Wednesday, 23 November 2016

"Man is a thinking reed..." ~ D T Suzuki and John Cage

Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki said
"Man is a thinking reed but his great works are done when he is not calculating and thinking.  'Childlikeness' has to be restored with long years of training in the art of self-forgetfulness.  When this is attained, man thinks yet he does not think.  He thinks like showers coming down from the sky; he thinks like the waves rolling on the ocean; he thinks like the stars illuminating the nightly heavens; he thinks like the green foliage shooting forth in the relaxing spring breeze.  Indeed, he is the showers, the ocean, the stars, the foliage."
Yes, yes, yes.  These words encapsulate much of my own feeling about what a good life well lived actually is.  And it seems to me that how ever far I may be from achieving this remarkably natural state that this is the point of it all, the whole purpose of life here on this good earth: to be in accord with the elements and drawing on the same all-pervading life force; not separate but part of the whole.

I came across this quotation in the book "Where the heart beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the inner life of artists" by Kay Larson (2012).  It appears on page 164.
The quotation is drawn from the book "A Zen Life: D. T. Suzuki Remembered" edited by Masao Abe (1986).

"Where the heart beats" is an exceptional book.  I came across it in the public library and enjoyed it so much that I bought a copy, an unusual treat.  It has been so worthwhile, as I often pick it up to remind myself of a very different way of looking at life.  Intertwined with this biography of John Cage, musician and composer, is the influence of Zen philosophy that came to shape his life and music.  I'm a compulsive problem-solver and creative thinker, so I find the Zen concepts of quieting the mind helpful.  I find it relaxing to take small rests from my usual busy thoughts and accept that I can just sit, just accept things as they are, and stop analysing and working things out, which is a relief!  This book is chock full of text that invites me to take a step back - in a good way.

I also found in it a raft of concepts that were new to me, and a fascinating history of the avante garde music, art and dance scene of the middle of last century, and the way in which Zen influenced all of that.  Congratulations to Kay Larson for writing this splendid chronicle.  

The story of John Cage's life is both fascinating and inspiring.  He lived and worked according to his inner principles and showed an enduring commitment to addressing intense and lasting difficulties both within himself and in his professional life.  In keeping with what I understand of Zen philosophy he does not seem to have drawn a distinction between the two. 

Cage was always experimenting with new forms of music.  One of them is described to the author by Ara Guzelimian, composer and concert pianist, who experienced one of Cage's sound installations at the California Institute of the Arts in Los Angeles in 1976.  Kay Larson wrote:
'At CalArts, without expecting anything, he walked into a two-story hall circled by a mezzanine.  Suddenly he found himself in the middle of Cage's Winter Music with Solo for Voice No. 45.  He heard "one delicate note here and one chord there," soaring in crystalline purity through the valuted hall.  The shining voice of singer Joan La Barbara floated in from the staircase.
'Cage had installed twenty pianos in distributed locations.  "You would hear one piano play a small delicate precise gesture, then silence, then a piano off on the mezzanine would play another gesture," Guzelimian told me.  "It was a magical arc of sound in space.  That was my first experience of a very different musical world, and it almost completely changed my feelings about music." '   (Page 259)
When I read this it occured to me that this is how sounds occur in nature.  Beautiful!

Perhaps this piece, "Ocean of Sounds" includes some of those elements:


Not all Cage's music was tranquil by any means.  I'll leave those readers who are keen to find out more for themselves!
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