightened Zen master.

Whether or not it represents the consciousness of the Zen master, or indeed if this statement is true in every detail confusion is a possible outcome of complete musical freedom, but is Cage’s music “free” of all constraints?

If we take “Cartridge Music” as an example we find that there are a number of restrictions on time (length of events) and timbre. If we listen to the available performances on You Tube we recognise a family resemblance in the performances. Within individual performances we hear the percussive sounds produce regular rhythms and repeats of timbre, there is no doubt that this is organised sound. In the most free of all Cage’s works, 4’.33” we are most familiar with it being performed in a concert hall where specific restrictions are in place to the range of sounds we hear, should the work be performed in the open air, in a factory or garden our perceptions would be changed. It seems that we lean towards placing constraints even when they are not indicated or even implied.


Returning to Cartridge Music the 20 page score contains graphic indicators for the number of performers (maximum 20), each performer is given indicators (points, circles and a stopwatch) which shows the time allocated to events such as pitch and dynamics/amplitude. There is also a scheme to introduce sounds other than through the cartridge made by applying contact microphones. The You Tube video filming a performance makes demonstrates the process clearly:




This second link gives a performer’s view, I don’t agree with everything in these notes, but it offers interesting historical viewpoints and relates to the question of rigour and flexibility:


One issue arising from Cartridge music is that if a musician was inclined he/she could create a work of the same timbre, impose time and dynamic restrictions etc. and create a rigorous, reproducible composition. Family likeness, no Zen. If the composer was interested in the music having flexibility it would be a simple exercise to share the composition as a MIDI file and permit as many variations in the structure as there are people with the interest to play with it. In truth there is no reason why the given sounds could not form the basis of a “pure” work where each element is accountable and related to a single source.

Of course all these developments are now history, and the Zen thinking is scaffolding that provided a change of direction, a structure creating an empty space that could be filled with whatever a composer desired, and with the advent of sampling “whatever” is the state of play. As in the Biblical statement “Out of the eater came forth meat, and out of the strong came forth sweetness?” we should recognise that rigour and flexibility are, as always with music, two distinct characteristics that permit life and progress.