John Cage

Published in the Foundation for Contemporary Performance Arts 2001 Grants Booklet
Courtesy of The John Cage Trust

Given the events of the past year, the following piece by the seminal artist John Cage, written almost a half-century ago, seems particularly timely and appropriate.

When, in the middle 1940's I was searching to find out why one would make a work of art in this society, I was thinking not in terms of theater, but specifically in terms of music. My search for a reason for making art came about because of this.

I had been taught in the schools that art was a question of communication. I observed that all of the composers were writing differently. If art was communication, we were using different languages. We were therefore, in a Tower of Babel situation where no one understood anyone else.

So I determined either to find another reason or give up the whole business. Lou Harrison and other composers joined with me in this quest. At the same moment, a musician came from India alarmed over the influence that Western music was having on Indian traditions. She studied in a concentrated fashion with a number of teachers of Western music over a six-month period. I was with her nearly every day.

Before she returned to India, I learned from her the traditional reason for making a piece of music in India: "to quiet the mind thus making it susceptible to divine influences."

Lou Harrison, meanwhile, was reading in an old English text, I think as old as the sixteenth century, and he found this reason given for writing a piece of music: "to quiet the mind thus making it susceptible to divine influences."

Now the question arises: What is a quiet mind? Then the second question arises: What are divine influences? One of the things that is happening to society now is that the East and the West are no longer separated. We are, as Fuller and McLuhan point out continually, living in a global village.

Formerly, we thought that the Orient had nothing to do with us; that we had no access to it. We know better now. We learned from Oriental thought that those divine influences are, in fact, the environment in which we are. A sober and quiet mind is one in which the ego does not obstruct the fluency of the things that come in through our senses and up through our dreams. Our business in living is to become fluent with the life we are living, and art can help this.

John Cage is an American avant-garde composer lauded as one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century. Experimenting and challenging all musical preconceptions, Cage developed new concepts of music and redefined music altogether. His acclaimed pieces include 4'33' (1952), Imaginary Landscape #3 (1942), Variations I and II (1958), and Thirty Pieces for Five Orchestras (1981).