John Cage 4'33 Zen Emptiness Art Avante Garde Kay Larson


In 1952, composer John Cage shook the music world with his most radical composition to date. Kay Larson explores its Zen-inspired lessons in her new book, Where the Heart Beats.

By Kay Larson

John Cage, 1985. Photo by Peggy Jarrell Kaplan

It’s the end of August, 1952. Carolyn and Earle Brown, John Cage, David Tudor, and M.C. Richards are all driving up the Hudson Valley together, headed to the little Catskills art colony of Woodstock. The Browns have just moved to Manhattan, and already they’re on an adventure. Cage carries a new score, which will prove to be his most notorious, most perplexing creation. The turning moment of silence in the American arts is about to be given its debut.

Tudor is on the bill as the featured pianist at the Maverick Concert Hall, in a benefit sponsored by the Woodstock Artists Association for its Artists Welfare Fund. The Maverick is a drafty, hand-built barn—a “rustic music chapel”— built on the property of turn-of-the-century novelist and poet Hervey White.

Maverick concerts in the early 1950s drew a clique of traditional musicians. Among them was composer and concert violinist William Kroll, who founded the Kroll Quartet, taught in New York and Baltimore, and divided his summers between Woodstock, New York, and Tanglewood, in the Berkshires of Massachusetts, where he was director of the chamber music series. Leon Barzin, another local luminary, pulled weight as conductor, violinist, and musical director of the National Orchestral Association and the New York City Ballet.

In 1952, Maverick had its own Society for New Music, at which all the same names repeat. Maverick audiences were drawn from an equally small pool; new faces were rare enough to occasion a comment in the local press.

Into this tempest-tossed teapot came John Cage.

The Performance

Carolyn, Earle, M.C., and John settle onto hard wooden benches and chairs in the Maverick. Behind them, the gambrel roof of the barn holds an arch of old window sashes, a homegrown Woodstock version of a cathedral’s stained-glass rose window. In front of them is a small, shin-high stage, low enough so a performer can step up in one hop.

Outside, the soft gray sky is sultry and threatening rain. Peeking at the program, the audience can see Cage’s music listed twice. The first piece of the evening is identified simply by the date. Later titled Water Music—a first cousin of Water Walk—it’s scored for such noisemakers as a duck call, three whistles, a deck of cards, water gurgling from containers, a radio, and a stopwatch. (Cage has already presented this piece at the New School for Social Research in May and at Black Mountain College on August 12.)

Just before Henry Cowell’s The Banshee, the program lists a second work by Cage.

To play it, Tudor sits at the piano, sets out a stopwatch, carefully closes the keyboard lid, studies the score, and doesn’t move for thirty seconds. He raises the lid and looks at the stopwatch.

He carefully closes the lid, studies the score, and doesn’t move for two minutes and twenty-three seconds, as wind gusts through the wide-open doors at the rear of the hall and rain titters on the roof.

He raises the lid and looks at the stopwatch. He carefully closes the lid, studies the score, and doesn’t move for one minute and forty seconds, while people mutter and rustle in their seats. Then he stands up and walks off stage.

Cage dryly observes the interesting sounds people make as they walk out of the hall.

That’s it. Not much, right?

Then the aftermath begins. And it has proved momentous.

The Wrath of the Scorned

The furor that arose around 433” inflamed the town for weeks afterward. The anger was so great, Cage observed, that he lost friends. “They missed the point,” he said. “There is no such thing as silence.”

Eleven days later, on October 9, a letter scorched the pages of a now-defunct local newspaper. The writer chose to be anonymous, and was identified only as “an internationally known musician, composer, and conductor.” The newspaper clipping betrays the fury of a music lover scorned.

We had been told that Cage’s show had been quite impressive in New York last winter and we were all looking forward to a stimulating evening of musical experimentation. Precedents were to be broken. The Maverick was to be alive with music on a weekday evening, the sacred hall was at last going to ring with something new. We anticipated an honest, though controversial musical adventure.

What did we get? A poorly timed comedy show with worn-out musical gags repeated over and over again, boredom extended ad infinitum, yea, ad nauseam.

 The duck calls and water pitchers were bad enough, but the worst offender, 433, brought the letter writer to stuttering outrage.

