Dissertation Index

Author: Nelson, Mark, D

Title: Quieting the Mind, Manifesting Mind: The Zen Buddhist Roots of John Cage's Early Chance-Determined and Indeterminate Compositions

Institution: Princeton University

Begun: June 1989

Completed: February 1995


In the course of his engagement with Zen Buddhism in the early 1950's, John Cage began to regard music as a discipline comparable to sitting meditation. Music, he discovered, could function as a vehicle with which one might curb the inveterate thinking that artificially separates human beings from the 'divine' flood of perceptual experience. Cage aspired to immerse musicians and listeners in this flood. He turned to chance operations as essential aids with which to minimize ego-involvement in determining musical continuity; and the radical alterations of his methods for harnessing chance paralleled substantial refinements of his aesthetic creed.

After examining fundamental tenets of Zen Buddhist thought, this paper considers Cageian assimilations of that thought, with particular focus upon 'nothing,' the composer's adaptation of the Zen concept of 'emptiness'. Such philosophical ground is then used as the basis for integrated discussion of the synergic evolutions of Cage's aesthetic perspective and musical style in 1948-1960. The indeterminate scores -- which may be viewed as challenging puzzles for David Tudor, as incipient 'circus situations,' and as utterly flexible tools facilitating the mining of any facet of the unpredictable and manifold universe -- are portrayed as apotheoses of Cage's Zen-informed activity of the 1950's.

Keywords: indeterminacy, chance, Zen Buddhism, non-intention, I Ching, Variations


Chapter 1 Reconsidering Music's Purposes
Chapter 2 Zen Buddhism
Chapter 3 Cageian Echoes of Zen Buddhist Doctrine
Chapter 4 Accomplishing Nothing, Educing Nothing
Chapter 5 Early Glimpses of Non-Intention
Chapter 6 First Freedoms from the 'accretions of habits and tastes': Concerto for Prepared Piano and Chamber Orchestra
Chapter 7 Charts, Chance
Chapter 8 'the music is there befOre /it is writteN: Music for Piano (Indeterminacy I)
Chapter 9 The Synthesis of the Time-Length Pieces
Chapter 10 Enacting Process: Indeterminacy II


3042 Shore Drive
Crawfordsville, IN 47933
Voice: 317 866-1552
Mark Nelson
Department of Music, Wabash College

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