John Cage


"The thing about Zen is that it pushes contradictions to their ultimate limit where one has to choose between madness and innocence. And Zen suggests that we may be driving toward one or the other on a cosmic scale. Driving toward them because, one way or the other, as madmen or innocents, we are already there.
It might be good to open our eyes and see.


John Cage was a Zen practitioner, but was frequently accused of Dadaism. Perhaps he was simply taking the ideas of Tristan Tzara (as described in this lecture of 1922) a step further into the public eye. John Cage was a composer and a mushroom collector. Some, however, would use another word in place of composer since many of his pieces redefined the boundaries of music (if you want to call it music). His piece entitled 4’33" for example consisted of a musician coming out to the stage, seating him or herself at a grand piano, opening the keyboard cover, waiting exactly four minutes and thirty three seconds, then getting up, bowing and walking off the stage. Cage’s intention was to make the audience more aware of the sounds in the room that we often ignore. Unfortunately, many music lovers who had been expecting the musician to move a bit more would become irritated and rather than listen, would pay attention to how angry they had become. From this many accused Cage of Dada.

II. From "Silence"

Critics frequently cry, "Dada," after attending one of my concerts or hearing a lecture. Others bemoan the interest in Zen. One of the liveliest lectures I ever heard was given by Nancy Wilson Ross about 1937 at the Cornish School in Seattle. It was called Zen Buddhism and Dada. There is a connection possible between the two, but neither Dada nor Zen are fixed tangibles. They change; and in quite different ways in different places and times, they invigorate actions. What was Dada in the twenties is now, with the exception of the work of Marcel Duchamp, just art. What I do, I do not wish blamed on Zen, though without my engagement with Zen (attendance at lectures by Alan Watts, D. T. Suzuki, reading of the literature) I doubt whether I would have done what I have. Recently, I am told, Alan Watts has questioned the relation between my work and Zen. I mention this in order to free Zen from any responsibility for my actions. I shall continue making them, however. I often point out that Dada nowadays has a space, an emptiness, in it that Dada formerly lacked. What, nowadays, New York-mid 20th century, is Zen?

So, what is Dada? Is it simply a movement that exists to make people angry? Not for the numbers of Cage fans who began to hear noise and notice chaos and accept them for being beautiful. Dada "invigorates change". While you stare at the performance taking in the action and the noise, thinking you know what's happening to you {"This music is boring...", you say"}, a faint piece of air is slowly blowing itself into your ears and penetrating your attitude: your vision, your hearing and your cognitive understanding of things. When you finally realize what lesson has really been taught, your reaction is, "oh."

"[Dada] confusion was only a facade. Our provocations, demonstrations and defiances were only a means of arousing the bourgeoisie to rage, and through rage to a shamefaced self-awareness." -Hans Richter 'Dada: Art and Anti-art' 1962

Cage was the expert at this. He took the task that Tristan Tzara had set out to do just a little furthur.

So, is he a Dadaist as his critics accused him? How could he be, for "...neither Dada nor Zen are fixed tangibles." They are undefineable and ununable and...who cares? One could go mad.

The Dadaists wanted to loosen the rules of language. To quote Tristan Tzara,

"The convention of the spoken language is ample and adequate for us, but for our solitude, for our intimate games and our literature we no longer need it."

He had nothing to say and he said it. _____________________________________________________________________________________