(Brought to you by Harriet Kohen, MSW, LICSW)
Now I know not everyone may recognize the music of John Cage, but this writer discovered how helpful something she loves helped her to master her anxiety. I wonder what waits to be discovered in your life?
Anxiety: Music of the Unquiet Mind
By MARGARET LENG TAN
New York Times, September 1, 2012
Why do you not do as I do? Letting go of your thoughts as though they were the cold ashes of a long dead fire? -- John Cage
In 1944 the avant-garde composer John Cage wrote “Four Walls,” a 70-minute work using only the white keys of the piano. It was the music for a “dance play” in two acts by the dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham, who would later become Cage’s lifelong partner. I rediscovered “Four Walls,” virtually forgotten for four decades, in the 1980s. It has since become one of the most personal works in my repertoire. Its repetitive, insistent nature struck a deep chord within me. It was as if someone had entered the innermost rooms of my mind and translated their contents into sound.
I asked Cage, whom I first met in 1981, about this compelling musical essay in inquietude. He told me that “Four Walls” was about the disturbed mind, a subject of fascination for Cunningham and himself during the mid-1940s. Two years after the completion of “Four Walls,” Cage seriously considered giving up composing to undergo psychoanalysis; he turned instead to Asian philosophy and Zen Buddhism.
The music in “Four Walls” is of a non-narrative nature. Its many silences and static repetitions do, however, contribute to an atmosphere of growing entrapment, inviting the listener to probe the deep recesses of his psyche. Each person brings to the experience what he wishes or, rather, what he is.
When Cage and I discussed the piece, he did not elaborate on the nature of the disturbances that had led to its creation. Not only would asking about it have been a trespass, I really preferred not to know. Instead, I would draw on my own experience of the disturbed mind and interpret the work accordingly.
I have lived with obsessive compulsive disorder for as long as I can remember. When I was a child it manifested itself in a spectrum of behavioral quirks ranging from an adamant insistence that the bow in my hair be perfectly straight to a perpetual need for reassurance to allay my many fears, largely imagined but painfully real to me. A few years ago I came across the perfect depiction of O.C.D.: an image of a child trapped in a merry-go-round cage while his parents looked on helplessly.
My own parents did not know what to make of it all and did their best to cope with my idiosyncrasies. Fortunately for them I insisted on having piano lessons when I was 6, and this became a creative channel for my obsessive energies. One of the classic manifestations of O.C.D. is compulsive counting. Till this day I count the number of steps when climbing a flight of stairs or the number of times I rinse after brushing my teeth. These counting rituals permeating my daily life serve no particular purpose other than to satisfy the need to perform them. That is the nature of O.C.D. Enter music and rhythm: you can imagine how delighted I was to be actually required to count the beats in a piece of music. I could now count to my heart’s content in a totally creative fashion!
When I was 16, I left my home in Singapore to study at Juilliard. In my 30s, I had the great good fortune to meet John Cage — a milestone for me, musically, personally and philosophically. In fact, I still define my life in two periods, B.C. and A.C. — Before Cage and After Cage.
Cage was a pioneer in what is now regarded as the American maverick tradition. Like his revered predecessor, the transcendentalist philosopher Henry David Thoreau, Cage was a one-of-a-kind spirit in the way he lived, thought and made art. A towering iconic presence, his writings, most notably the anthology “Silence” (essentially Cage’s interpretation of Zen), have had a defining influence on subsequent generations of artists across all disciplines. Philip Glass and Steve Reich, the progenitors of Minimalism in music, regard it as their bible.
Through Cage and his take on Zen philosophy, I have made a truce with my O.C.D. I recognize that it is integral to who I am and have come to accept myself, warts and all. Obsessive-compulsives are, not surprisingly, perfectionists. Yet, I have learned to relinquish the grand illusion of the goal and relish, instead, the unfolding of the process. Cage’s highly forgiving definition of error, as “simply a failure to adjust immediately from a preconception to an actuality,” has helped temper my self-judgmental parameters of right and wrong, all or nothing.
When I am entangled in an idée fixe, one of Cage’s favorite Zen proverbs, “Taking a nap I pound the rice,” offers a welcome antidote empowering me to step away and let the unconscious work its magic. O.C.D.’s most salient feature is its viselike hold on the mind, imbuing unwanted thoughts with a ferocious, pitiless tenacity. Cage’s Zen-inspired text “Lecture on Nothing” is balm to an obsessive-compulsive: “Regard it as something seen momentarily, as though from a window while traveling … at any instant, one may leave it, and whenever one wishes one may return to it. Or you may leave it forever and never return to it, for we possess nothing. …Anything therefore is a delight (since we do not possess it) and thus need not fear its loss.”
Fear of loss rules the life of an obsessive-compulsive — fear of loss of control, fear of loss in both physical and metaphysical realms (paradoxically, the fear of losing worthwhile thoughts), and the ultimate fear — fear over the loss of time when consumed by compulsive rituals; I live in a constant race with time to make up for the time lost to the dictates of the disease. Now, with Cage’s wise words of counsel I have on occasion triumphed, actually retreated from the precipice of an impending attack and, even more impressively, curtailed a bout in progress.
Running like a vein through the writings in “Silence,” is what Cage liked to call the “now” moment. Living in the “now” moment means relinquishing the previous moment and forgoing anticipation of the next. As Cage wrote, “Each now is the time, the space.” I have recently discovered that this focus on the “now” moment can counter the grip of an O.C.D. attack. The mere act of stepping outside oneself, even momentarily, can serve as an O.C.D. circuit breaker, which is reinforced by the addition of each successive “now” moment. This is of course contingent on the severity of the attack; I am always grateful for good days when the distancing process can work its spell.
People tell me that I have accomplished a great deal. I don’t know if it is in spite of or because of my obsessive-compulsive disorder. I do know that I would not wish this affliction on my worst enemy, and of course I would prefer not to wear holes in the carpet of my mind. But, as Cage said, “… the important questions are answered by not liking only but disliking and accepting equally what one likes and dislikes. Otherwise there is no access to the dark night of the soul.”
Margaret Leng Tan is a pianist who specializes in the interpretation and performance of the works of John Cage.