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  • Writer's pictureSiqian Li

The Influence of Eastern Aesthetics and Philosophy on Cage

There is no doubt that aesthetics and philosophy were constantly influencing John Cage’s life, especially those from the Orient. He was always following the principles of the manner, which he kept faith with, to interpret his music as well as to deal with things in life. In this article, I will discuss and focus on the period from the 1940s to 1950s, in which Cage invented the prepared piano and started involving his works with chance. How philosophy and aesthetics guided Cage to find the truth of music can be defined by two most representative terms of him which I will demonstrate in the later paragraphs.

Cage working on prepared piano

Cage was exploring the new development of music and sound uniquely throughout his whole life. The prepared piano was a landmark invention through his process of searching for sounds. While the traditional tonal music system lost its popularity from the late 19th to the early 20th century, with the demand for new sounds, the impracticality of using a large percussion ensemble in a small dance recital contributed to Cage the opportunity to invent the prepared piano. Cage first used prepared techniques in the commissioned piece for Syvilla Fort’s dance Bacchanale which was completed in 1940.

One of the significant innovations in prepared piano has to be mentioned is the sound. Cage created more possibilities for those existing sounds by changing the producer with the intended means. Why did I call the existing sounds? Cage was switching percussion sounds to the piano - by preparing various objects (e.g. screw, wood, bolt, plastic etc.) of different qualities and sizes at the instructed positions inside the piano, thus the original sound of the piano was changed and turned variable. With those technical operations, Cage achieved his purpose of imitating the sounds of percussion instruments. As James Pritchett concluded in The Music of John Cage, “All these factors combine to produce sounds that are complex, inharmonic, microtonal, and hence percussion-like”. Before this innovation, there was no such relationship among percussion instruments, piano and the prepared objects, however, when Cage combined them, new sounds and concepts were created. Hence, this invention reflected the way that Cage thought about the definition of sound during this inventional period. Sound is natural and exists everywhere, and composers or anyone else can make it refreshed by using natural things. This action provides endless possibilities regarding sounds. As Cage demonstrated in the conversation with Daniel Charles, “to place in the hands of a single pianist the equivalent of an entire percussion orchestra… you can really do an unlimited number of things on the inside of the piano if you have at your disposal an ‘exploded’ keyboard”. Through the reproduced sounds of prepared piano, Cage presented a method and a concept that even though we can not invent the sound of preexisting ones, by certain means, sound can be enriched and transformed into its new forms.

Instruction table of preperation on piano

In addition to sounds, the prepared piano also represents a new compositional style of John Cage. Many changes such as the structure (parts) and form (contents) appeared differently in his prepared piano compositions. According to the resources from the references about John Cage, his definition and uses of these terms changed from time to time to fit his developing aesthetics. In the previous percussion works, Cage mostly organized the music by the restricted rhythmic structure, and the whole masses of sound blocks were much more emphasized than the detailed elements whereas in the prepared piano pieces, the phrase structure was involved more often, and the music revealed the tendency of using emotions and the poetic structure.

Cage claimed his new lyrical aesthetic theory in the article Grace and Clarity in 1944, regarding how to deal with the contradicting relationship between the structure and content. One example is Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes for the prepared piano. Although each piece was composed in a strictly controlled structure, according to Cage in Silence, the poetry form “play with and against the clarity of the rhythmic structure”. Sonata V explained this claim. He applied the asymmetrical phrase patterns: while the rhythmic part was simple and repetitive, the melody line was progressing by following an extending pattern {2+2+2ó+2ó}, ó indicated the extended part. In this case, the musical element was progressing against the rhythmic structure which strictly interpreted how the content is related to the structure. Moreover, the “grace” and “clarity” might be sourced from Coventry Patmore’s use of “freedom” and “law”. Looking through Sonatas and Interludes, it is obvious that the increasing flexibility was built on the strict structure system, Cage combined and mixed the contradicting structure and content, which reacted to the “grace (freedom)” and “clarity (law)”. This compositional approach produced more poetic breathing in phrasing and allowed Cage to manipulate it into a living structure. This kind of aesthetic thinking was formed at the start of the prepared piano, excavated much deeper through the 1940s, and was a vital source towards the later formulation of his chance music.