This form of phony musical Dadaism built up by sensational publicity, frightens audiences away from the real music of our times. The arrogance of its nihilistic sophistries might be just amusing to most people. But there is a war of nerves against common sense today particularly in all fields of art. And if we don’t check these insipid fungus growths that eat into the common sense of our people, their destructive influence will grow and gradually undermine the health and vitality of our civilization.

4’33” Ever Since

Over the next half century, 433” has continued to be confounding on many fronts at once. Practically everything about it—including its informal title, “the silent piece”—is contested in one way or another.

One can easily get lost in the minutiae of 433“—the several scores, the differing instructions, the later versions—and miss the big issues. Cage was still trying to get the message across in 1988, four years before his death:

[Cage:] I knew that it would be taken as a joke and a renunciation of work, whereas I also knew that if it was done it would be the highest form of work. Or this form of work: an art without work. I doubt whether many people understand it yet.

[Q:] Well, the traditional understanding is that it opens you up to the sounds that exist around you and…

[Cage:] …and to the acceptance of anything…

[Q:] …yes…

[Cage:] …even when you have something as the basis. And that’s how it’s misunderstood.

[Q:] What’s a better understanding of it?

[Cage:] It opens you up to any possibility only when nothing is taken as the basis. But most people don’t understand that, as far as I can tell.

Stepping gingerly around the bog of interpretations, we go to D.T. Suzuki and ask his advice. “Properly speaking, Zen has its own field where it functions to its best advantage,” he tells us at the beginning of Third Series. “As soon as it wanders outside this field, it loses its natural color and to that extent ceases to be itself. When it attempts to explain itself by means of a philosophical system it is no longer Zen pure and simple; it partakes of something which does not strictly belong to it.

So—let’s predict—all the musicological interpretations of 433” are doomed to fail. They all consist of tossing sticks (forms) into emptiness.

Then what is 433“? Before anything else, it’s an experience.

David Tudor walks across the stage and sits down within the boundaryless universe. He crosses his legs (so to speak) and begins an interval of non-doing.

As the stopwatch ticks, he will perform “nothing.”

In these four-plus minutes an opening occurs.

No expression of will or ego.

No walls between composer and performer.

No walls between the pianist and the people listening.

No dualistic divisions into “high” or “low,” “good” or “not good.”

No “art” versus “life.”

No value judgments and no lack of value judgments.

No arising and no lack of arising.

No separation of any kind—no walls at all—and therefore perfect interpenetration.

No form and no lack of form, no emptiness and no absence of emptiness.

No sensation and no lack of sensation.

No music and yet the music of the world.

 [Cage] Well, I use it constantly in my life experience. No day goes by without my making use of that piece in my life and in my work. I listen to it every day…

I don’t sit down to do it; I turn my attention toward it. I realize that it’s going on continuously. So, more and more, my attention, as now, is on it. More than anything else, it’s the source of my enjoyment of life…

But the important thing, surely, about having done it, finally, is that it leads out of the world of art into the whole of life. When I write a piece, I try to write it in such a way that it won’t interrupt this other piece which is already going on.

Cage had (two years earlier) decided to adopt Zen discipline in the form of chance operations. Music was silent prayer—he knew that already. For almost a decade he had been seeking the perfect vehicle. So is 433” Cage’s version of zazen? Okay, that’s fine—but what is zazen? Crossing one’s legs? Watching the breath? Saying nothing? Waiting for the bell to ring? That’s where the beginner begins.

After a bit more practice, however, zazen expands.

4’33” by John Cage, for solo piano; reconstruction by David Tudor, page 1, ca 1989

Everything interpenetrates, right? Sitting silently, where are you? Who are you? What are you sitting within?

As you cross your legs on the cushion, singing a dharani of transformation, the whole world flows in and through you, and all around you. The totality of Creation is sitting with you. Where are the walls? Sitting zazen, you take apart the bricks one at a time, look at them carefully, and set them down. At the end of the process, where are the walls?

[Cage] [A] religious spirit in which one feels there is nothing to which one is not related.… This is the experience of silence.

Suzuki’s mindstream pervades this moment like a perfume. We notice that 433” is not an interpretation of Suzuki’s teachings, but it embodies them perfectly.

