John Cage on Emptiness, Silence, and Intention.

Writer and art expert Dean Rolston interviewed John Cage on the occasion of a five-day tribute at Stanford University marking the composer’s 80th birthday.

Dean Rolston1 November 1994
Photo by Martin.

Writer and art expert Dean Rolston interviewed John Cage on the occasion of a five-day tribute at Stanford University marking the composer’s 80th birthday. Dean Rolston, a well-known member of the San Francisco Zen Center community and author of Remembering Dying: A Mahayana Perspective on AIDS, died of AIDS complications on July 20 of 1994. Dean was a kind contributor and supporter of the Shambhala Sun and we are pleased to present this interview in honor of him. Om Amitabaya Hrih.

Dean Rolston: Why do you suppose that silence is so potent, if form is emptiness and emptiness is form? Wouldn’t it…I mean one could interchange, presumably, silence with activity.

John Cage: Yes—I don’t know, I live in silence and my work is with music. They don’t seem to be opposed to one another.

Do you think directing attention to silence causes some kind of synthesis? — of form and emptiness?

Yes.

In a way that directing attention to form can’t do?

I would begin with silence, that is to say I would begin with sounds I don’t intend in order to write a score. It isn’t exactly sound that I intend.

Why begin in silence rather than with…?

Because of non-intention.

Could you expand on that a little?

It’s that that includes everything else which I….

Ah… non-intention is allowing accidents to happen?

Or the intentions of others.

If you get to a point where you’re so ill or old that you can no longer return to your kind of classical form, which for you might be writing music, or sitting zazen, or something, what can you do to cultivate the optimum state of mind, say, buddha-mind?

You mean, an accepting form of mind?

Mmmm, uh-huh…

Well, I’m learning more about that as I get older.

Do you find that the relative lack of energy makes you angry?

I don’t have that, the lack of energy, yet.

I think this is called leading the witness, but do you see the nature of chance as being identical to or related to the idea of karma; what causes any individual operation of chance to take its particular form?

What I mean to say is that it doesn’t matter what form it takes—that all forms could be taken….

But do you not find that the actual forms that manifest are instructive?

All forms are instructive.

Equally instructive?

It seems to me so.

So have you been able to eliminate your likes and dislikes?

That’s what I’m working on. I don’t find it tricky, in say, working with music or making etchings. I can see that particularly when you say “getting older,” that there might be problems….

Do you have any suggestion about how to neutralize one’s aversions, or predilections?

Look at yourself, when you encounter an inner objection, ask what the basis of it is, and I think if you ask it seriously enough….

[Interview interrupted]

It was so nice to meet you.

Nice to meet you too.