as preached at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Cleveland, May 16, 2010
There is at least a segment of you who are wondering what just happened. The order of service shows that before the sermon we were supposed to have a piece of music called 4’33”. But instead of playing music Karin sat in front of the piano doing nothing. No notes were played. No melody emerged. Nothing happened. This nothing is the entirety of this piece by the American composer, philosopher and artist John Cage. Yet the very presence of nothing throughout the piece makes 4’33” one of the 20th century’s seminal musical compositions. Its central premiss is that everything that occurs during the piece is part of the piece. Each cough, uncomfortable shift in a chair, reluctant sigh, bird sound, traffic noise or incredulous murmur is music. 4’33” can, therefore, be understood as expanding music’s definition.
Cage arrived at this piece when he set out to experience absolute silence. In the early 1950s he was invited to make use of an anechoic chamber. The chamber used a variety of techniques to blot out all external sound. Inside of it there was no rattle from a passing truck, no whisper of the wind, no ring of a telephone… There was supposed to be nothing. Cage entered the chamber expecting to hear pure silence. Instead he discovered two sounds, a high pitched whine and a low but steady beat. Upon leaving the chamber he asked the engineer in charge about the two sounds. The engineer explained to him that what he had heard was the sound of his nervous system, the high tones, and the sound of his heart, the low ones.
From this experience Cage learned that we are surrounded by sound at all times. “Sounds,” Cage wrote, “occur whether intended or not.” He realized that the traditional understanding of music was, in his words, “an ideal situation, not a real one.” When conceiving of a piece of music a composer indicates through a score that a composition is comprised of certain notes to be produced on specific instruments. When the piece is performed listeners hear something different than what the composer intended for them to hear. They hear both the planned notes and the ambient noise of the environment. This realization led Cage to seek to incorporate his environment’s, and his body’s, unintended sounds into his music.
4’33” derives from Cage’s realization about the constant presence of sound. The only sound in the piece is the unintended sound of the body and the environment. Normally the ambient noise of the environment is the background upon which music unfolds. Cage has reversed the situation. In 4’33” the ambient noise is the music itself.
Changing his listeners’ understanding of what art and music are is one of the central tasks of Cage’s work. Profoundly influenced by Zen Buddhism and other forms of Eastern religion Cage saw art as having “the function of awakening people to the life around them.” One of his teachers, the Indian musician Gita Sarabhai, put it slightly differently by telling him, that “the purpose of music is to sober and quiet the mind, thus making it susceptible to divine influences.” Cage came to understand that the divine is “all things that happen in creation.”
Cage’s art is useful to a religious community like ours because his works help us to see and hear everyday life as beautiful. His music can provide a focus point through which we reinterpret and reengage with our environment. The actual sounds that are contained within his work might be unusual or may fall outside of the realm of what we normally consider music. This is intentional. Cage wanted his music to challenge listeners to reconsider the nature of music itself. He wrote, “People may leave my concerts thinking they have heard ‘noise’ but… then [they will] hear unsuspected beauty in their everyday life.”
Heard with Cage’s ears music becomes not a matter of composition or performance but the result of an attitude. The rattle of a washing machine is placed on an equal level with a fugue by Beethoven. One is not more beautiful than the other. Both are collections of sounds–the bow drawn across the tense strings of the violin, the water and clothes pushing against the metal sides of the machine, the piano’s hammers hitting the wires and the bolts jangling as dirt is shaken loose from fabric. The beauty of the sounds is not an inherent value. It is a value assigned to them. If we choose we can assign all sounds the value of beautiful. Doing so allows us to take greater pleasure from them. It also opens up the world of experience. If, as Cage said, we “get over our likes and dislikes,” then we can fully engage with anything that we encounter.
Cage drew inspiration from the French artist Marcel Duchamp. Duchamp used his work to confront conventional understandings of what art is. He is perhaps most famous for his readymades. These were a series of ordinary objects that Duchamp signed, gave titles to and placed in art galleries. They included a bicycle wheel, a snow shovel and a urinal labeled “Fountain.” Duchamp hoped that seeing such familiar objects in the space of an art gallery would cause the viewer to ask questions like: Are these pieces art? What is art? Are we surrounded by art at all times?
Duchamp’s work had the desired result on Cage. During an interview Cage shared this story about seeing some of the readymades: “his work acted in such a way that my attention was drawn to the light switch on the wall, away from–not away, but among–the works of art…the light switch seemed to be as attention-deserving as the works of art.”
When I first learned of Duchamp’s work it had a similar effect on me. One afternoon a friend and I went to a local grocery store. While there we encountered a clear milk jug filled with neon insecticide. The object fascinated me. It seemed beautiful and grotesque and problematic all at once.
The bottle of bug killer had as much of a story to it as any other object. It was unique. It had been conceived by a human mind, built with human tools and placed in front of me by human hands. The florescent light that shone on it caused the jug to cast a pale green shadow.
When Cage had such experiences they reminded him to celebrate the uniqueness of each object he encountered. During an interview with the scholar Joan Retallack he reflected on seeing a soup can in the supermarket: “when you see a row of soup cans, you notice rather quickly and easily that light falls on them differently. Each can is separate from each other can. They’re only connected as ideas in our heads. But in reality light falls on each one uniquely, so that it is at the center of the universe, or is the Buddha, you see. So, it’s worthy of honor…”
In response to Cage’s ruminations Retallack replied, “Presumably the Buddha should be as useful as a can.” Sharp quips aside, Cage’s point was that viewed from a certain perspective everyday objects can trigger moments of insight. Every object encountered is both unique and connected with all other objects in the universe. Considering these facts can turn the most mundane incident into a spiritual experience. Any sound we hear, any article we see or touch is an invitation into deeper connection with the world around us.
