60 Years On, Exploring Resonance Between John Cage And Japan

John Cage’s trip to Japan in 1962 had a striking impact on the composer and the culture he came to revere. (Photo by Yasuhiro Yoshioka, Courtesy of Sogetsu Foundation)

NEW YORK — In 1962, composer John Cage stepped off a plane in Tokyo and into an artistic and philosophical dialogue that continues to resound. A 20th-century musical giant known for his pioneering use of indeterminacy, or chance, in composition, Cage found communion with Zen Buddhism and traditional Japanese aesthetics, as well as ready collaborators in the Japanese musical and artistic luminaries of the time.

Yoko Shioya, artistic director of the Japan Society in Manhattan, noticed that despite the well-known impact of this exchange, no concerts in Cage’s hometown have ever focused on it: “I’ve lived in this city for 35 years. I’ve exposed myself to the contemporary and the experimental and never seen it.”

In fall 2023, the Japan Society is breaking the silence with “John Cage’s Japan,” a first-of-its-kind festival commemorating the composer’s legendary first visit. In four performances over four months, it will explore Cage’s music and ideas from this time with innovative performances by leading international artists — both Eastern and Western — across music, dance, science, and theater. New Cage-inspired works will expand on his inventive use of graphic notation and technology and bring the composer into the 21st century.

The series is also notable for its focus on Cage’s music, often less celebrated by classical musicians than by poets, philosophers, and visual artists, who were also the chief attendees of his lectures at the New School. Yet as Cage scholar James Pritchett, who will lead talks ahead of the Oct. 21 and Dec. 7 performances, notes, “It’s hard to imagine the new music world without Cage. That opening of doors, opening of mind…you just don’t hear the same way after encountering Cage’s music. It changes the way you think about what’s possible.” The festival presents a portrait of a rigorous composer who turned music itself on its head to help people learn to listen.

The series begins with Cage Shuffle (Sept. 28-29), a solo dance piece created and performed by actor and director Paul Lazar. He speaks a series of one-minute stories by Cage from his 1963 score Indeterminacy while simultaneously performing choreography by Annie-B Parson (also Lazar’s spouse and co-founder-director of the company Big Dance Theater).

John Cage leading an ensemble on Japanese TV in 1962 (Courtesy of Sogetsu Foundation)

Contrary to popular conception, Cage’s practice was built on structure and discipline, not chaos — embracing the openness of chance within intentional boundaries. Cage’s original instructions for Indeterminacy were for some of the 90 vignettes to be read in any order of the performer’s choosing, or as determined by chance (try it yourself here), and either with musical accompaniment, as in the case of his 1959 recording with pianist David Tudor, or without.

In Cage Shuffle, randomly ordered stories pipe from a playlist into Lazar’s earbuds as he accompanies himself with an unchanging, nonlinear dance sequence. The chance combinations of words and movements are unique every time but consistently create surprising, uncanny, even hilarious connections. Lazar points to the composer’s sense of uber-relationships and the idea that “these things will emerge, you don’t need to impose.”

Cage’s pithy anecdotes draw on a wealth of sources — personal experiences, the sayings of friends and philosophers — and are not unlike Japanese kōan, the short, paradoxical phrases used for meditation in Zen Buddhism. The stories are as wry as they are enlightening. (A perennial favorite: “My aunt said, ‘I love this washing machine more than your uncle.'”) According to Lazar, “The stories are the performer in him. They’re so seductive.” They show a more disarming side of a composer who had no qualms writing uncomfortably long periods of silence and being “totally maddening to audiences, sitting there not seduced at all.”

Shioya attended Lazar’s 2017 premiere performance of Cage Shuffle and was surprised to catch references to many Japanese scholars, musicians, and artists. For the Japan Society performance, they have chosen from Cage’s 90 stories only content related to Japan; some of which Lazar has never performed as part of Cage Shuffle before. 

The “playful rogue” aspect of Cage’s personality, Lazar says, felt relatable and gave him an initial entry point to the texts. Now, “after hearing him whisper in my year for six years, I feel like I know him on a cellular level.” The sustained impact of the material, and of Cage’s disciplined pursuit of what he called “purposeful purposelessness,” has been creatively liberating. “That paradox is when I know I’m in a rich place artistically.”

Yoko Shioya, artistic director of the Japan Society, is filling in a gap by presenting ‘John Cage’s Japan.’

The series continues with three concerts curated by Tomomi Adachi, a performer, composer, renowned Cage expert, and deep explorer of the musical possibilities of notation and technology. Ryoanji (Oct. 21) takes listeners to the Ryoanji Temple in Kyoto, Japan, home to a globally treasured Zen rock garden. This enigmatic collection of 15 stones, carefully placed on a landscape of raked white sand, has inspired countless artists; in 1983, Cage created a set of drawings by positioning 15 stones on paper with chance operations and tracing around them with pencil. Cage later used this concept to render a graphic score for his composition Ryoanji, in which an individual instrument represents each stone. Each soloist responds to the contours of the shapes with sounds of their choosing, while obbligato percussion lays a foundation of sand.

Adachi describes Cage’s scores as more of “a catalyst” or set of instructions than a fixed object, and in this vein he will present two iterations of Ryoanji. First, the International Contemporary Ensemble will perform the piece as Cage conceived it, with the added innovation that two traditional Japanese musicians will perform live with them over Zoom from Kanazawa City, Japan; in the Cagean spirit, any lack of synchronization will be not problematic, but equally valuable.

