Cage’s “indeterminacy”

The premise of Kay Larson’s book Where the Heart Beats is revealed in the subtitle: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists. The book is not a musicological treatment but attempts to ascribe Cage’s musical and compositional inspiration to Zen. The nearly 500 pages of biography and gossip (and the artists only of Cage’s circle) identify many parallels, premises, and concurrencies, but fall short on essential points.

Chief among arguments made by the book concerns Zen itself, which Cage derives primarily from D. T. Suzuki and his Columbia University lectures in the late 1940s and early 1950s. By this time Cage, never a formal music student, had not only rejected classical conventions but wanted to outdo Stockhausen’s atonal compositional method, arguing that even the sequential or random inclusion of tonalities in Stockhausen was too old-fashioned. Cage advocated the avant-garde method of making sounds with non-musical objects or sometimes with instruments like the piano with distorted tones. He was to compose this way almost exclusively.

Much of the technique Cage established was pre-Suzuki. Cage’s ideas reproduced not Zen but the late-19th century Parnassian school of literature. The inspiration of modernism since the Impressionists was fast outgrowing musical modalities. After a certain point, the culmination in atonality expressed the limits of aesthetic purpose. Cage’s views on music echo the Parnassian movement’s “art for art sake” premise, wherein the arts no longer have a legitimate audience and become self-serving exercises by the artist, whether out of despair or out of ego.

Atonality based on random sounds Cage came to call “indeterminacy,” borrowing a term popularized by Suzuki. But Cage’s indeterminacy was decidedly not Zen — anymore than the poetry and fiction of the contemporary Beat generation was Zen. Cage used the non-Zen I Ching to identify random patterns in which to fit sounds, flipping coins as needed; from this change arrangement, music comprised of object sounds became a composition.

What is not Zen about the process is, first, that indeterminacy is a term of metaphysics, not art, in Zen, and secondly that aesthetics in Zen, especially in Japan, has never applied chance as a method of artistic expression — not to music, or indeed, to any Zen art (archery, bonsai, calligraphy, etc.). Cage’s idea is a radical misinterpretation, remaking Zen indeterminacy into Western relativism. Cage’s method is echoed in Jackson Pollack’s art of random brushstrokes or random dumps of paint on a blank canvas (what Pollack called “drip painting”), but at least Pollack did not credit his inspiration to Zen, and one could argue that his daemon, his driving force was alcoholism, as it was for so many writers of the era.

Another aspect of Cage’s premise is in separating emotion, will, what he calls “communication,” of the composer from the object. This restates the Parnassian premise, but Larson fails to trace this intellectual process, confirmed in the fact that avant-garde contemporaries were all doing the same thing. By removing an emotional response (as Schopenhauer well puts it), music fails. To convey no emotion, no sense of purpose or responsibility, is not to create, or not to create successfully. Cage seems unaware of his own roots and attributes his ideas to Zen, but the result is clever, flippant, defiant, without conscience, and denies its own value by denying intentionality.

In Cage, the compositional process culminates in his 1954 work 4’33, which is completely silent — or, rather, without notes. The work is not an evocation of silence or even of emptiness in the Zen sense but rather of nothingness in the Western sense, a statement of philosophy rather than aesthetics, art, or music. Audiences are said, even today, to be refreshed by the need not to be engaged by sound but to relax — doubtless impatiently as the piece progresses. Do they applaud at the end? It is Cage’s unconscious joke about meditation, perhaps, or about music itself? Can’t the audience just stay home and sit still for five minutes?


The inevitability of suffering is universally acknowledge, but different strategies exist according to the different traditions, usually as forms of mitigation.

Epicureanism sought to maximize pleasures, however innocuous, the intent being to outdistance suffering through distraction or saturation of mind and senses with positive experiences. This strategy does not equate to hedonism automatically but by degrees, by nature of the pursuit, by intensity and cycle of dependence.

New Age thought, for all its constructive psychology, usually lapses into an eclectic Epicureanism, less rationalistic than Enlightenment utilitarianism, but equally and annoyingly optimistic. In this sense, most people espouse a similar view, even while professing hard-nosed or traditionalist ideas about the universe.

Between the ancient and modern views above were religious views resolving suffering outside the present vale of tears and Enlightenment philosophies promising the best of all possible world with the progress of technology. Both represent a continuum of faith in linear and aspirational belief. Both proffer optimism as a mitigation, not unlike the Epicurean and New Age protocols before and after them.

Is optimism, therefore, a useful device for addressing suffering, seeing how ubiquitous it is? Optimism was savagely criticized by some during the Enlightenment (Voltaire, Swift, for example) but in fact Enlightenment praise for reason approximates the height of optimism, easily refuted by the frustration of progress and the trajectory of modern culture and technology.

Stephen Pinker’s assessment that violence is today at a historical low, based on the ebb of expressed brutality and the falling number of war casualties in world conflicts, seems intrinsically optimistic. What Pinker does not take into account in concluding that violence is ebbing is the rise of technology in abetting authoritarian control over the undisciplined and vicarious brutality and random acts of violence of the past. Nor does his conclusion assess anything but formal violence (assault and battery, or acts of war and combat). Envisioning standing armies clashing on ancient battlefields is not the way to assess violence today. Statistics about the numbers killed by guerrillas, militants, state armies using aircraft, mines, cluster bombs, drones, etc. conceal significant casualties. The concept of violence can be stretched to include potential violence: standing armies, propaganda, domestic surveillance, nuclear and conventional arsenals. The potential violence of military weapons is complemented by the technological violence against the environment. There is no need to itemize what modern civilization has wrecked on the environment. Perhaps calling “violence” what is potential or yet to be realized is a novelty by academic standards.

Optimism, in short, has many obstacles to overcome in arguing that suffering is abating and that mitigation can ease the sorrow of societal and environmental violence. But a more personal optimism seems possible in that sphere of existence that people can change, namely their sense of responsibilities about themselves. Thus, certain behaviors, foods, habits, personal acquaintances, relationships, and circumstances, can be avoided (as would the Epicureans or New Age, for that matter) to avoid entanglements, complications fraught with failure, disappointment, or endangerment to psychological life and physical health.

Simplicity ought to be defined as mitigation, as constructive, not as asceticism or a retreat from engagement. A gospel saying states that not only is killing a major transgression but even saying “Fool!” to another person is equivalent violence. Thus, we need not commit violence as legal (war) to count as violence. Forms of violence to others through antithetical thoughts, and behaviors, and violence to the environment through consumption and waste, constitute forms of perpetuating suffering.

The mitigation of suffering comes not through the head or the senses — i.e., the brain or the body — but through the gut, as it were, through an ethos that brings conviction that we can move past the complications and consequences and justifications by nuance. This may be a form of optimism, but not in anything external, therefore, being what Buddhism calls “faith.” One cannot fear to give offense, nor be offended by the criticisms of others when we renounce the world or the worldly. In that renunciation or simplification we mitigate suffering in a manner that no worldly method can, since it is the worldly itself that propagates suffering.