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What did John Cage really teach in Viitasaari?

by Juhani Nuorvala

Summer 2023 marked 40 years since John Cage visited the Time of Music festival in Viitasaari. There are clichéd narratives still circulating about the snapping of twigs, the picking of mushrooms and the sloshing of milk in pails, but what did the guru really say during his masterclass? Composer Juhani Nuorvala participated in the 1983 composition course and has now unearthed his tape recordings of the event. These previously unpublished excerpts offer valuable insights into Cage’s philosophy.

American composer Ben Johnston (1926–2019), who would become the most significant microtonalist of the 20th century and a masterful composer of string quartets in the latter half of the 20th century, studied under the guidance of John Cage in the late 1950s. While Cage was already a radical composer of aleatoric music, Johnston was still composing predominantly in the neoclassical style. Johnston has often spoken of his respect of Cage as a composition teacher and praised his perceptive and insightful advice, even though he would have found Johnston’s composition approach far from interesting. When Cage took Johnston on as his student, he made a certain remark which should be framed and displayed by every composition teacher: “I will not as a teacher change any of the directions that you’re going in because I think that’s not appropriate. What I’ll do is criticize as best I can what you bring me and try to help you make it work, or advise you that I don’t think it will.” 

When Cage gave a composition course in Viitasaari in 1983, however, the premise was entirely different. By that point, he hadn’t had any private students for years, yet his week-long Viitasaari course included daily tutorials for a large group, consisting of students of varying levels and ages, including not only composers, but also instrumentalists, dancers, visual artists and performance artists: in the early 1980s, the Finnish performance and interdisciplinary art scene was experiencing a major boom. Cage’s class did not spend any time analysing scores or scrutinising composition plans. Instead, he wanted everyone to take turns to prepare and carry out performances, followed by group discussions.   

Cage followed the same teaching ethos as he did back in the 1950s: he did not want to interfere with his students’ aesthetics or criticise their work, but he did offer advice. He would often recommend trying the methods that he himself had developed throughout his career. When one of the course participants played from the graphic score he had prepared, Cage had suggestions on how to make sure that the different performances would remain distinct from each other. He used Earle Brown’s compositions as examples, as well as his own, then brand-new works. These compositions, which had performance parts but no scores, and where notes were placed within specific time frames, were the first products of his prolific and significant late period. Cage explained:  

“We don’t have the need to keep something. So that the old values of notation that enable us to do the same thing twice are beginning not to be valuable. We want rather to have a notation or a way of working that will give us, each time we do something, a different experience or a different-feeling event, rather than the same event. That desire to keep something and to fix it seems to me to persist in the course of this time but belong much more to a previous time.

I have just finished this string quartet which has no score, so that there’s no fixed relation with the four players’ parts. In each part there are thirty what you might call pieces, segments, whatever you might call them, as in Thirty Pieces for Five Orchestras. In this case each player begins the first segment of the piece any time between zero and 45 seconds, and he ends the first segment, which is not very long, any time between 30 seconds and 1’15”. So if you imagine that flexibility among private four people you can see that it’s more than likely that each time the piece is played there will be a different result.”


Viitasaari offers an idyllic environment for artistic activities. John Cage was fond of taking walks in nature. Photo: Tiia Monto

A visual artist, whose performance consisted of producing sounds by drawing on the blackboard with chalk, was encouraged by Cage to try amplifying the drawing sounds with microphones, followed by practical advice on the latest contact microphone models. As with many other performances in the class, Cage pointed his students towards the work of other artists, such as the Californian artist Tom Marion, whose performances doubled as painting processes. 

Cage recommended the use of chance operations to many participants. For a dancer whose performance consisted of several parts, he suggested that new constellations could be constructed through chance:   

“Chance operations could yield an endless number of variations out of simple material – seemingly simple – if you chose to do it again. You could proceed either with respect to the things you were doing or to the when’s of your doing it.”  

One student’s presentation consisted of picking up books from the classroom bookshelf and producing sounds by opening and closing them. However, he picked the books at will and kept repeating the nicely resonating sounds he discovered.   

“Your performance and our experience will be richer and more – shall I say, revealing of, I don’t know what you want to call it, you could call it poetry – more poetic, if you somehow free yourself from yourself, your likes and dislikes,” said Cage. According to him, this could be achieved, for example, by numbering the books, creating a system, and generating a random series of numbers.  

In Cage’s class, serious philosophical discussions and light-hearted moments alternated and merged. One student had an instrument with him but no composition:  

Student: “I tried to write something for the melodica but I couldn’t.” [Laughter.] “So I had to leave it open.”

Cage: “Would you tell me why you didn’t? Is it too complicated, were there [laughs] too many stops?” [Laughter.]

Student: “Yeah, and well, I couldn’t choose.”

Cage: “Well, that’s why I use chance operations!” [Laughter.] “How many stops do you have?”

Student: “In this? I don’t know.”

Cage: “You didn’t bother to count them.” [Laughter.]

Student: “I couldn’t imagine any sounds even if I tried very hard.”

Cage: “Have you ever played the instrument?”

Student: “Yes, of course.”

