John Cage Shock: When Japan Fell for Cage and Vice Versa

After a 1962 visit, a mutual love affair began between the composer and the country’s musicians. A new series at the Japan Society explores this relationship.

About 30 miles south of Tokyo is the city of Kamakura, where the American composer John Cage was taken soon after arriving on his first visit to Japan, in 1962.

There, D.T. Suzuki, the Zen authority from whom Cage had learned about Buddhism a decade earlier, greeted him and his close collaborator David Tudor at Tokei-ji, an ancient temple. Cage was given special permission to ring the temple bell; a photograph captures him inside the bell, slightly bent over and smiling a little as he listens to the reverberations.

As Serena Yang writes in a recent dissertation on Cage and Japan, the discussion at Tokei-ji turned to the music of a Zen ceremony at another temple, near Kyoto. Cage exclaimed “this ceremony must be dominated by silence” — in other words, it must be similar to the works that had, by then, made him one of the world’s most important experimental composers.

The similarity was, indeed, profound. The overlap between Cage and Japan went deep; for us today, suspicious of appropriation, it is a precious example of a truly mutual cultural exchange. And it has inspired a four-part series at the Japan Society in New York that begins on Sept. 28 and continues into December.

Cage’s vision of life and music — his embrace of indeterminacy and chance; his use of and trust in silence — was shaped by Japanese philosophy, religion and aesthetics. And the influence of his 1962 visit on Japanese composers was such that it came to be referred to as “Jon Keji shokku”: John Cage Shock.

His liberating example helped those composers — who had largely been in thrall to European modernism in the years after World War II — broaden their style, including to use traditional music as source material.

John Cage conducting Toshi Ichiyanagi’s “Sapporo” at Hokkaido Broadcasting Company in 1962. From left: Yoko Ono, Yuji Takahashi (behind her), Kenji Kobayashi, Ryu Noguchi, Toshinari Ohashi, Toru Konishi, John Cage (with his back to camera), David Tudor and Ichiyanagi at the piano.Yasuhiro Yoshioka, via Sogetsu Foundation

“I think that what we played for them gave them the chance to discover a music that was their own, rather than a 12-tone music,” Cage said, referring to the radical path away from traditional tonality that Arnold Schoenberg had charted a few decades earlier. “Before our arrival, they had no alternative other than dodecaphony.”

Toru Takemitsu, the eminent composer who became close with Cage, later recalled: “In my own life, in my own development, for a long period I struggled to avoid being ‘Japanese,’ to avoid ‘Japanese’ qualities. It was largely through my contact with John Cage that I came to recognize the value of my own tradition.”

As Yang emphasizes, the meeting of Cage and Japan did not begin with his arrival in 1962. Avant-garde Japanese musicians had been aware of Cage, who was born in 1912, from the late ’40s, through journalistic accounts of his work and, eventually, scores.

“I felt an ‘Eastern’ sense from Cage’s music,” the composer Kejiro Sato wrote in the mid-’50s.

In a 1952 letter to the critic Kuniharu Akiyama, Cage wrote, “I have always had the desire to come one day to Japan.” He later wrote to Akiyama that Japan “is the country of the whole world whose art and thought has most vitality for me.”

After his early studies with Schoenberg, the prophet of 12-tone technique, Cage had undergone a transformation: a “great leap of the heart,” as the critic Kay Larson put it in “Where the Heart Beats,” her 2012 book on Cage and Zen. Starting in the mid-1940s, he delved into Indian music and philosophy; attended some of Suzuki’s American university lectures on Zen Buddhism; and discovered the “I Ching,” the Chinese text which he began to use as a stimulus for chance techniques in his music. His new course diverged from both tonality and dodecaphony.

In 1952, this great leap culminated in a piece that asked a pianist merely to sit at his or her instrument for four minutes and 33 seconds. The music would be all the sound in the performance space that was not music; “4’33,” Cage’s most famous artistic statement, was more a philosophical inquiry into the passage of time, the nature of silence and the distinction between individual and collective experience than a standard concert event.

As the ’50s went on, some of the fruits of his innovations began to filter into Japanese publications, which wrote about Cage’s embrace of Eastern art and ideas. Avant-garde critics observed that Cage’s musical choices (like his use of percussion rather than the traditional Western orchestra), his rhythms and his adoption of randomness as a compositional tool were influenced by Eastern examples, including the Japanese concept of “ma,” the notion of empty space or silence.

