The following essay was written for the catalog for Happy Birthday: A Celebration of Chance and Listening at PNCA's Feldman Gallery.

The following text is made up of questions and quotations. The quotations are some from the writings of others and some from my own writings. (Silence)


You know, you can always begin anywhere.  (Musicage)

—we must begin constantly from zero.  (Musicage)

You see, when Schoenberg asked me to devote my life to music, I said yes.  (Musicage)

a first meeting like every meeting with Satie / is the beginning of the change/ a changed attitude toward life toward art toward work toward music / the removal of boundaries wherever they exist / never ending the coming together of opposites / show me something new / and I’ll start all over again / living with interior immobility / enjoyment in the midst of countlessness / accomplishing nothing / as though nothing had happened / as though tourists / living as though tourists always.  (Musicage)

The only thing that is different from one time to another is what is seen and what is seen depends upon how everybody is doing everything. This makes the thing we are looking at very different and this makes what those who describe it make of it, it makes a composition, it confuses, it shows, it is, it looks, it likes it as it is, and this makes what is seen as it is seen. Nothing changes from generation to generation except the thing seen and that makes a composition.  (Composition)

People still ask for definitions, but it’s quite clear now that nothing can be defined. Let alone art, it’s purpose, etc. We’re not even sure of carrots….  (Monday)

Is a truck passing by music?
Which is more musical, a truck passing by a factory or a truck passing by a music school/  (Silence)

This is a lecture on composition which is indeterminate with respect to its performance. That composition is necessarily experimental. An experimental action is one the outcome of which is not foreseen. Being unforeseen, this action is not concerned with its excuse. Like the land, like the air, it needs none. A performance of a composition which is indeterminate of its performance is necessarily unique. It cannot be repeated. When performed for a second time, the outcome is other than it was. Nothing therefore is accomplished by such a performance, since that performance cannot be grasped as an object in time. A recording of such a work has no more value than a postcard; it provides a knowledge of something that happened, whereas the action was a non-knowledge of something that had not yet happened.  (Theories)

Of course it is beautiful but first all beauty in it is denied and then all the beauty of it is accepted. If every one were not so indolent they would realise that beauty is beauty even when it is irritating and stimulating not only when it is accepted and classic. Of course it is extremely difficult nothing more so than to remember back to its not being beautiful once it has become beautiful. This makes it so much more difficult to realise its beauty when the work is being refused and prevents every one from realising that they were convinced that beauty was denied, once the work is accepted. Automatically with the acceptance of the time-sense comes the recognition of the beauty and once the beauty is accepted the beauty never fails any one.  (Composition)

I must write and tell him about beauty, the urgency to avoid it.  (Monday)

As D.T. Suzuki said once, “There seems to be a tendency toward the good.” Isn’t that beautiful? There seems to be a tendency toward the good. He never explained what he meant. And we never asked him.  (Tricycle)

Or, if we don’t know what the word beauty means…as Wittgenstein tells us (laughter), then we don’t know what the meaning is of more beautiful. (more laughter)  (Musicage)

And what is the purpose of writing music? One is, of course, not dealing with purposes but dealing with sounds. Or the answer must take the form of paradox: a purposeful purposelessness or a purposeless play. This play, however, is an affirmation of life—not an attempt to bring order out of chaos nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply a way of waking up to the very life we’re living, which is so excellent once one gets one’s mind and one’s desires out of its way and lets it act of its own accord.  (Silence)

And I think that the idea of change, or the ego itself changing direction, is implicit in Suzuki’s understanding of the effect of Buddhism on the structure of the mind. I use chance operations instead of operating according to my likes and dislikes. I use my work to change myself and I accept what the chance operations say. The I Ching says that if you don’t accept the chance operations you have no right to use them. Which is very clear, so that’s what I do.  (Taking Chances)

If we leave things to nature, we see a very different picture: every process is partially or totally interfered with by chance, so much so that under natural circumstances a course of events absolutely conforming to specific laws is almost an exception.  (I Ching, xxii)

I was very fortunate. I had read The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna. I became interested, in other words, in Oriental thought. And I read also a short book by Aldous Huxley, called The Perennial Philosophy, and from that I got the idea that all the various religions were saying the same thing but had different flavors. For instance, Ramakrishna spoke of God as a lake of people coming to the shores because they were thirsty. So I browsed, as it were, and found a flavor I liked and it was that of Zen Buddhism. It was then that Suzuki came to New York, and I was able to go to Columbia once a week for two years to attend his classes, which were, if I remember correctly, at 4:30 in the afternoon.  (Tricycle)

People are always saying that the East is the East and the West is the West and you have to keep from mixing them up. When I first began to study Oriental philosophy, I also worried about whether it was mine to study. I don’t worry any more about that. At Darmstadt I was talking about the reason back of pulverisation and fragmentation: for instance, using syllables instead of words in a vocal text, letters instead of syllables. I said, “We take things apart in order that they may become the Buddha. And if that seems too Oriental an idea for you,” I said, “Remember the early Christian Gnostic statement, ‘Split the stick and there is Jesus.‘”  (Monday)