By 1946, Ceylonese philosopher Ananda Coomarasway’s aesthetic theories emerged in Cage’s life. In Sonatas and Interludes, Cage adopted the description of eight permanent emotions which was formulated in Coomaraswamy’s book The Dance of Shiva. Those emotions included: courage, aversion, love, anger, mirth, sorrow, fear, and wonder. The ninth emotion tranquillity was the common final destination of the eight emotions. It is hard to know how Cage connected and arranged all those emotions with each piece and every structure, but what he attempted to present was the Destination of the Emotions. As James Pritchett states in his book - “Cage’s plan was for the common tendency of Tranquillity to develop over the course of the cycle, with the intensely-expressed emotions of the opening sonatas gradually mellowing to the placid, paler tones of the closing”. Undoubtedly, the emotions implied the profound meaning in Sonatas and Interludes. Cage stated in Silence, “Music is edifying, for from time to time it sets the soul in operation”. This interpretation has a similarity with Coomaraswamy’s theory of the function of music. In the book The Transformation of Nature in Art, Coomaraswamy indicated that “the function of Art is to imitate Nature in her manner of operation.” which emphasized the connection between art and spirituality. Cage highly accepted this doctrine, but did not directly reference this phrase until 1954 in his lecture - 45’ for a Speaker in Silence, “the highest purpose is to have no purpose at all. This puts one in accord with nature in her manner of operation”. The phrase demonstrates a belief that art exists within life, and art is a way of life. However, Cage was more materialistic and interpreted this phrase more precisely closer to modern society. He recalled in his lecture - “Where are we going? And what are we doing? The traditional function of the artist is to imitate nature in her manner of operation. This led me to the opinion that art changes because science changes - that is, changes in science give artists a different understanding of how nature works”. Cage asserted chance operations on the attitude towards nature, man’s actions are within nature, “I find nature far more interesting than any man’s controls of nature… with respect to nature. And that if we are not, life is meaningless”. According to the statements above from Cage, respect, purposelessness, and obedience should be the attitude to exist within nature. 

Back to music, Cage had faith that music should come from within, and set the soul in operation, that is the way to show its meaning. Accordingly, the definition of artists became different than before - everyone could be an artist and live with art. In the book John Cage: “Music, Philosophy, and Intention, it is stated that Coomaraswamy believed that artists should be ‘enjoying a pure objective existence as a part of life’”. Cage’s perception of artists was mostly similar to Coomaraswamy’s, as an artist, should be objective to the art. Based on the definitions of the two points mentioned above, permanent emotions are the forms that exist eternally in Nature, and their using of it showed Cage’s interpretation towards the function of Art.

In the late 1940s, as the result of the encounter of Cage and Zen, the principles of Zen led him to a new horizon of cognition in his later compositions and writings. Zen asserts that the definition of the world and all the existence in Buddhism extends to infinity and broadness, without starting point and boundary. In other words, there is no such focus exists and everything balances each other with equivalence, and every factor and element, no matter with or without spirit, will all return to essence and back to the origin - that is nothingness. We are all existences that appeared in the material form and are existing within and among each other. This is defined as emptiness. Accordingly, it is important to mention the correspondence and main concept in Buddhism - “reform ourselves to the authenticity, and integrate with nothingness. Nothing is what permits all substances to exist”.

To apply the “Nothingness” theory of Zen, Cage formulated his own interpretation of it on “Silence”, which was completely applied to his compositions and writings. Cage thought that absolute silence does not exist, on the contrary, the silence is made up of all random and purposeless sounds, and even the noises are referred to silence. He frequently stressed his attention on noises, in his conversation with Daniel Charles, he said “I wanted to include the world of noises in a musical work”. Indeed, when people hear things, they tend to ignore the noises because they exclude them from the elements of sound - silence. That is to say, people always give preference to the musical sound. However, Cage advocated that when the noises belong to silence, they also belong to sound, silence is one of the components of sounds. Thus, the preference is opposed to the Zen theory which Cage always followed. What Cage frequently repeated was that we should take silence seriously, and not give preference to the musical sound, always perceiving sounds and silences at the same level subconsciously and intentionally. 

