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A Fruitful Connection: JOHN CAGE, ZEAMI, AND GAGAKU


Notes on the unity of style in Japanese Art






This paper has been discussed at the Conference on "Shodo. The Art of Japanese Calligraphy", organized by the Department for Asian Studies, Contemporary Arts Archive, "Centro ligure di studi orientali". It has been published in a book with the same title, edited by E. Patella, A de Simone, and G. Maggio (pp. 153-7).



"I consider that a man is "blind to meaning" when he cannot learn to use these words: "to see a sign as an arrow".

It is no use in saying to him: "You must seek to see it as an arrow"; then, you cannot help him."

L. Wittgenstein, Remarks on the Philosophy of Psychology, n. 344.


"The weak sound of water, that (in Basho's haiku) does not have the minimum aesthetic meaning, and that does not produce any meaning in aesthetics, since it finds its access to the knowing and creative subject, evokes the perceivable meeting between subject and object, which brings about a metaphysical field of absolute present concerning the perceivable time and space."

K. Nishida, Nihon bunka no mondai



There is an interchangeability between works and verses. First, Japan gives up to China; then, to the West. America is the background of Samurais, among CD-Roms and soundtracks for inattentive listeners, mangas, and subways. It is a restoration which is sealed in music, at least starting from our century which is turning to the end. An American composer is a symbol for this process, and reveals his Chinese and Japanese intentions. John Cage is the possibility of a transformation of consciousness.


The I Ching or Chou I is the bridge that drives Cage to Zen. In an ever-changing universe, the rules of composition are written by chance. As well as Jung does, Cage throws the stalks for consultation, and brings about the course of his compositions: the introduction, as well as the development and the orchestration.

If you look at any hexagram of the "Book of Transformations", this will change into another all of sudden. And the series continues in order to return to the beginning, the Heaven (t'ien) from which everybody was born.

Cage knows it, and he accepts the unlawful unexpectedness, from which all laws were born. It is as if he had always known the basic principle of Japanese taste for music, which expresses the power of metamorphosis of the I Ching: you need to abandon yourself to improvisation, even though you have a solid structure to grant its reliability. No dualistic dynamics was ever more incisive than this. The raga structure, too, is second to this one, since it accepts dissonance.

In fact, dissonance passes over modality, and goes towards tonal music. It lets space to oppositions and judgements.

Cage draws the sequence of the notes to be used, in order not to be troubled by his personal preferences. You need to say that, in Japan, with the rejection of the improvisation which is an end in itself, the player is subjected to a transpersonal structure which will grant his good faith, let alone its efficacy.


Why do we have to think? It is the logic of mushin, the way of thinking about "not", the loss, the dismay of a bottomless abyss, which has us made free. We are artists, first before than inventors.

We are satisfied with the sounds that surround us, which make artistic creation something superfluous, or which reveal its will to power.

We are bewildered because of the rigour of the structures of Japanese art. And we believe that an haiku is the fruit of instantaneous work, or we admire its anti-conformistic developments in this century.

Both Cage's compositions and haikus are built. Music overcomes all: it is not a narrow space, but extends to the point of including the meter of poetry in itself. Otherwise, how could you fathom its crystal depth? Hadn't we better to give up ourselves to sounds, and to let they may prevail over us?

If we allow sounds to be what they are, we may find a little bit of shizen.

We don't interfere with flowing. Cage closes himself into an echoless room. He would suppress acoustics, and yet he perceives two well clear sounds: the basso continuo of his heart and the mild shakuhachi of his breathing.


Another suggestion concerns beauty. We are less troubled by it, since Japanese waves jumped over the seas of Western imaginery. An awry house, with its walls that seem to be a teahouse of the Middle Ages, can attract us, allowing us to taste a pure and typical Japanese style. Such house is better than a well-adorned ceiling, filled with "pleasant" frills.

We pursue less the taste for pleasant things, and end up accepting the Unheimliche. It frights us, because of its friendliness mixted with a hue of detachment.

It is very strange that the inhabitants of another planet, i.e., the Japanese, consider the unpleasant to be pleasant, or that they may love monotony, the plain, the stale aspect of a patina of dust.

Grotesque, dreary, and discordant things must have their place in the universe, because Far Eastern aesthetics of beauty admits wide margins and traces, in order to allow itself to size the chance that is the same as life and the world of nature.

