Rob Haskins

Aspects of Zen Buddhism as an Analytical Context for John Cage’s Chance Music

John Cage often claimed he wanted to listen to sounds in themselves, disregarding their possible relationships to each other. This position articulated his interest in Zen, which claims that each individual phenomenon in the universe is as important as all the others. For some time the analysis of Cage’s music was limited to an inquiry of what he called “the questions that are asked” – that is, the pre-compositional possibilities for the composition that are ultimately selected through chance operations or other procedures. In the years since Cage’s death, however, several scholars have employed various types of analytical methods to explore the sounding results of his music; their work raises the possibility that the analysis privileges relationships over single sounds and thus abrogates Cage’s influential aesthetic of listening.
This paper performs a close reading of various sources for Zen (most familiar to Cage) in order to explicate further the listening practice he imagined and to articulate an analytical approach to his music. For although sounds are equally important in and of themselves, all sounds are also part of the Buddhistic Dharmadhatu (the totality of phenomena) – always separate and yet always connected on a multiplicity of levels. The Dharmadatu is often illustrated, for example, by the image of Indra’s Net, an infinite network of jewels in the heavens in which each single jewel reflects all the others. Thus, one can always concentrate on one or another aspect of the network without exhausting its possibilities and indeed without violating the significance of single elements within it. I will then apply this approach to two Cage compositions with very different sonic profiles, One5 and Music for Piano.