This theory of silence and sounds was perfectly addressed in the “silent piece” 4’33”. This piece was divided into three parts and filled all with silence (or sounds). In the three time-limited parts, Cage achieved the purpose of making listeners focus all their attention on those sounds which happened by chance, and to live within the sound while producing it. These sounds could come from anywhere, from the air, from substances, or from listeners, and they are the things that listeners have already accustomed to and ignored. Affected by Huang Po’s Doctrine of Universal Mind, this purpose precisely identified Cage’s thinking on music. James Pritchett stated in the book that it “is the need to rid oneself of conceptual thought in order to apprehend ultimate Reality”. As I mentioned above, absolute silence does not exist, so when people actually hear it, more meanings of the nothingness come out, that is to say, people are getting closer to the ultimate Reality. On the other hand, the uses of chance reflected Cage’s understanding of I Ching. I Ching uses the manifestation of the hexagram to determine the development of the substance. This is to adapt the doctrine - everything has been determined, and following the discipline of nature is the way to live. Cage believed discipline is before everything. In our time and space, chance is everywhere, and chance represents the choice. However, in terms of values and perceptions, human beings always consider and centre themselves as the main focus of the whole material world. According to Cage, people always set up a framework to judge things, and this is also why people lose things. Only when people emerge themselves into nature, live with non-possession, non-will, and non-action, and finally reach acceptance, then achieve the “Tranquillity” which was referred as the core of Zen, they will obtain the new definition of life.

In Cage’s works during the 1950s and after, regardless of compositions or writings, he applied all those theories from Zen and I Ching to interpret his understanding of “Nothingness” and “Emptiness”. For example, in the Lecture of Nothing, Cage indicated that “nothing” is the poetry he needed; in the Lecture of Something, he expanded the meaning of “no-continuity”, which he emphasizing the music itself as the core, composers can not force their intention on sounds; in both lectures, he left the space to interpret the connection of silence and structure; In his composition, he used chart systems, the Point-drawing systems, the coin tosses to determine how his music goes, and later he also used indeterminacy to present the art. For example, the piece 0’00”, which was subtitled 4’33” No.2, was instructed as “solo to be performed in any way by anyone”. All of those means were his practice of the doctrines from Zen and the uses of I Ching.

In conclusion, Eastern philosophy and aesthetics constantly influenced Cage and finally completed his transfer from creating to discovering. As Christopher Shultis summed up at the end of the book, “a shared direction away from compositional and toward non-intention, where ‘something’ and ‘nothing’ are unopposed … Cage eventually moved away from syntactically controlled meaning altogether, and language became, like music, just sounds”. From prepared piano to chance music, as the organizer of sound, Cage’s perceptions and standpoint are opposing to each other in his two intentions. In the process of preparing piano, Cage sets off from himself, attempting to affect the sounds through certain intentions. This is the active intention. On the contrary, in the chance music, sound itself became the main character, and people were affected by sound. This is the passive intention. Through this intention, the relationship between humans and music shifts more to a natural way. This ideological shift was exactly the result of an understanding of Zen. At the same time, I also consider there must be universally applicable principles between these two intentions. As I stated earlier in this passage, Cage switched the existing percussion sound to the piano by preparing the piano, and in chance music, Cage led the existing sound catch with the audience in a limited timing by chance. Face to the existing sound, the former one preferred action, while the latter preferred inaction. John Cage discovered and applied “Emptiness” and “Nothingness” as his credo, throughout the process, he gradually obtained the “Tranquillity” in his music and life.

Works Cited
Cage, John. Silence. 50th Anniversary Edition paperback. Middletown,
Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 2013. Print.
Pritchett, James. The Music of John Cage. Cambridge: Press Syndicate of the
University of Cambridge, 1993. Print.
Marion Boyars Inc. For the Birds, John Cage in conversation with Daniel Charles.
Boston/London: Marion Boyars Publishers, 1981. Print.
Shelties, Christopher. Silencing the sounded self. Boston: Northeastern University
Press, 1998. Print.
Patterson, David. John Cage: Music, Philosophy, and Intention, 1933-1950. 2009 ed.
New York/Abingdon: Routledge, 2009. Print.

This article was written during my study at NEC. It discussed how Eastern aesthetics and philosophy influenced John Cage's creativity and discovery in the prepared piano music and chance music. To read more about Cage and his music, please refer to the books listed above.

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