The second version of Ryoanji expands Cage’s ideas of chance and experimental technology. It started with Adachi asking a question: What would happen if the stones, fixed on the score, move? “If you follow the idea of John Cage, the stones could be everywhere.” To explore this, interactive computer graphics created by Tsutomu Fujinami, a researcher at the Japan Advanced Institute of Science and Technology, will provide a “three-dimensional translation of the garden, generating the stones in the space without gravity,” Adachi says. Projected behind the performers, the dynamic images will react to their sounds in real time during the first performance of Ryoanji, and the results will become the visual score for the second.

Adachi — who cites Cage as his single most significant artistic influence, though his own music is quite different — approaches the series from a place of cultural and creative tension with Cage. He says it’s impossible to isolate the Japan-Cage exchange from its post-World War II context, and the idea that Cage helped re-introduce Japanese artists to the traditional aesthetics they had rejected. However, this was not without misperceptions; for one, he believed that the placement of the Ryonaji garden’s stones could be random. “From the Japanese side, his idea is not correct. But at the same time I have to say, as an artist, that his misunderstanding is really interesting. It’s much more creative.” And Adachi wants to have the conversation. “Cage discovered the Japanese aesthetic of silence. We [the Japanese] shut up. But I want to talk about it.”

Tomomi Adachi, curator of three concerts at the Japan Society (Photo by Takayuki Imai, Aichi Triennale 2022)

The series takes another experimental step with the premiere of Adachi’s composition Noh-opera/Noh-tation (Nov. 16), inspired by Cage’s last, unfinished concept for a commission in Japan. Few details about his plan exist, but Cage meant to blend Japanese Noh theater with Western opera traditions and stage all the musical works of his late friend and idol, the conceptual artist Marcel Duchamp, in a sort of career culmination for both.

Adachi is again using Cage’s ideas as a launchpad.  “I want to put many of his ideas into one piece. And I want to put this whole process on the stage.” This begins with building an original instrument as part of the performance. Adachi will prepare a crossed-string stucture to be played by multiple performers at once — ”the most difficult technical part.”

Noh-opera/Noh-tation fuses operatic elements with Noh and features experimental vocalist and composer Gelsey Bell, the International Contemporary Ensemble, and Noh actor Wakako Matsuda. For the libretto, Adachi is using ChatGPT — a tool it’s easy to imagine Cage eagerly adopting — to build koan. He says the process has been revealing in that ChatGPT thinks like a Westerner and required some re-teaching about Zen.

The result of this chemistry will be the definition of undetermined. “Anything and everything is possible, you know, with that title.”

The series closes with Cage Shock (Dec. 7), an homage to the groundbreaking performances Cage gave in 1962 in Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka, and Sapporo with Tudor and a range of prominent Japanese artists and musicians who figured prominently in that transformative era for art internationally. This included Yoko Ono — whose work will be featured in Japan Society’s upcoming exhibit on the role of Japanese women in the Fluxus movement — and her first husband, the late Toshi Ichiyanagi, the eminent Japanese composer and Cage’s close colleague. Cage Shock features a performance of Ichiyanagi’s Sapporo, of which Cage conducted the 1962 premiere.

The title “Cage Shock” refers to the widely used media description of Cage’s trip and his reception in Japan, plus a later series of recordings. The term poses a central inquiry and gives some cause for debate: Who exactly shocked whom? Scholars, artists involved at that time, and those involved with John Cage’s Japan note that the “buzzword” oversimplifies a creative exchange in which no one was dominating, and overlooks the contributions of Japanese artists to what was already a vibrant avant-garde.

Yasunao Tone, a member of the postwar Japanese improvisation collective Group Ongaku, referred to “Cage Shock” as “hogwash!…Japanese people accepted [Cage’s music and ideas] with relative ease. After all, Cage himself said that Japan was the first country to recognize and understand what he was doing.” (Meanwhile, according to Ichiyanagi, the Japanese were shocked that Cage “acted like a Buddhist monk. That was very striking for us. In Japan, Buddhist monks and ordinary people are very separated. But Americans can bring the same ideas to their lives and their professions.”)

John Cage appearing on Japanese TV in 1962 (Yasuhiro Yoshioka, Courtesy of Sogetsu Foundation)

A particularly notable work on the program is 0’0” (4’33” No. 2), which Pritchett describes as an exciting inflection point in Cage’s work. The original 4’33,” his most famous/infamous silent composition, “was in many ways a traditional musical composition: it had a title; it had a composer; it had fixed boundaries; it was measured out in time with a clear beginning, middle, and ending.”

In contrast, Cage’s score for 0’0,” dedicated to Ichiyanagi and Ono, consists of a single sentence: “In a situation provided with maximum amplification (no feedback), perform a disciplined action.” (Cage gave the premiere performance by writing out this instruction itself.) With no acknowledgement of time or sound, it erases the composer completely and turns us to our own experience. As Cage explained, “What the piece tries to say is that everything we do is music, or can become music through the use of microphones.”

Adachi will perform 0’0” and has not yet chosen an action. “For now, I’m not thinking anything about it, and I will decide what I will do after my arrival in New York. This part, I want to keep it open. What I will think in that moment.”

Like Cage’s music, the Japan Society series will contain many layers of thoughtful, cerebral connections — and require none of this knowledge or explanation to experience. Shioya says, “I want it to open your mind. And if you already know about John Cage, give you another perspective.”

“Cage is a different artist depending on the moment you look at the work,” Lazar says. “I’m excited that the art and philosophy of Cage will hit against the spirit of the moment we’re in right now. There’s a tremendous emphasis on sculpted message, in being on-message, in specific messages being expressed to articulate a sociopolitical position.

“To have Cage happen to you in this moment…for an artist to reawaken us to the effect of randomness of what’s present when we don’t interfere…I’m curious what that alchemy would be. I wouldn’t predetermine it.”