a collaborative genealogy of spirituality

John Cage (1912-1992)

by Thomas Tweed

Composer John Cage by <a href=''target='_blank'>David O. Garcia</a>
Composer John Cage by David O. Garcia

I once crawled on all fours on an auditorium stage where John Cage sat. That’s an odd confession but an apt image to begin thinking about what we mean by the word “spirituality” or—a more productive task—to begin thinking about which part of speech it is. Is “spirituality” a noun? A verb? Something else?

That spring night in 1991 at Miami’s Subtropics Music Festival, Cage had just finished an hour and a half performance of what he called “spoken music.” He had patiently—if guardedly—answered my question about Buddhism’s influence on his work, an issue he’d addressed before in print and at the podium. Yes, he said again, he owed a debt to Buddhism, though he wasn’t sure he’d say he’s Buddhist. After the Q&A that Friday night, three young music students and I—then an assistant professor of religion—asked if we could see the score. In response, the seventy-nine year old Cage quickly and generously dropped it on the stage. The pages fanned out across the smooth surface. As Cage sat nearby on stage after the performance, we then crawled around to reassemble the text and eagerly started reading to learn more about what had just happened in that auditorium.

What had happened prior to my onstage crawling was not immediately clear. Even afterward, some who spent their life thinking about the arts were not sure. The Miami Herald’s experienced music critic James Roos affirmatively answered his own question, “Was Cage putting us on?” The reviewer described how the influential composer had “sat on stage with ‘score’ propped on a music stand, slowly turning pages and drawing unintelligible sounds into a microphone adjusted at mouth level: Ouh … uhh … prawem … pshr … duh-suht.” Then followed, the reporter observed, “several minutes of silence, as the rapt audience waited breathlessly for this next meaningless syllable to emerge: Sipp …utt …pooot …rrrr.” That account also accurately recorded the audience’s response. We heard “isolated interruptions” (including “purposely jangled keys”) and “after an hour or so went by, there were giggles here and there in the audience, mingled with coughs and the shufflings of listeners squirming in their chairs. Little by little, they began exiting…” At the end of my row, a gray-haired man gently elbowed a woman next to him. He then extended his arms with upturned palms to silently pose a question—what’s going on? A few minutes later that couple exited the concert hall in a huff. As they did, she said aloud what many others were thinking: “This is ridiculous.”

Was it? The Herald critic sided with those who had concluded the performance was a “hoax,” but he granted that for some audience members “this Cage ‘concert’ may have been a near-religious new music experience.” The critic’s adjectival phrase (“near-religious”) was interesting since, as Cage had acknowledged, religious texts and practices had shaped his understanding of the arts, including music, dance, poetry, and visual art. As we stage crawlers learned, the performance that night was an excruciatingly slow-paced recitation of a single passage from the writings of Henry David Thoreau, whose work had been a source of inspiration for Cage since 1967.

Even decades earlier Cage had encountered baffled and infuriated audiences, as with those at New York City’s Artist’s Club who attended the performance of his 1949 “Lecture on Nothing.” That piece repeated the rhythmic structure he had used in his innovative musical compositions of the time, including Sonatas and Interludes. It began “I am here.” Then, after the first of many patterned pauses, it continued “and there is nothing to say.” Part of the lecture’s structure came from the repetition—he said it fourteen times—of the refrain “If anyone is sleepy let him go to sleep.” That lecture was not universally embraced, as Cage recalled:

Jeanne Reynal stood up part way through, screamed, and then said, while I continued speaking, ‘John, I dearly love you, but I can’t bear another minute.’ She then walked out. Later, during the question period, I gave one of six previously prepared answers regardless of the question asked. This was a reflection of my engagement in Zen.

Cage continued to claim Zen’s influence. His introduction to Zen had come in a 1936 lecture by Nancy Wilson Ross on “Dada and Zen Buddhism.” He was very impressed, Cage recalled, because both cultural forms seemed to champion “experience and the irrational rather than…logic and understanding.” He later attended D.T. Suzuki’s lectures at Columbia University and even visited that Zen Buddhist popularizer in Japan.

Cage and many other American artists and intellectuals of his generation selectively and creatively appropriated the “Buddhism” that circulated so widely in books, magazines, television, and museums to meet their own needs. That piety— especially what I call Suzuki Zen—could meet varied needs because it had been removed from its institutional context (the discipline of the monastery and the authority of the priest) and from its ritual forms (the rigors of seated meditation and the aims of kōan practice). Liberated from the constraints of precedent, Buddhism could become almost anything in the transnational flow of representations. It was an almost blank slate onto which Americans, including Cage, could inscribe their own desires. And Cage became one of the primary conduits of this aestheticized Zen that emphasized the value of the ordinary and cherished spontaneity, experience, humor, and freedom. It doesn’t matter that it wasn’t “authentic” according to someone else’s standard; it doesn’t matter that the Zen he enacted wasn’t exactly what a practitioner at a Kyoto temple might have encountered. It only mattered that it resonated with American intellectuals’ concern to challenge the predominant expressions of Christianity and the presuppositions of post-war culture.

In that cultural context—and still now—what Cage accomplished was to prompt useful questions, as he’d done in his 1949 and 1991 performances. The outraged questions assumed varied forms but most were more or less articulate versions of the urgently gestured inquiry I witnessed at the Miami event: What’s going on? In artistic circles, by generating that question Cage extended the boundaries of what constituted “art” to include the giggles, shuffling, coughs, and jangled keys we heard that night in Miami.

For scholars of religion, remembering Cage helps in other ways. It reminds us that any adequate analysis of contemporary piety will need to do more than count adherents. We have to assess the hard-to-measure cultural impact of representations and practices. Sometimes sheer numbers of new Americans have prompted change, as with the transformations produced by the migration of Roman Catholics in the nineteenth century. In other cases, as with U.S. Buddhism after 1945, cultural influence has been disproportionate to numbers. So whatever “spirituality” is, it has less to do with the number of people in the pews—or on the zafus—and more to do with media flows, as with the circulation of Cage’s Zen through print culture, performance spaces, and intellectual conversation.

Finally, remembering Cage also helps us to answer the question I posed at the start: which part of speech is the word “spirituality”? It’s not a noun, it’s not a something. It’s not even a nothing. Or a preposition, a relational plank bridging a this and a that. It’s more like a verb, an action, a doing. It’s something done. Yet what’s done is the act of asking a question. Most of all, Cage helps us notice, “spirituality” is an interrogative. It’s a placeholder for a series of productive but unanswerable questions, just as the term “art” is. Where is art? Not where you think, Cage proposed. In a similar way, “spirituality” initiates an inquiry: What is the religious? When is the religious? Where is the religious? The term offers only tentative and negating responses: not what you think, not when you think, not where you think. The category marks the boundary between the prescribed and the practiced, between the churches and everyplace else, between scheduled rituals and everyday life. The incomplete responses that the interrogative prompts serve as a useful starting place for inquiries into what people value most in contemporary America. But maybe even those nay-saying non-answers are too final and fixed for the complexity that the term interrogates. Perhaps when someone asks what “spirituality” is we should just borrow the first of the six scripted rejoinders Cage repeated to his annoyed audience that night in 1949: “That is a very good question. I should not want to spoil it with an answer.”