The composition is the thing seen by every one living in the living they are doing, they are the composing of the composition that at the time they are living in the composition of the time in which they are living. It is that that makes living a thing they are doing. … Continuous present is one thing and beginning again and again is another thing. These are both things. And then there is using everything. This brings us again to composition this the using everything. The using everything brings us to composition and to this composition. A continuous present and using everything and beginning again.  (Composition)

We need not destroy the past: it is gone; at any moment, it might reappear and seem to be and be the present. Would it be a repetition? Only if we thought we owned it, but since we don’t, it is free and so are we.  (Silence)

Are the people inside the school musical and the ones outside unmusical?
Do you know what I mean when I say inside the school?  (Silence)

I began to see that the separation of mind and ear had spoiled the sounds, —that a clean slate was necessary. This made me not only contemporary, but “avant-garde.” I used noises. They had not been intellectualized; the ear could hear them directly and didn’t have to go through any abstraction about them. I found that I liked noises even more than I liked intervals. I liked noises just as much as I had liked single sounds.  (Silence)

One of the first persons to draw this kind of feeling to our attention, or to my attention, was Mondrian. He spoke about reality. How did he say it, do you know? …He was objecting to representational art as being…realistic work as being…too abstract. He said that representational work was too abstract. That he required realistic painting like his own. …And when you agree with him it’s very mind opening. …what Mondrian wanted to paint was really what he was painting, hmm?  (Musicage)

The reason I am less and less interested in music is not only that I find environmental sounds and noises more useful aesthetically than the sounds produced by the world’s musical cultures, but that, when you get right down to it, a composer is simply someone who tells other people what to do. I find this an unattractive way of getting things done. I’d like our activities to be more social and anarchically so. (Monday)

I think that the museum in particular, but we could include the concert hall—all the organized social situations—are stultifying, hmm? (laughs) And almost anything that you do—and chance operations is a marvelous way to change something—almost anything you do will make it less oppressive than it just is.  (Musicage)

Many musicians, faced with the freedoms that my notation provides, or directions provide, take—well as Paul Zukofsky says in the notes [for MOMA Summergarden program]—where I give them a little freedom, they take more, and so on, until the piece is quite out of reach of my original work.  (Musicage)

…musicians, since they are several people rather than one person as a painter or sculptor is, are now able to be independent each from another. A composer writes at this moment indeterminately. The performers are no longer his servants but are freemen. A composer writes parts but, leaving their relationship unfixed, he writes no scores. Sound sources are at a multiplicity of points in space with respect to the audience so that each listener’s experience is his own.  (Monday)

The role of the composer is other than it was. Teaching, too, is no longer transmission of a body of useful information, but’s conversation, alone, together, whether in a place appointed or not in that place, whether with those concerned or those unaware of what is being said. We talk, moving from one idea to another as though we were hunters.  (Monday)

It’s no longer a question of people led by someone who assumes responsibility. It’s as McLuhan says: a tribal situation. We need one another’s help doing (food-gathering, art) what is to be done.  (Monday)

Coming back to the notion that my thought is changing. …One thing…that keeps it moving is that I am continually finding new teachers with whom I study. I had studied with Richard Buhlig, Henry Cowell, Arnold Schoenberg, Daisetz Suzuki, Guy Nearing. Now I’m studying with N. O. Brown, Marshall McLuhan, Buckminster Fuller, Marcel Duchamp. In connection with my current studies with Duchamp, it turns out I’m a poor chessplayer. My mind seems in some respect lacking, so that I make obviously stupid moves. I do not for a moment doubt that this lack of intelligence affects my music and thinking generally. However, I have a redeeming quality: I was gifted with a sunny disposition.  (Monday)

After Not Wanting to Say Anything About Marcel, John Cage 1969.


Various installation shots of Happy Birthday: A Celebration of Chance and Listening

Works Cited:

Anderson, Laurie and John Cage. Taking Chances. Tricycle Magazine. Summer 1992.

Cage, John. A Year from Monday, New Lectures and Writings by John Cage. Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1963.

Cage, John. Silence, Lectures and Writings by John Cage. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The M.I.T. Press, 1961.

Retallack, Joan, ed. Musicage. Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press/University Press of New England, 1996.

Selz, Peter and Kristine Stiles, eds. Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art, A Sourcebook of Artists’ Writings. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.

Stein, Gertrude. Composition as Explanation.

Wilhelm, Richard, trans. The I Ching of Book of Changes. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1967.

Happy Birthday: A Celebration of Chance and Listening, exhibited at PNCA’s Feldman Gallery from September 5 to November 17, 2012, was funded by a generous grant from the The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.

by Lisa Radon

— Posted on 09/11 at 10:42 AM

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