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John Cage

By Allen Ginsburg

As John Cage proposed certain rigid parameters of time disci-

pline within his music,

This eulogy, altogether ten minutes, divides ideally into three parts:

1) Brief outline of his career (3’67”)

2) Exposition of sitting practice of meditation, (2′)

and 3) The practice itself, (4’33)


First, a brief rundown on John Cage’s career: Henry Cowell’s

classes in non-Western music; counterpoint with Arnold


Cornish Institute, Seattle, 1938, met Merce Cunningham;

percussion concerts with Lou Harrison;

prepared piano transformed ad hoc into percussion instrument  by

inserting various objects between the strings for a dance

of African character, lacking other orchestral means for per-

cussion on one occasion.

Cited 1949 by our Academy for “having extended the boundaries

of art”:

Electrically produced sounds. Influence of rhythmic struc-

tures of some Eastern music.

Inclusion of Eastern aesthetic philosophy, the “Permanent Emo-

tions” such as in

Seasons, 1947: Quiescence (winter); Creation (spring); Preserva-

tion (summer) Destruction (autumn);

I Ching adapted for chance operation in musical compositions.

Zen Buddhist studies at Columbia University with D. T. Suzuki;

thenceforth, lifelong inventions in Dharma art.

Result of meditation insight 1952, his 4’33” of Silence “may be per-

formed by any instrument or combination of instruments.”

Studied, collaborated, worked with and/or influenced Jackson

MacLow, Morton Feldman, David Tudor, Christian

Wolff, Earle Brown, Nam June Paik, Luciano Berio, Karl-

heinz Stockhausen, Arthur Russell, Philip Glass,

Robert Motherwell, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns,

Alan Kaprow, Dick Higgins of Fluxus, George Brecht,

Al Hansen.

At Black Mountain College Cage created ur-“Happenings”; among

the earliest for the U.S. art world.

Co-founded the New York Mycological Society; Connoisseur and

innovator in macrobiotic cooking and eating.

Youthful epiphanous apprehension of the multiplicity of simulta-

neous visual & audible events on a streetcorner in Seville

later manifested aurally through exploration of consciousness

of sound:

Innovator in music in the use of Astronomic charts; amplified

plant sounds; sounds of places in Finnegan’s Wake;

appropriations of Thoreau & Joyce, Satie & Duchamp, on

tape & cut in/cut up and mixed together.

“Everything has its own vibration,” he was recalled to Hindu

theory, Shabda yoga:

the universe itself based on sound vibration, according to

Eastern thought;

sensory experience a form of vibration, beginning with sound


Thus he concluded, “the purpose of music is to sober and quiet the


His meditation was the practice of “non intention” with “humor,

intransigence and detachment.”

Silence “not the absence of sound but the sound of the unintended

operation of nervous system & circulation of his blood.”

“Music without beginning middle or end,” … “Music as weather.”

… “I write in order to hear the music I haven’t yet heard.”


To cut thru to the classical Buddhist bones of Cage’s art, one may

try Samatha (quieting the mind) and

Vipassana (clear seeing and hearing)

The following rudimentary instruction in sitting meditation may

be practiced on the spot by those who wish to do so.

Those of us interested in experiencing the pragmatic basis of

Cage’s art

might sit up straight forward on our chairs:

Posture erect with back and spine straight, top of the head sup-

porting heaven,

arms resting palms down on thighs…so that the back bone’s

elevated straight,

abdomen and belly relaxed,

paying attention to breath exhaled from tip of nostril till

breath dissolves in space in front of the face…

Mouth closed, body balanced, shoulders relaxed, no special

attention to in-breath.

When we catch ourselves thinking, it’s possible to take a friendly

attitude toward thoughts,

acknowledging thought as thought,

not pushing thoughts away, not inviting thoughts in to tea, thoughts

can take care of themselves.

So return attention to the next breath outward from nostrils.


In the Western tradition of observing a minute of silence let’s per-

form John Cage’s 4 minutes & 33 seconds of silence.

As David Tudor opened & closed the piano lid for the first per-


we’ll use the ring of a traditional meditation hall bronze bell:



[Sound of Gong]
















[Sound of Gong]

Read at the Institute Dinner Meeting on November 4, 1992.

© 2021 American Academy of Arts and Letters