In this interval of silence and non-doing, 433” is always itself.

It is always wide open to everything that passes through it.

The ego-oval is emptied out to welcome the flow from all directions.

Not a single thought arises in 433“.

The ego noise of the audience, on the other hand, is deafening.

The composer has not expressed anything.

Instead, he has expressed nothing.

And the “music of the world” arises from the ground that is no ground at all— unnamed and unnameable, empty of categories, beyond anything that can be said about it—the nothing that sings.

I’ve seen 433” in many locations and circumstances. At Carnegie Hall in New York, pianist Margaret Leng Tan theatrically raised her arms over the piano keyboard. Her descending hands halted just above the keys. The well-trained audience froze, respectfully. The overheated room seemed to have soaked up all the music ever played within its walls.

At the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, on Fifth Avenue, I slipped through a door into the garden. On a green lawn enclosed by a low wall that did nothing to keep out the roar of Manhattan, a percussion ensemble got the message and stood with their hands folded and their heads slightly bowed. A traffic helicopter whacked by overhead. Taxi drivers leaned on their horns.

At the Maverick Hall in Woodstock, recitalist Pedja Muzijevic stepped to the stage and took David Tudor’s former seat at the piano. Muzijevic, whose path has led him from Sarajevo to the touring pianist’s universe, introduced 433“: “The reason we do anything from the past is because it has application to the present. The whole interest of ‘nothing coming at you’ is so different now than it was in 1952.” We are bombarded now, he said. He sat, unmoving, without lifting his hands or changing position. Everyone simply sat silently with him, gratefully.

[Cage] [E]veryday life is more interesting than forms of celebration, when we become aware of it. That when is when our intentions go down to zero. Then suddenly you notice that the world is magical.

We observe that 433” is always itself, and it’s always wide open to everything. This apparent paradox is actually the piece’s perfection. It gives perfect freedom to performers, even though they may misunderstand and misinterpret. And it gives a perfect opening to people, who will unfailingly reveal who they are: arrogant, dismissive, argumentative and/or peaceful, accepting, reverent. The sarcastic comments on YouTube in response to the Barbican’s performance of 433” are a case in point.

Having seen the emptiness of ego noise, however, we are unruffled. Even the flaming rage of the anonymous Woodstock letter writer takes its place in a world of shadows.

Zero = Infinity

In Suzuki’s world—the world of Hua-yen Buddhism and the Heart Sutra—zero is a metaphor for shunyata. As Suzuki said in Third Series, shunya = zero. Shunyata, then, is zero magnified to a universal principle, a statement about the Absolute.

Suzuki doesn’t say much about zero in Third Series, and he probably didn’t devote much time to it in the first classes at Columbia, since he was rushing to present the complex teachings of the Flower Garland Sutra and the Heart Sutra. But at other times, according to people who attended his Columbia course, he would devote whole class sessions to zero.

And he did write about zero elsewhere, in an article he prepared for Zen and the Birds of Appetite, a little book by the American Catholic monk Thomas Merton:

Metaphysically speaking, it is the mind that realizes the truth of Emptiness, and when this is done it knows that there is no self, no ego, no Atman [an eternal ego soul] that will pollute the mind, which is a state of zero. It is out of this zero that all good is performed and all evil is avoided. The zero I speak of is not a mathematical symbol. It is the infinite—a storehouse or womb (Garbha) of all possible good or values.

zero = infinity, and infinity = zero.

The double equation is to be understood not only statically but dynamically. It takes place between being and becoming.

A few pages later, Suzuki gently warns against the illusion that we are achieving something or going somewhere by “emptying out.” What would you get rid of? Where is the trash bin? He continues:

Zen emptiness is not the emptiness of nothingness, but the emptiness of fullness in which there is “no gain, no loss, no increase, no decrease,” in which this equation takes place: zero = infinity. The Godhead is no other than this equation.