When we edit a musical composition, we destroy its spontaneity. We cannot believe that the second track of a solo may improve the quality of a song. An haiku is edited without his author may know it.

We escape from the opposition between freedom and necessity, upon which Aristotelian aesthetics is built. And we substitute it with the thrill of a project of Dionysian rigour.

The listener may feel that the flowing of notes is chaotic; however, if he listens to it more carefully, he will be no longer shocked: an order and a cycle show themselves. A loop emerges slowly, without emphasis.

How about the flowing of notes? Thanks to Hakuin, the sound of the one hand accepts the roar of silence. In Japanese music, notes are distributed throughout all the bars and with the same legitimacy and pretension. If we reduce all that to the untold, we simplify the process. A pause is marked with great ability. By means of mushin, a musician does not think as follows: "Now I will play a pause lasting 2/4"; instead, he lets that the flowing stops itself. To describe what overcomes word, or the cessation of sounds, is very difficult. Often, we do not take it into account, and yet silence takes over our life. Cage assigns its space to it, letting it to be. It is not the wu-wei, but rather a concession to the manifold richness of nature in perfect Japanese style. In fact, Shinto is the way of gods.

All this may be expressed through the fragments of a conversation. Cage was questioned about the best way of getting a kind of continuity in the art of musical composition. He answered: "The best: don't care about it at all." It was the indication of a method, or a way o life.

There is no violence in Japanese world and in its rules of composition. There is a great attention to nature and its processes. There is no fierceness. Some traditional stereotypes of the Japanese imago, being an effect of cultural chauvinism, have to be removed.


On the field of theatre, Zeami describes these rules carefully, so that even an inattentive person may learn them by heart.

a. You must produce a flower, that is, the core of recitation. An actor is aware that he is creating something, and yet he is the demiurge of the fates of aesthetics.

b. You must produce yugen. It is not a goal of a project. It is a double-bind: an axiom imposes what its corollary forbids to do.

c. You must conform yourselves to the present time, which is the only way of living in the moment. The important thing is not the respect for conventions, but the obligatory, and right detachment from tradition. However, in the end, the past time triumphs.

d. You must be cautious with the use of foreign words. From a musical point of view, this is prescribed by the economy of dissonance, when attained through an acoustic flowing that controls its excesses.

e. If you devote yourself to the spirit of gain, you artistic bents are destroyed. An ethical reason is not in question, but rather the betrayal of disinterest; in Cage, it is the sovereign.



There are in Cage's world some exaggerations that the dialectics between sound and silence in Japanese music does not accept: there is a certain level of naivety that is not to be shared. 4' 33" has only pauses. However, the needle of a record player draws up a furrow, and it can be perceived. The crackle of a record player shares the nature of noise. We ignore the effect of such composition played on a Compact disc. In a concert, a player turns the pages of sheet music, bringing about more or less perceived sounds.

With less naivety, Zeami does not furnish the stage with a complete candour, but he allows it to live along with other chromatisms. Yugen may be perceived, as well as when a heron is flying with a flower in its mouth. This is a realistic view: the bird knows that it is cooperating with darkness, since it cannot dominate the scene alone.

The author of the "Poem of the Samadhi of the Precious Mirror" (Pao-ching san-mei ko) puts it as follows:


"A plenty of snow into silver cups,

herons are hidden by the shining moon,

they are unalike things which seem alike:

confusion is the place for knowledge."

See L. Arena (edited by), Antologia del Buddhismo Ch'an, Milan, p. 178.


When we approach ourselves to another culture, we risk projection. We can see it as Heaven, and clean it from its faults and excesses. Juxtaposition is an hermeneutical process which we cannot escape from.

A Westerner exposes himself to danger, but he recognizes it as such. He is seeking for interstices, and is not satisfied with plain linearity. After all, the pursuing of silence is consolatory: it protects us from worrying, and from the anxiety for a blank pentagram when a compositor has "no notes into his mind".

We may turn to the Chapter 11 of the Tao-te-ching, in order to find an example of mushin, and to see how it has been accepted in Japanese musical sphere, much more careful of pauses than the Chinese one, where the way of singing prevails. The most convincing and thrilling model remains Gagaku.