Cage at Nanzenji Temple in Kyoto in 1962. He would return to Japan many times after ’62, including with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company.Yasuhiro Yoshioka, via Sogetsu Foundation

For Cage, Zen was not only an aesthetic inspiration; it also spoke to his more general desire to re-energize a Western world he perceived as in serious crisis. At the 1954 Donaueschingen Festival in Germany, he told the critic Hidekazu Yoshida that “America is a mixed nation and has no unified spiritual basis. We rely on material culture and therefore have less and less spirituality. Yet I think the East is totally the opposite. My interest in Zen is based on my hope to recover Americans’ lost spirit.”

Inspired by Cage and by European musicians making similar investigations, such as Stockhausen, composers like Takemitsu, Toshiro Mayuzumi and Yuji Takahashi had begun to work with chance; graphic scores, rather than traditional Western notation; and Cagean instruments like the “prepared” piano, adjusted with objects that affected the sounding of its strings. A contemporary music festival in Osaka in 1961, which included works by Cage, brought his brand of indeterminate, malleable music to Japanese audiences for the first time. (The response was decidedly mixed.)

This all laid the groundwork for Takemitsu, Mayuzumi and Toshi Ichiyanagi, a composer who had studied with Cage in New York, to invite Cage to visit Japan, under the auspices of the Sogetsu Art Center in Tokyo, a nexus of experimental performance in the 1960s. He and Tudor spent six weeks there: In addition to their trip to Tokei-ji, they toured widely, including Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka and Sapporo; had the rare honor of viewing a geisha banquet; spent the night at a monastery; and even used a chance procedure to choose the color of a necktie to buy.

In Kyoto, they were shown the Zen temple Ryoanji, renowned for a rock garden with 15 stones arranged in a geometric pattern. Cage’s drawings based on the stones, made 20 years after the trip, inspired his highly mutable ensemble piece “Ryoanji,” which will be performed at the Japan Society on Oct. 21 — with some of the performers streaming live from Japan.

Cage and Tudor’s concerts during their visit had a galvanizing effect. Performing Cage’s “Music Walk” in Tokyo, Tudor lay under the piano; Yoko Ono, already an important artist and musician who was married to Ichiyanagi at the time, put her body on top on the piano strings. In “Theater Piece,” Tudor cooked rice and stir-fried, with contact microphones attached to objects around the stage: the cookware, a piano, toys.

For the premiere of “0’00,” a follow-up silence exercise to “4’33,” Cage sat at a desk and wrote a sentence: “In a situation provided with maximum amplification (no feedback), perform a disciplined action.” Contact microphones had been attached to his pen and glasses, so, as the Cage scholar James Pritchett writes, his action “was both the creation of the score and its first performance.”

“0’00,” dedicated to Ichiyanagi and Ono, will be among the works performed at the Japan Society on Dec. 7 in “Cage Shock,” a program meant to convey a sense of the 1962 visit. It was not until 1969 that Hidekazu Yoshida, the critic, used that phrase, and some have suggested it overstates the suddenness of what was actually a more gradual influence.

But it is clear that experimental work in a Cagean spirit grew more common in Japan after the visit. Even a composer like Makoto Moroi, who was skeptical about the 1962 performances, took to working with indeterminacy and graphic notation — as well as traditional Japanese instruments — in the wake of Cage Shock.

For Cage’s part, Yang writes that visiting the country “corrected his image of Japan. Where he had pictured a Zen-like, ancient Eastern country, he found a vibrant, modern society.” Both sides of the exchange had their ideas of the other refined and deepened.

Cage and Tudor returned to Japan two years later on tour with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, and again with Cunningham in 1976 — and then five times in the 1980s. His last visit, in 1989, was to receive the prestigious Kyoto Prize. The citation called him “a prophet who has foretold the spirit of the coming era” through “a new style of contemporary music by his new concept of chance music and non-western musical thought.”

By then, Cage was mulling what he called a “Noh-opera,” possibly to be based on works by Marcel Duchamp. But Cage died, in 1992, before he could realize the project. On Nov. 16 at the Japan Society, a team led by the composer and performer Tomomi Adachi will offer a kind of completion of the idea — which, like so much of Cage’s work, transcends traditional boundaries of genre and culture.

“It was Cage,” Takemitsu said, “who could ignore all restraints and do whatever he liked, who helped me make up my mind to get out of my own restraints.”

Source: Music -


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