And when the Godhead (emptiness) is not dualistically separated from the world (form)—when form is emptiness and emptiness is form—then it’s all right here. Where else would it be? The non-dual Tao is the Way, Suzuki continued, in words that recall the koan about eating the piece of cake:

The strange thing, however, is: when we experience it we cease to ask questions about it, we accept it, we just live it. Theologians, dialecticians and existentialists may go on discussing the matter, but the ordinary people…live “the mystery.” A Zen master was once asked:

Q. What is Tao? (We may take Tao as meaning the ultimate truth or reality.)

A. It is one’s everyday mind.

Q. What is one’s everyday mind?

A. When tired, you sleep; when hungry, you eat.

Inevitably, Cage ran into interviewers who insisted on turning shunyata, the Godhead, into an intellectual experience. He kept urging them to “eat the cake” (so to speak), but—not surprisingly—they didn’t get it. Just live the mystery, he said. But they struggled through their fog and confusion.

[Q:] It would then be false to think that Zen sets an end, a stop, a goal for itself— which would, for example, be the state of illumination in which all things reveal themselves as nothingness.

[Cage:] This nothingness is still just a word.

[Q:] Like silence, it must cancel itself out.

[Cage:] And consequently we come back to what exists; to sounds, that is.

[Q:] But don’t you lose something?

[Cage:] What?

[Q:] Silence, nothingness. . . .

[Cage:] You see quite well that I’m losing nothing! In all of this, it’s not a question of losing, but of gaining!

Into the Music

Cage has just given 433” its public airing. He has finally been able to find a form for the silence he’s been nurturing for decades. In that null zone, that place of quiet and surcease, that zero of transformation, there is a pivot.

Cage has reached the peak of the mountain. Up here the view is glorious and inhospitable. His hair is tumbled and frosted by a stiff wind. He balances precariously on the rocky summit. He is a human projectile in the domain of blue. Below him lies the ordinary world’s woven carpet of trees, roads, kitchens, beds. All around him, up here, an element bubbles through his bloodstream yet alienates his body. Where he stands, sky is everywhere; there is nowhere that isn’t touched by it. The view is vast and empty.

He can’t grasp it. And he can’t live here. Now what? A Zen teacher will tell you: The next step always leads back down, into the music.

[Q:] The basic message of Silence seems to be that everything is permitted.

[Cage:] Everything is permitted if zero is taken as the basis. That’s the part that isn’t often understood. If you’re nonintentional, then everything is permitted. If you’re intentional, for instance if you want to murder someone, then it’s not permitted. The same thing can be true musically.

Not Enough of Nothing

It’s 1954, two years after the debut of 433“. Cage and Tudor are scheduled to perform at the Donaueschingen music festival in Germany that September. In October, Cage will go on to speak at the Composers’ Concourse in London. He expects to have time to prepare the London talk while he and Tudor sail to Europe. But the ship collides with another vessel and returns to port, and Cage and Tudor are forced to fly to Amsterdam. Cage loses his anticipated free time to write.

As he relates in his book Silence, he feverishly pieced together the speech in trains and hotel lobbies and restaurants during his European tour. The London talk, “45′ for a Speaker,” uses chance operations to wedge together fragments of earlier texts and new realizations. Huang Po’s instructions to let go of thoughts interpenetrate with comments on chance and the I Ching, and occasional phrases from “Lecture on Nothing” and “Lecture on Something.”

This talk is something of a chopped salad, so it’s intriguing that Suzuki’s teachings on zero are flavoring Cage’s thinking. In “45′ for a Speaker,” Cage has noticed the emptiness of the categories and rules advocated by Schoenberg and the proponents of twelve-tone music.

However there is a story I have found very helpful. What’s so interesting about technique anyway? What if there are twelve tones in a row? What row? This seeing of cause and effect is not emphasized but instead one makes an identification with what is here and now. He then spoke of two qualities. Unimpededness and Interpenetration.

What if there are twelve tones in a row? What row?”—Could Cage have written that observation without Suzuki’s lectures on the Heart Sutra?

Cage adds instructions to the talk—“Bang fist on table”—“Yawn”—“Lean on elbow”—that must have turned the piece into performance art. These nonsensical actions are scattered among phrases from his great turning moments, such as the one in the anechoic chamber:


is what interests everyone and fortunately

it is wherever you are and there is

no place where it isn’t. Highest truth,

that is.

From “Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists,” by Kay Larson, published by The Penguin Press, 2012


Kay Larson

Kay Larson

Kay Larson is an art critic and the author of Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists (Penguin Press), an NPR Best Book of 2012.