Be it instrumental, vocal, or adapted to dance, this genre allows us to perceive the meeting of sound and emptiness. It becomes a bridge, a window, a jar or a spoke, as in Lao-tzu's metaphors. Every instrument is assigned its fixed role, and it wants to be respected; or it serves its function of the moment. The intersection of reeds and the oboe brings about an "heterophonic" melody, that aims at harmonizing with sho instruments (that is, a kind of mouth-organ). In the meantime, the koto and the biwa are flirting melodically, supporting modes. In the end, the gongs and percussion instruments return to beat time, and yet glance at eternity much more than the other instruments of the orchestra. The effect is bewildering, but only because our ears are not used to it.



Gagaku and Cage may seem similar, just because of their differences. Gagaku accepts noise, while a melody furnishes it with a kind of contrappunto; if we say so, we betray our Western origins, and may be misunderstood. And yet, this other music works just as Cage's: it is not confined to ears, to a series of articulated intervals. The mode is distorted, because drums, too, creep into it. This phenomenon, too, finds its legitimation from listening rather than description.

There is a rich quantity of sounds in the universe, which is much wider than scales or modes present it to us. Cage writes various versions of Imaginary Landscape in order to show this assertion, or he moves the knob of a radio set in order to tape everything and give it a name. It is not the apology of iconoclastics, which Japanese would reject, but rather a sheer opening to what I call nonsense, the space between meaning and its absence; it cannot be listed in a catalogue of ideas.

The Japanese elaboration of Gagaku, which already had some Chinese traits, opens to nonsense, showing the exorcism of nakedness. There is a code, after all, which hinders incisiveness in art. In Japan, the naturalistic appeal to Shinto gives a different meaning to this genre, which becomes the waiting for the inevitable. To Western ears, Gagaku seems to be an infinite transposition of Beckett's "Waiting for Godot". Meanwhile, meaning vanishes, up to the point where noise takes over the scene; there is an alternation between silence and sound, that every software would be able to reproduce at will. Its sequences seem to be free, as if they happen by chance, since the bars and the loop follow one another in far distances, challenging every analogy with Western patterns.

The beautiful is put into parentheses once more, but not in favour of the disadorned, but rather of the hiss, which expresses the way of thinking of not. I'm aware that there is no grammar or lexicography suitable to Japanese philosophical words. While we are waiting for its formulation, mu will be meant as nothing, and ku only as emptiness. This is not a remark addressed to inattentive persons, but rather a protection against sterotypes and trivialities. I'm proposing to eliminate the word "emptiness" from a philosophy that pretends to be comparative, or an aesthetics that becomes planetary.


Does composing music have an aim? How can we answer such question? We may say that there is no aim, as well as picking up mushrooms has no aim; so, we remain in John Cage's fields. Mycology is the fruit of the attention for the world of nature, provided it doesn't become a sheer scientific affair. You might say that he who picks up mushrooms does not confine himself to observe them; then, we would get rid of the wu-wei, in a sense. However, I don't think that such objection is good.


Taoism seems not to be evaluated enough in Japan. However, it may be found in the heart/mind (kokoro) of every Japanese person. From this point of view, a Zen garden does not overcome a plain kitchen garden.

In Gagaku, percussive pulsation is the core of the play, its climax, only because it allows us not to define notes distinctly. It is the same way of thinking of fuzzy logic, that Cage also follows, at least in the Concert for Prepared Piano and Chamber Orchestra.


I'm still not ripe for non-interpretation, as Zeami puts it, since I'm not 50 years old as yet. However, I accept his suggestion, and I'm ready for leaving behind exorcists of nakedness. It is a way of asserting the validity of No theatre's gestures. In the context of contemporary classical music is the same: after a while, you may forget laws, and advance by yourself, inventing other ones, or introjecting the traditional ones, which you have absorbed and put in far corners of your minds.

The art of no-interpretation reaches its peak in the space between the yin and the yang, in a kind of equilibrium which one may only get for a moment. This is nonsense, as the field where one may create through incompleteness in both ethics and aesthetics. This is also Zeami's perfection. In Cage's opinion, when a yin environment produces a yang one, and vice versa, you have a situation like this. The same principle is good in haiku or in painting. A white paper is furnished with a verse in the background; it represents the analogon of the "discontinuous continuity" as the non-finalistic aim of Cage's composition, or of the amazing meeting of rhythms and melodies in Gagaku.

