ISSN 1556-4975

OffCourse Literary Journal

 Published by Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998


"Seeing John Cage in a Dream," an essay by Daniel Barbiero


I hadn’t thought about John Cage in some time. And then, one early morning in December, I had an unusual dream, the ending of which was especially vivid:

After some difficulty in traveling north on Interstate 81 through western Virginia, I reached a large wooden gazebo. Inside several people were sitting on the floor. There was no sound, even though the gazebo was open to the woods surrounding it. Then the image of the gazebo dissolved and was replaced by an open book. I could see the words on the right-hand page very distinctly and followed along while a man’s voice read them: “After John Cage died, a memorial event was held. A man quietly named a series of images meant to guide the attendees’ thoughts: a bird in flight, the ocean, the wind in bamboo. What happened next several of the people swore to, though no one could prove it: Cage appeared, leaning in the doorway, his mouth wide open in a silent miming of his famous laugh-grin. And then he vanished. When the ears are open, the mind is opened wide.” Somehow, the image of Cage leaning in the doorway was visible along with the text on the page.

I jotted all of this down as soon as I woke up. Much of the text quoted is verbatim from what I “read” in the book, although some of the words had to be recreated to fill gaps where the originals had already faded. The last three sentences, including the odd “laugh-grin” and the closing aphorism, are word-for-word from the dream (although I have some doubt about “a silent miming of” – this may be a paraphrase. As I write this, a few hours after waking from the dream, I can no longer be sure.). What the text describes is most likely what I “saw” in the gazebo. The gazebo itself most likely represents two different places. One is certainly the rustic Maverick Concert Hall in Woodstock, New York, where Cage’s 4’33” had its premiere. Accounts of the premiere note that the hall was open to the surrounding woods and hence to its ambient sounds. The second is a Zen meditation hall – not a specific one, as I’ve never been in one myself, but rather a generic image assembled from the various written descriptions I’ve read over the years. The connection to Cage here is obvious: Zen had played a decisive role in forming Cage’s sensibilities.

As had Cage in forming my own musical development and aesthetic sensibilities generally although, as I said, I hadn’t thought about him in a while. Perhaps some things, once assimilated, don’t need to be revisited, at least not directly or often. But this dream did open that door...

When I was first beginning to look beyond diatonic harmonies and regular rhythms his music was a natural source to turn to. I was in my late teens, still in high school, and knew his name but not any of his work. It was a situation I rectified by picking up the first recording of his work that I could find, the Nonesuch album containing HPSCHD, a piece for seven harpsichords and computer generated tape which he co-composed with electronic music composer Lejaren Hiller. Experiencing the piece for the first time was puzzling. The sound was extremely dense -- a thick block of rattling cacophony overlaid with electronic noise. The intensity of the sound negated what we ordinarily think of as the delicacy of the harpsichord’s voice (incidentally, a voice that Cage confessed he hated): all seven harpsichordists played at once and in a manner that seemed to have each take no account of what any of the others were doing. Trying to make sense of it by disentangling individual lines was futile. Nor could the computer printout that came with the LP provide any clues that I could understand as offering a key into what I was hearing. And even now I confess that it isn’t a work I’ve felt compelled to revisit. (Side two of the LP, Ben Johnston’s String Quartet No. 2, was challenging as well, but while I didn’t quite understand it at the time its dissonant counterpoint made instinctive sense to me. It was a taste I never lost. Johnston’s string quartets would become favorite, often-listened to works.)

A few years later I acquired a three-LP set of contemporary American string quartets – one of the much-loved Vox Boxes – that included Cage’s 1950 string quartet, a sparsely beautiful, four-part work whose minor second harmonies, restrained dynamics, and fragmentary syntax end in a quodlibet –  a lively final movement whose melodies are set out in relatively conventional, continuous lines. By the time I’d discovered the 1950 quartet I’d known of Cage’s interest in Zen and, through the writings of D. T. Suzuki and R. H. Blyth, had done some reading in it myself. Given that, it was only natural that I interpreted the quartet as informed by a Zen sensibility. The simplicity of means that I heard in it I associated with the Zen aesthetic, while its structure of three quiet, minimally musical parts followed by a more fully-voiced ending, seemed to me to embody the Zen philosophy of finding emptiness in the phenomenal, and the phenomenal in emptiness --the aural analog of the Zen saying “before enlightenment, chop wood and carry water; after enlightenment chop wood and carry water.” At least that was how it felt when I first heard it. The barely-there sounds of the first three parts which to me recalled the thin washes of a Zen ink drawing, suggested the disciplining of the mind as it grasps the nothingness in being. The quodilbet then suggested that same mind now suddenly grasping the being in nothingness as the world reappears, the same as it ever was, only somehow changed. And now that one has grasped all this one can return to one’s ordinary life, but with much baggage having been shed. Enlightenment as a lightening of the mind. It was an elaborate and even plausible allegorical reading which for all its ingenuity wasn’t quite right. As I subsequently learned more about the quartet’s background and Cage’s intentions in writing it the way he did, I realized that Zen hadn’t been his prime motivation. He was attempting instead to incorporate ideas from classical Indian aesthetics, which he’d been introduced to by his friend Gita Sarabhai. As he described it, the quartet was influenced by the idea that music should “sober and quiet the mind, thus rendering it susceptible to divine influences.” There may be no better description of the quartet than that. It’s a piece I often return to even now.

