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?