A leading voice of the post-war avant-garde, John Cage (1912-1992) was a composer, philosopher, poet, visual artist, amateur mycologist, and longtime Buddhist devotee, whose enormous influence throughout the arts cannot be overstated.
Widely revered as an innovator in the non-standard use and ”preparation” of musical instruments, indeterminacy, chance-based, and electroacoustic music, John Cage was perhaps both the most provocative and the most influential American composer of the 20th century. His ideas would spread well beyond the music field, however. In John Cage's approach to composition, whether in performance or the visual arts, the role of the artist was not to dictate the outcome of a work, but to give space for the influence of chance.
John Cage encountered Zen Buddhism in the early 1950s, through the works of Aldous Huxley and the lectures and writings of Japanese Buddhist scholar and thinker Daisetsu Teitarō Suzuki. He taught at Black Mountain College in the summers of 1948 and 1952 and was in residence there during the summer of 1953. While at BMC, he organized what has been credited as the first-ever “Happening”, Theater Piece No. 1 (1952), that put to use many of Cage's ideas of chance and indeterminacy. The interdisciplinary, multi-layered, performance event took place in BCM's communal dining hall with Cage lecturing on music and reading from the ninth-century Chinese Buddhist classic Huang-Po Doctrine of Universal Mind, while now legendary participants, including artists Robert Rauschenberg, composer David Tudor, poets Charles Olson and M.C. Richards, and the choreographer/dancer (and Cage's lifelong partner) Merce Cunningham, performed independently. These “Happenings,” that abandoned the traditional concept of stage-audience, and occur without a sense of definite duration, would become commonplace in the development of contemporary art in the following decades.
According to Cage, “What I do, I do not wish [to be] blamed on Zen, though without my engagement with Zen I doubt whether I would have done what I have done.” As the exhibition title and John Cage's own words make clear, he wished only “to free Zen of any responsibility for [his] actions,” yet its profound influence continues to be seen, heard, and experienced through his work and the work of his friends and countless followers.
The New Yorker: Searching for Silence
NPR: The Story of 4'33"
Britannica: John Cage
John Cage's 4'33"