Religion and the invention(s) of John Cage

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Richard Pilgrim


Religion, John Cage, Inventions, Zen Buddhism, Orientalism

Subject Categories

Arts and Humanities | Religion


The seminal encounter between East and West during the 1950s, in particular, between Zen Buddhism and avant-garde art is the framing context of this dissertation. By focusing on the writer, composer, musical philosopher and visual artist, John Cage, this thesis examines the extent to which Asian religions influenced his aesthetics and music. Cage was at the center of the avant-garde movement during the 1950s and had a profound impact on his contemporaries, including many who wrote music entirely different from his own. With his introduction of noise, the prepared piano and the percussion orchestra to contemporary music, and the adoption of chance and indeterminacy in his compositions, Cage overturned the concept of music from its Renaissance ideal of form and structure as the means or purveyor of a unique and personal artistic vision.

This dissertation demonstrates the significance of religion in Cage's music and art between 1946 and 1958, and delineates the earlier influence of Hinduism from the subsequent one of Zen Buddhism. Based on a close textual study of the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna , it shows how the Indian mystic's teaching transformed both Cage and his music, and how its importance endured even in the latter phases of Zen. This thesis argues that Cage played a substantial role in disseminating Zen through the ''invention'' of a Zen persona and his music but it also locates it as part of a strategy to undermine the old world, elevate the East, and ''invent'' an experimental music tradition. An analysis of Cage's interpretation of the key concept in Zen Buddhism---Emptiness---also reveals the disparity between the understanding of Cage and that of the normative Buddhistic one. It shows that, to a large extent, Cage was romancing Emptiness.


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