Guide John Cage and Buddhism (Japanese Edition)

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I was disturbed both in my private life and in my public life as a composer. I could not accept the academic idea that the purpose of music was communication, because I noticed that when I conscientiously wrote something sad, people and critics were often apt to laugh. I determined to give up composition unless I could find a better reason for doing it than communication. I found this answer from Gira Sarabhai, an Indian singer and tabla player: The purpose of music is to sober and quiet the mind, thus making it susceptible to divine influences.

I also found in the writings of Ananda K. Coomaraswammy that the responsibility of the artist is to imitate nature in her manner of operation. I became less disturbed and went back to work. Before I left the Cornish School I made the prepared piano.

1942 – 1962

I needed percussion instruments for music for a dance that had an African character by Syvilla Fort. But the theater in which she was to dance had no wings and there was no pit. There was only a small grand piano built in to the front and left of the audience. There was no room for the instruments. I couldn't find an African twelve tone row. I finally realized I had to change the piano. I did so by placing objects between the strings. The piano was transformed into a percussion orchestra having the loudness, say, of a harpsichord. It was also at the Cornish School, in a radio station there, that I made compositions using acoustic sounds mixed with amplified small sounds and recordings of sine waves.

I began a series, Imaginary Landscapes. I spent two years trying to establish a Center for Experimental Music, in a college or university or with corporate sponsorship. Though I found interest in my work I found no one willing to support it financially. I was told by the sound effects engineer that anything I could imagine was possible. What I wrote, however, was impractical and too expensive; the work had to be rewritten for percussion orchestra, copied, and rehearsed in the few remaining days and nights before its broadcast.

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The response was enthusiastic in the West and Middle West. Xenia and I came to New York, but the response in the East had been less than enthusiastic.

We had met Max Ernst in Chicago. We were staying with him and Peggy Guggenheim. We were penniless. No job was given to me for my composing of radio sound effects, which I had proposed. I began writing again for modern dancers and doing library research work for my father who was then with Mother in New Jersey. I wrote two large works for two prepared pianos. The criticism by Virgil Thomson was very favorable, both for their performance and for my composition. But there were only fifty people in the audience. I lost a great deal of money that I didn't have. I was obliged to beg for it, by letter and personally.

I continued each year, however, to organize and present one or two programs of chamber music and one or two programs of Merce Cunningham's choreography and dancing. And to make tours with him throughout the United States. And later with David Tudor, the pianist, to Europe. Tudor is now a composer and performer of electronic music. For many years he and I were the two musicians for Merce Cunningham. I have in recent years, in order to carry out other projects an opera in Frankfurt and the Norton Lectures at Harvard University , left the Cunningham Company.

Its musicians now are Tudor, Kosugi, and Michael Pugliese, the percussionist. Just recently I received a request for a text on the relation between Zen Buddhism and my work. Rather than rewriting it now I am inserting it here in this story. I call it From Where'm'Now. It repeats some of what is above and some of what is below.


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When I was young and still writing an unstructured music, albeit methodical and not improvised, one of my teachers, Adolph Weiss, used to complain that no sooner had I started a piece than I brought it to an end. I introduced silence.

Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists – Brain Pickings

I was a ground, so to speak, in which emptiness could grow. At college I had given up high school thoughts about devoting my life to religion. I mention this in my forward to Silence then adding that I did not want my work blamed on Zen, though I felt that Zen changes in different times and places and what it has become here and now, I am not certain. Whatever it is it gives me delight and most recently by means of Stephen Addiss' book The Art of Zen. I had the good fortune to attend Daisetz Suzuki's classes in the philosophy of Zen Buddhism at Columbia University in the late forties.

And I visited him twice in Japan. My work is what I do and always involves writing materials, chairs, and tables. Before I get to it, I do some exercises for my back and I water the plants, of which I have around two hundred. In the late forties I found out by experiment I went into the anechoic chamber at Harvard University that silence is not acoustic.

It is a change of mind, a turning around. I devoted my music to it. To carry it out faithfully I have developed a complicated composing means using I Ching chance operations, making my responsibility that of asking questions instead of making choices. Beckett of which as I say in the introduction to my Norton Lectures at Harvard my life could be described as an illustration, and the Ten Oxherding Pictures in the version that ends with the return to the village bearing gifts of a smiling and somewhat heavy monk, one who had experienced Nothingness.

Ramakrishna it was who said all religions are the same, like a lake to which people who are thirsty come from different directions, calling its water by different names. Furthermore this water has many different tastes. The taste of Zen for me comes from the admixture of humor, intransigence, and detachment. It makes me think of Marcel Duchamp, though for him we would have to add the erotic.

As part of the source material for my Norton lectures at Harvard I thought of Buddhist texts.


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I remembered hearing of an Indian philosopher who was very uncompromising. Streng, I found out.

John Cage: An Autobiographical Statement

He is Nagarjuna. But since I finished writing the lectures before I found out, I included, instead of Nagarjuna, Ludwig Wittgenstein, the corpus, subjected to chance operations. And there is another good book, Wittgenstein and Buddhism , by Chris Gudmunsen, which I shall be reading off and on into the future. There are no scores, no fixed relation of parts. Sometimes the parts are fully written out, sometimes not. And in the center of the festival I placed a lecture that opposed Satie and Beethoven and found that Satie, not Beethoven, was right.

That summer Fuller put up his first dome, which immediately collapsed. He was delighted. That is what Dad would have said. It was at Black Mountain College that I made what is sometimes said to be the first happening. The audience was seated in four isometric triangular sections, the apexes of which touched a small square performance area that they faced and that led through the aisles between them to the large performance area that surrounded them.

Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki Facts

Disparate activities, dancing by Merce Cunningham, the exhibition of paintings and the playing of a Victrola by Robert Rauschenberg, the reading of his poetry by Charles Olsen or hers by M. Links to a previous story appear just before the story text; links to the next story appear just after it. Most of the stories on the Folkways recording were later printed in one of the books, sometimes with revisions. In one case, the recording is more expansive than the printed text: the second paragraph in story 28 is not in A Year from Monday. This archive follows whichever version I preferred, but the Sources section for each story provides links to its variants, if any.

Doodle doodle do papa! Doodle doodle do mama! In forty-three tones to the octave. A couple weeks later, I bought Silence and read it all — even 45' for a Speaker, which felt more like a quest or a trial to be endured than a lecture to be read. Three things stuck like butterflies: Where are we going? It was his love for life, simple and unconditional, that that won me over.