Cage: “Well.” [Laughter.]  


I cannot say whether the students took any of Cage’s technical advice on board. What is certain is that those of us who attended his course got an excellent insight into Cage’s thinking and art, as well as witnessing a compelling example of how to treat and listen to one’s fellow human beings and artists. We were a multidisciplinary group that hardly included the composers of “academic” contemporary music at the time: I believe that attitudes in this respect have changed in recent years, as sound, conceptual and performance art, among other disciplines, have become organic parts of the world of composing. But many excellent artists enlisted to participate in Cage’s course. I remember, for example, the following: dancer-choreographer Soile Lahdenperä, dancer and performance artist Frans Poelstra, saxophonist-composer-performance artist-visual artist Lauri Nykopp, rock musician and visual artist Jyrki Siukonen, saxophonists Hepa Halme and Vesa Lehko, clarinettist Kari Kriikku, composers Ari Vakkilainen and Harri Suilamo, visual and performance artist Erkki Pirtola, and music journalist Jukka Mikkola.  

Perhaps the most rewarding part of Cage’s course was getting to listen to his free-flowing stories. The students’ presentations reminded him of certain people, events and works, which he then recollected to illustrate his own philosophy, and in his roundabout way reflected on the students’ products and ideas, offering us food for thought. The following excerpts of Cage speaking during the course are from my own tape recordings. These excerpts are previously unpublished and completely unedited: this is exactly how he spoke at the Viitasaari composition course in the summer of 1983. As far as I know, there are no other recording from Cage’s course apart from my cassettes.   

Before the following exchange, one of the students – a dancer – had performed a piece in which she quietly moved around the classroom. The windows were open and the listeners’ eyes closed.


John Cage was known for his fondness for mushrooms. Cortinarius cagei was named after him. Photo: James Lindsey.

Cage begins to speak and reveals his basic premise: all sounds from our environment are interesting. 

“I had no idea that I was going to have to teach. And I thought I was coming to a summer festival where there would be rehearsals and performances and I would have mushrooms. But when I knew that I had to teach the next question was, what will I do. And I remembered an occasion when I gave a class at the Northwestern University, in Evanston in Chicago. It was in the winter and it was very cold. There weren’t as many people in the class as there are here, there were about twelve. And it was an old building. And I asked them to open the window and put on their overcoats and to turn off the lights – I didn’t tell them to close their eyes – and to listen to the sounds of the environment for half an hour, and then in the following half hour, to make sounds but in such a way that we wouldn’t be able to distinguish them from the sounds that we already could hear. And all of that happened and it was one of the most beautiful experiences that I’ve had with a group of people.  

And another time I tried to repeat that and somehow it didn’t work. I don’t know why. It was up in Vermont, and the building was not an old building. There was something wrong. And I decided not to do it out here, but do what we’re doing. And now it’s happened!

What is certain is that those of us who attended his course got an excellent insight into Cage’s thinking and art, as well as witnessing a compelling example of how to treat and listen to one’s fellow human beings and artists.

The sounds around us are so interesting to me to hear that I would say that’s my major activity. By ‘major’ I mean to sit and spend more time doing that even if I’m doing something else. And I live in not in this kind of demi-pastoral situation. There is traffic here: there is all over now. But I live on Sixth Avenue, New York City. It’s virtually the spinal cord of Manhattan, so the traffic is constant, sometimes less, sometimes more, but it never stops. It’s like the midnight sun! And when I first moved to this apartment, which actually is like a loft in an old department store, and I have eleven windows, nine to North Sixth Avenue… They’re big windows, so the sound is very, very clear. I thought that I wouldn’t be able to sleep there. But I’ve come to love it, and miss it when I’m not there! I listen to those sounds: they’re constant, and also many of them very shocking and some of them, you would ordinarily think, would be very irritating. Burglar alarms... I remember one night when a burglar alarm went on and I was sleeping, I could hear it, and I wondered if I can find some way not to be irritated, and so I visualized it. Because if you’re peacefully sleeping, it involves often dreaming, which is visualizing. And the burglar alarm ended up like a Brancusi! And I just went off sleeping peacefully and I can even say that when it was finally turned off I missed it!  

The most dramatic, alerting sounds are those of the fire engines, and sirens, police. There are many trucks... accidents...” 



Cage continues talking about the purpose of music: 

“I became concerned – maybe many of you know this – why one would write music in this day and age. And the reason I was asking the question was because I noticed that there was no agreement between the people’s views. So that each person was writing music in a different way, so that if it was a question of communication as I’d been taught at school it was, then we were talking, composers were so to speak talking, but they were not being understood. At least I didn’t understand what another composer was saying and I could see from criticisms that were written of my music that people weren’t understanding what I was saying. And so I decided not to say anything. And in fact to stop writing music unless I found a better reason than communication. 