The Buddhist monk Thich Nat Han created the word “interbeing” to describe this interrelation of all things. In one of his books he invites his readers to look at the piece of paper on which his words appear. Looking at it closely reveals that it is a connected to all things. “Your mind is in here and mine is also…You cannot point to one thing that is not here–time, space, the earth, the rain, the minerals in the soil, the sunshine, the cloud, the river, the heat. Everything co-exists with this sheet of paper,” he states.
Seeing the sheet of paper for what it is requires a certain perspective. Such a perspective is not always easy to obtain. Often we focus on the utility of an object or simply ignore it, consigning it to the sensory background. Cage’s work is helpful because engaging with it can require a shifting of perspective: the paper is seen in a new manner; the washing machine heard for the first time; and the background sounds come to the foreground.
It is possible to cultivate this type of perspective through spiritual practice. Spiritual practice stills and sharpens the mind. It tunes the senses. It brings the background into the foreground. Spiritual practices vary by individual and community. Some choose meditation or prayer as their spiritual practice. Others prefer journal writing, painting or a regular exercise routine. All spiritual practices serve the same function, to center the self and to point to the possibility of insight.
For Cage composition was a spiritual practice. It brought him into tune with nature. Cage felt that “personality is a flimsy thing on which to build…art” and sought to transcend it through the use of chance operations in his later pieces. Chance operations are methods of generating art independent of an artist’s conscious intentions. They range from simple things like rolling dice or throwing darts to more complicated methods involving the ancient Chinese divination tool the I-Ching or computer programs. Cage developed a complex methodology for composition using the I-Ching as a base. He would set a certain number of parameters for a piece–its length, the number of performers or the number of instruments–and then flip coins to derive a series of I-Ching hexagrams to determine the rest. This stripped intention from his work and led it, in his view, to more closely mirror the natural world. “What we do, we do without purpose. The highest purpose is to have no purpose at all. This puts one in accord with nature in her manner of operations,” he wrote, reflecting on his composition technique.
Cage’s understanding of the natural world reinforced his views about music and art. His primary engagement with the natural environment was through his passion for mushrooms. He foraged for fungi every opportunity he got.
Mushroom foraging is a lot like chance operation in composition. You commit to a particular technique–or in the case of mushrooms area–pay attention and see what the world brings you. Sudden shifts in consciousness may occur.
As a frequent forager myself I know how easy it is to slip from a forest bereft of mushrooms to a forest full of them. The chance turning of a leaf reveals a morel. Before there was nothing but early spring May Apples. Now the ground is littered with wrinkled grey caps.
Reflecting on this dynamic Cage once said, “ideas are to be found in the same way you find wild mushrooms in the forest, just by looking.” The chance encounter of a mushroom is similar to the discovery of an unusual sound. He wrote, “a mushroom grows for such a short time and if you happen to come across it when it’s fresh it’s like coming upon a sound which also lives a short time.”
Cage believed that we are surrounded by beauty, writing “Beauty is now underfoot wherever we take the trouble to look.” Within this attitude to I hear echoes of the first source of our Unitarian Universalist Association: “Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder…which moves us to a renewal of spirit and an openness to the forces that create and uphold life.” Cage’s work challenges us to directly experience the world that surrounds us. It is not be meditated through symbolic interpretation or given an explanation. It is just to be experienced. Such an openness leads to a constant state of wonder.
If this view has a limitation it is that, perhaps, ironically for a Buddhist, it does not offer an adequate approach to suffering. Throughout his writings and works Cage never seems to seriously wrestle with suffering. Instead he focuses on the possibility of beauty within the world. But I am not so sure we should ultimately find all things beautiful. Torture, pain, the degradation of the environment, war, liking or disliking these things is not a matter of aesthetics but a matter of ethics. While there might be moments of beauty found within them–the iridescent whirls of oil on water, the harsh stillness of a field before battle–it is probably best not to view them as beautiful. Doing so could lead to complacency or acceptance. In the face of the world’s problems inaction is not a realistic option.
Art only pushes into daily life so far. It may be provocative to quote, as Cage did in his piece “Indeterminacy,” the Indian mystic Sri Ramakrishna by offering the words–“When Sri Ramakrishna was asked why, if God is good, is there evil in the world, he replied, ‘To thicken the plot.'”–but it does little to goad people in action. It is no doubt my own rooting in a religious tradition that’s objective is, in the words of one Unitarian Universalist author, “to build the world we dream about” that finds limitations in Cage here. He does not point the path to that world. In some of his writings he envisions an anarchist utopian society where work has been abolished and people respect the planet. Yet he never offers thoughts on how to create such a society.
Such was not his purpose. Instead Cage’s work offers us the invitation to see the world as a blessing. And that is surely the first step towards making it whole. Cage suggests that viewed properly each movement we make is part of a dance, each breath the catch of a song, each thing we see a thing of wondrous beauty. If we understand the world’s beauty how could do anything but cherish it? As Cage himself would say, “Everyday is a beautiful day.” Let us make it so.