The secret is revealed only by chance, when everything seems to be chaotic or cacophonic: in a yin environment, you may play with feeling, introducing the yang element into a torpor that would not receive it, or would produce it by itself through its own qualities. Is this not the essence of Gagaku, when boredom seems to penetrate and invalidate every artistic pretension? Cage exorcizes it, considering boredom to be a mark of richness, and binding it to a perception that shows it still more. It is a situation completely different from that of Schopenhauer's, or Leopardi's, where boredom is the negative, the pause of a wish which is waiting for its rebirth. Here, both in Cage and Gagaku, instead of imposing itself as the limbic anteroom of pain, boredom can even produce the novelty of repetition by means of the hug between the sensible and the mind: after all, it shows the glut of art.


The art. Every process has a beginning, a development, and an end. It is the program of No theatre, as the opening to possibility, according to Chinese etymology. The usual dialectical axiom is followed, according to which the opposite may combine themselves in unity, in order to realize their respective forces: the male combines with the female, and life combines with death.

Cage's art does not seem to be influenced by the three aspects that Zeami, the Japanese Aristotle, considers to be the pillars of good taste, or of daily events. The Japanese mind considers speculation to be the same as imagination. Such being the case, what is the use of Nishida? Is he not a Western type who writes for Western types?

As for me, I accept Richard Rorty's suggestion, and I don't run after Indian Platos, Chinese Hume (such as Wang Ch'ung), or Japanese Heideggers. I'm interesting in they who, in the art of the Far East, undoes the cloths of wise men. In fact, there are some who avoid the exorcism of nakedness. They are Japanese Rabelaises, or Chinese Nietzsches (such as Chuang-tzu).

I evaluate Zeami's yugen, or Cage's daimon. Both show their indifference, which, however, is not absence of rigour. It calls for living fullness, the attention for mushrooms and blank stages, from which even mud shines. The beauty of a marsh flower, that nobody admires, leads us into a new land, and hints at a stylistic unity that cannot avoid connections any longer. In the art of global village, the flower and the mushroom meet one another, and they speak a lot about a world of analogies and correspondences, which are historical and theoretical. We may learn from experience and our attitudes. We know that America gives back to the East all that it has taken from it. Let's take a look at the Rolling Stones, who give back to John Lee Hooker all that have taken from him; I think to their sophisticated elaborations of the classics of black-american blues.

We may learn a way of life, a do, which really belongs to us. As Zeami's pupils, we may find our own path through comparison. Then, we don't have to be closed to it, and must pass over the threshold. Our guide will be Yin of the pass, since we follow ourselves, after all.




Essential Bibliography


Arena L. V., Del nonsense, Urbino 1997.

Arena L. V., Diario zen, Milan 1995.

Bruell L, Die japanische Philosophie, Darmstadt 1989.

Cage J., Per gli uccelli, Milan 1977.

Cage J., Silenzio, Milan 1981, Third Printing.

Derrida J., La dissémination, Paris 1972.

Izutsu Toshihiko and Toyo, The Theory of Beauty in the Classical Aesthetics of Japan, The Hague/Boston/London 1981.

Kuki Shuzo, La struttura dell'iki (Iki no shuzo), Milan 1992.

Nakamura H., Ways of Thinking of Eastern Peoples, edited by P. P. Wiener, Honolulu 1964.

Rorty R., Essays on Heidegger and Other Philosophical Papers, II, Cambridge 1991.

Schinzinger R., Japanisches Denken, Berlin 1983.

Suzuki D. T., Zen and Japanese Culture, Princeton (N. J.) 1959.

Zeami Motokiyo, La tradition secrète du No, edited by R. Sieffert and Watanabe Kazuo, Paris 1960.


A bit of Discography


Groupe Yonin no kai, Tokyo, Japon 4, Jiuta, Radio France, Ocora 1982.

Japon: Gagaku, Radio France, Ocora 1988.

Simonetti G. E., 4' 33'', Cramps CRSLP 6101.

Takahashi Y., Concert for Prepared Piano and Chamber Orchestra (Buffalo Philarmonic Orchestra, directed by L. Foss), Nonesuch H 71202.