In the years since I first discovered Cage’s music I went on to gain a deeper acquaintance with it, and with Cage’s thought. Like so many others I read Silence, which I still admire for its clarity of expression and its engaging stories, some of which read like the parables of an enlightened name-dropper. During the early 2010s, when I was music director for a post-modern dance group, I crafted a musical environment for a performance that drew inspiration from Cage’s writings without attempting to translate them directly or literally into the composed and improvised sections of the piece. Just having improvised sections was by itself an unorthodox adaptation of Cage’s legacy, given his often-expressed antipathy toward improvisation. Unlike his colleague Earle Brown, Cage seemed unwilling to draw a connection between the demands indeterminate compositions, such as his own, place on the performer, and improvisation as the natural, if not inevitable, response to those demands. During this same period I became interested in his early, more conventional work, such as the twelve-tone piece Sonata for Clarinet he wrote in the 1930s, and adapted them to double bass. For a program celebrating his music at the Kennedy Center in 2012, I created a double bass adaptation of his 1948 piano work Dream – ironically, perhaps, given his iconoclasm, a tonal piece – and performed it with dancer Ken Manheimer. The piece was originally written to accompany a solo dancer, so it was a homecoming of sorts for it.

Also like so many others, I found his famous “silent” piece, 4’33”, an intellectually stimulating provocation. My understanding of the work has changed over the years, from simply seeing it as a challenge to the notion of what constitutes a musical work and an invitation to the listener to, as he put it, “wake up to the life we’re living,” to a deeper engagement of it as an opening to an intuitive understanding of human temporality as grasped within an encompassing sense of time as infinite duration. This latter interpretation no doubt would not have been authorized by the composer, but that’s the risk one takes in sending a work out into the world: it gives rise to its own interpretations and ends up making its own history.

Another idea closely identified with Cage, that of the composer ceding intentional action to the outcome of chance operations, I found somewhat less useful. At times a chance operation I tried would produce a compelling set of sounds, but at other times the results lacked interest. Did the fault lie in the operation or in my stubbornly applying my own preferred criteria for success when, in order to be true to the experiment, I should’ve let them go? Did the fault, in short, lie in the fact that I could find fault? But why should I choose to be indifferent in such a situation? (And isn’t the choice of reliance on chance and of equanimity no matter what the result itself a manifestation of compositional intent?) It wasn’t clear that I, or anyone, could completely let go of ego in creating art, nor was it clear that doing so would always be such a good thing. And we shouldn’t forget that Cage himself could be forceful in ensuring that his intentions as a composer were realized exactly as he saw fit. There are many anecdotes attesting to this, with the irony duly noted.

Shortly before Cage died, I had the pleasure of meeting him through a poet friend who’d gotten to know him. My friend would visit him in his New York loft and play chess with him -- I don’t know who won more often, or if that was really the point. I was immediately struck by the air of serenity about him – he seemed to have a cheerful acceptance of the life going on around him. It was a very striking, and I wouldn’t hesitate to say uplifting, attitude to find in a person of his age. Now that I’m thinking about him once again it is this quality of his that comes to mind, probably because of the example it can be as I myself am aging. This seems to me now to be a deeper lesson to be had from him than seeing what one can do in arranging sounds and silences or in escaping musical conventions as one might attempt to escape one’s ego.

Since I first heard HPSCHD nearly fifty years ago the questions I’ve asked of music in general, and of Cage’s music in particular, have changed. Some have been answered, some have become irrelevant. And increasingly it’s no longer a matter of questions asked and answers sought, but of enjoying the music for itself, of letting it make its connections and work its effects. Which brings me back to the 1950 string quartet. When is it ever true that one can’t benefit from sobering and quieting the mind, and perhaps in the process even becoming susceptible to divine influences – for whatever value of “divine” one wishes to posit? Which recalls the dream text’s final line – “When the ears are open, the mind is opened wide” – which to the best of my knowledge Cage never said in so many words, but which seems to capture the best of his spirit.


Daniel Barbiero is a writer, double bassist, and composer in the Washington DC area. He has performed at venues throughout the Washington-Baltimore area and regularly collaborates with artists locally and in Europe; his graphic scores have been realized by ensembles and solo artists in Europe, Asia, and the US. He writes on the art, music, and literature of the classic avant-gardes of the 20th century as well as on contemporary work; his essays and reviews have appeared in ArteidoliaHeavy Feather ReviewperiodicitiesWord for/WordOtolithsOpen Doors Review, London GripPerfect Sound ForeverPoint of Departure, and elsewhere. He is the author of As Within, So Without, a collection of essays published by Arteidolia Press; his score Boundary Conditions III will be appearing in A Year of Deep Listening, to be published by MIT Press in fall, 2024. Website:

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