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Nelson, Mark D.

Quieting the Mind, Manifesting Mind: The Zen Buddhist Roots of John Cage's Early Chance-Determined and Indeterminate Compositions

Ph.D. Princeton University, 1995
(mdnelson@alumni.princeton.edu)

In the course of his engagement with Zen Buddhism in the early 1950s, John Cage began to regard music as a discipline comparable to sitting meditation. Music, he discovered, might function as a vehicle with which one might curb the inveterate thinking that artificially separates human beings from the "divine" flood of perceptual experience. Cage aspired to immerse musicians and listeners in this flood.

In an effort to preclude ego influences from his activity, Cage began to use chance operations to make decisions affecting musical continuity. The radical changes in his methods for harnessing chance operations in the 1950s reflect his abiding search for strategies which would a) remove opportunities for his own tasteful shaping, b) nurture thought-stilling perceptual acuity in performers and listeners, and c) ensure that his work truly tapped the universe's natural processes and did not impose artificial, thought-full contours upon them.

After examining fundamental tenets of Zen Buddhist thought, this paper considers Cageian assimilations of that thought, with particular focus upon "nothing", the composer's adaptation of the Zen concept of "emptiness". Such philosophical ground is then used as the basis for integrated discussion of the synergic evolutions of Cage's aesthetic perspective and musical style in 1948-1960. The indeterminate scores -- which may be viewed as challenging puzzles for David Tudor, as incipient "circus situations", and as utterly flexible tools facilitating the mining of any facet of the unpredictable and manifold universe -- are portrayed as apotheoses of Cage's Zen-informed activity of the 1950s.