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Subject, Object, Improv: John Cage, Pauline Oliveros, and Eastern (Western) Philosophy in Music

Tracy McMullen

Published: 2010-12-06

This essay investigates composers Pauline Oliveros and John Cage, their use and abuse of Buddhist philosophy, and how these (mis)understandings influenced and were reflected in their attitudes toward improvisation. While John Cage famously claimed to remove his "self" from his work, McMullen argues that his practices (informed by a mis-reading of Zen through a Protestant ideology) served to further instantiate a self that mastered the body. Oliveros's interest in meditation, improvisation, and corporeal practices demonstrates an understanding of the "self" as intersubjective and de-centralized. McMullen argues that the ideology of the subject/object, self/other split within the Western intellectual tradition has functioned to attenuate the radical elements within these artists' work, influencing Cage's own philosophical understanding, and marginalizing the improvisatory and corporeal practices of Oliveros.

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Improvisation implies a deep connection between the personal and the communal, self and world. A “good” improviser successfully navigates musical and institutional boundaries and the desire for self-expression, pleasing not only herself but the listener as well.

– Rob Wallace