In my search for such a reason, I found from an Indian musician Gita Sarabhai this answer that music is made to sober and quiet the mind so that the mind becomes susceptible to divine influences. And Lou Harrison, another composer, close friend of mine, found an English composer of some century, 16th or 17th Century, saying precisely the same thing, that the purpose of music is to sober and quiet the mind thus making it susceptible to divine influences. Then the question is, what is the sober and quiet mind, and what are divine influences. At least those are the questions I put to myself. And I knew from high school, and other places, that the Lake Poets in England, WordsworthKeats, and so forth, had gone out to the lake country with similar ideas in mind, that is to say, to sober and quiet the mind. And I thought, in this day of over-population, a retreat to the country is not possible because the city has invaded that, too. 

I have a very dear friend, Morris Graves, a painter, who all of his life has been devoted to the search for a place like that lake district; he now owns a lake in Northern California. But airplanes pass above it! And this irritates him no end! There is no escape. And so, from my point of view, the proper 20th-century choice, that’s to say the strongest 20th-century choice, is not to escape from the cities but to go to the worst one! And live there and find out how to live there well. At least that’s what I’m doing. So that I’m living in the noisiest part of New York and I love it. And in January I’ll be in Calcutta and I’ll imagine I’ll enjoy that, too.”

Music is made to sober and quiet the mind so that the mind becomes susceptible to divine influences.

Cage then gets to a topic that had greatly influenced his thinking, Eastern philosophy. 

“I asked Morris Graves who has been to India many times, he goes there almost every year... He’s actually a devotee of the Shri Ramakrishna, every morning he begins by reading the gospel of Shri Ramakrishna which was the gift to me by Gita Sarabhai after we worked together for about a year in the middle-40s. When she went back to India she gave me that book and I spent the next year reading it. It was a very important book for me. For instance, becoming concerned as I did with Oriental philosophy, finally Zen-Buddhism, the question rose in my mind whether my devotion of music and so forth was what I should continue or whether I should simply devote myself completely to getting my mind quiet. And a musician came to Shri Ramakrishna and said, shall I give up music and follow you? And Shri Ramakrishna said, not at all. He said: ‘Stay with your music. Music is the means of rapid transportation.’ 

Shri Ramakrishna was an extraordinary... how many of you know of him? A few. Well then, forgive me if I just tell a few stories. 

He was the first spiritual leader who was a recognized spiritual leader. They have a kind of a court in India... I suppose they have a problem with people who become endowed with spiritual experience... They have a kind of court that decides whether or not the person is God or not, or incarnation of God. So this court met, and they approved of Shri Ramakrishna: he was an incarnation of God. There was also a kind of court reporter, a man who signed his name M, who wrote this thick book which is almost a minute-by-minute report of what Ramakrishna said when M was there. It’s a very beautiful book. 

Ramakrishna was tolerant of visionary experiences not only with respect to Kali who was the goddess he preferred: he had such experiences in all the major religions. He was the first spiritual leader to give the notion that all the religions are the same and there’s no need for them to quarrel among themselves. He said that God was like a lake and that people come from different sides and can call him by different names but that it’s always the same. And I had already had this impression, too, from the book called The Perennial Philosophy, of Aldous Huxley. So that when I found that the taste of Zen-Buddhism agreed with me, I didn’t look any further.  

The experience we just had of hearing those sounds, is well expressed, I think, by a Zen statement which is this: Samsara – which is this very moment – is nirvana – which is the goal.”  



One of the participants would have liked Cage to speak more directly about the piece performed in class. Cage replied that he thought he had done just that. 

“It’s endless. Isn’t it? There’s no end to the possibilities. In Zen Buddhism there is this series of ox-herding pictures. And they come to this seeming emptiness. There is another series of ox-herding pictures after that. After reaching this point there is the image of the fat man with a smile on his face coming down to the village bearing gifts.” 

Reply: “OK but no-one speaks about her [the student]. For the last ten minutes, you spoke about Ramakrishna.” 

Another participant: “That’s the effect that the piece had.”  

Dancer: “I think it was a very beautiful comment.” 

Cage: “What I plan... what I have in mind to do is to enjoy the fact that she’s here, in this community, and I imagine we’ll have an opportunity to be together, not on purpose but –” 

The first participant asked the performer what her art practice was and after hearing that she was a dancer, he inquired how the performance came about.  

Dancer: “Because I had a task, in a way, to make a music piece and I have never done it before. So I had to think of my doing from a very different point of view than I usually do. Soundwise I didn’t have a clear notation for it so it came from the moment.” 

Cage: “When our eyes were closed, were you dancing?” 

Dancer: “I was moving. I had a spatial structure. I had to cross this space along as straight a line as possible without touching anything, And the sounds I found along that line I used. And I asked you to close your eyes because I was making a music piece.” 

First participant: “So far it’s a kind of negation.” 

Cage: “No it’s a focusing on sound rather than movement.” 

Dancer: "Yeah." 

Cage: “You see, she’s used to focusing on looking and actually seeing and when she comes to music which is a stranger art to her to do, she then... it’s not a negation, it’s a focusing, isn’t it, focusing the attention on the sound rather than our seeing. It’s actually an opening of the ears rather than negation of the eyes. Wouldn’t you say? You wanted it to be heard.”


Featured photo: Rob Bogaerts / Anefo

Originally published in Finnish in the Rondo magazine. Translation: Hanna-Mari Latham.