Don’t Blame it on ZEN:

The Way of John Cage & Friends

Curated by Jade Dellinger, Director of the Bob Rauschenberg Gallery at FSW

Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center
September 3, 2021 – January 22, 2022

Don’t Blame it on ZEN: The Way of John Cage & Friends is presented in conjunction with the Faith in Arts Institute, co-hosted by BMCM+AC and UNC Asheville, and the ReVIEWING Black Mountain College conference with a thematic focus on the lasting legacy of John Cage featuring keynote speaker Laura Kuhn, Director of the John Cage Trust. The public reception, held November 12, 2021 as part of the opening of ReVIEWING 12, featured the world premiere of a new composition by John Luther Adams, Waves and Particles, performed by the JACK Quartet.

Widely revered as an innovator in the non-standard use and “preparation” of musical instruments, indeterminacy, chance-based and electroacoustic music, John Cage (1912-1992) was perhaps both the most provocative and the most influential American composer of the 20th century. Best known for his foundational composition “4’33”, a work from 1952 that instructed the performer not to play their instrument during three timed movements over four minutes and thirty-three seconds, Cage asserted the rather radical claim that any collection of sounds may constitute music and that there is no such thing as silence. 

Cage taught at Black Mountain College in the summers of 1948 and 1952 and was in residence during the summer of 1953. While at BMC, Cage lectured on the Huang-Po Doctrine of Universal Mind and organized what has been credited as the first-ever “Happening.” Later titled Theater Piece No. 1, the fairly spontaneous work was an interdisciplinary, multi-layered, performance event that took place in Black Mountain’s communal dining hall with now-legendary participants including artist Robert Rauschenberg, composer David Tudor, poets Charles Olson and M.C. Richards, and the choreographer/dancer (and Cage’s lifelong partner) Merce Cunningham.

This performance event changed the landscape of contemporary art across the globe and laid the groundwork for future generations of composers and interdisciplinary artists. As the exhibition title and John Cage’s own words make clear, Cage wished only “to free Zen of any responsibility for [his] actions,” yet his profound influence continues to be seen, heard, and experienced through his work and the work of friends and countless followers. Don’t Blame it on ZEN: The Way of John Cage and Friends presents works by Cage and his contemporaries including Nam June Paik, Yoko Ono, Laurie Anderson, David Byrne, Robert Rauschenberg, and M.C. Richards as well as those deeply influenced by his work and teachings such as composer Matana Roberts, artist and performer Aki Onda, interdisciplinary artist Andrew Deutsch, and abstract turntablist Maria Chavez.

Featured Artists Include: John Cage, Laurie Anderson, Glenn Branca, David Byrne, Maria Chavez, Philip Corner, Andrew Deutsch, Peter Greenaway, Ann Hamilton, Lejaren Hiller, James Klosty, Alison Knowles, Shigeko Kubota, Christian Marclay, Charlotte Moorman, Olivier Mosset, Dave Muller, Michael Oldenberg, Aki Onda, Yoko Ono, Nam June Paik, Ben Patterson, Robert Rauschenberg, M.C. Richards, Matana Roberts, The Art Guys, Stephen Vitiello, ​and Lawrence Voytek.


In John Cage’s approach to composition, whether in performance or the visual arts, the role of the artist was not to dictate the outcome of a work but to give space for the influence of chance. The I Ching, an ancient divination method used in Confuscian, Buddhist, and Taoist traditions, was one tool that Cage used in order to iterate on and set parameters for his work. Through the interpretation of numerically determined hexagrams, one can find answers to questions such as the length of a note, the instrument used, or the placement of a brushstroke. In Cage’s lecture, “Composition as Process,” he explains the value of indeterminacy in his performance,

“This is a lecture on composition which is indeterminate with respect to its performance. That composition is necessarily experimental. An experimental action is one the outcome of which is not foreseen. Being unforeseen, this action is not concerned with its excuse. Like the land, the air, it needs none. A performance of a composition which is indeterminate of its performance is necessarily unique. It cannot be repeated. When performed for a second time, the outcome is other than it was.”


John Cage, “Not Wanting to Say Anything About Marcel,” Plexigram III (1969)


John Cage, “MUSICIRCUS” (1967)

The first “Happening” at BMC, John Cage’s Theater Piece No. 1 (1952), was a hallmark instance of the composer’s indeterminate approach. In Theater Piece No.1 Cage used chance operations to create a score, assigning intervals of time and placement within which collaborators worked independently and simultaneously: Charles Olson and M.C. Richards read poetry, Merce Cunningham danced through the audience (while being chased by a dog), Robert Rauschenberg hung his White Paintings from the ceiling and played records on a gramophone, David Tudor performed various piano compositions, visuals were projected around the room, all while Cage was lecturing on music and Zen Buddhism. Cage’s aim, in his words, was “purposeless purposefulness: it was purposeful in that we knew what we were going to do, but it was purposeless in that we didn’t know what was going to happen in the total.”

Theater Piece No.1 was the first of many indeterminate performances arranged by Cage. Musicircus (premiered in 1967) was coordinated with an open invitation for as many artists as possible to perform simultaneously in a single space. HPSCHD was a more elaborately arranged piece, though it remained indeterminate in its performance. Premiering in 1969, the first performance lasted for 5 hours. Lejaren Hiller and Cage collaborated on the composition, and it ultimately consisted of multiple amplified harpsichords playing distinct solos, and more than 50 pre-recorded tapes were played through speakers in the room – all in random time intervals with random interruptions. There were NASA video projections, and the audience was encouraged to move throughout the room and interact with the performance, creating an immersive, multimedia experience.


“Clothes I wear for mushroom hunting are rarely sent to the cleaner. They constitute a collection of odors I produce and gather while rambling in the woods. I notice not only dogs (cats, too) are delighted (they love to smell me).”
 John Cage, M: Writings ’67-’72
John Cage’s interest in mushrooms dates to the mid-1930s, when he was living on the California coast and was so poor that he needed to forage for food to eat. Seeking strawberries, but finding none, he discovered plenty of mushrooms. Thus, his decades-long interest in fungi began. The interest became an obsession and expanded to include other wild, edible plants. Eventually, Cage became a very accomplished amateur mycologist and, in 1959, he appeared on a popular Italian quiz show where, after five appearances, he won $6,000 answering questions about mushrooms.

After becoming aware that malnourished people in South America were gathering cast-off paper, boiling the ink out of it, and eating the pulp to stave off hunger, Cage thought that edible paper might be useful in a hunger crisis. 

In 1989 Cage worked with papermakers Bernie Toale and Joe Zina (Rugg Road Paper & Prints in Boston) and Beverly Plummer (Snake Knob Paperworks in Celo, NC) to create handmade paper from foraged natural materials. The first of these papermaking projects used ingredients from Cage’s macrobiotic diet including Hijiki seaweed, bitter melon, and ginger root. Cage consulted the I Ching to determine the recipes for each set of papers. In 1990, the group gathered again, this time at Plummer’s NC studio to create Wild Edible Drawings, a suite of twelve different papers made from twenty-seven local plants they gathered from the woods and fields nearby, again using the I Ching to determine the recipes. Cage’s final experience with this process took place in the fall of 1991, less than a year before his death. He assembled a set of medicinal plants from his Chinese herbal remedies, and again worked with Rugg Road in Boston to make Medicine Drawings.

These collaborative papermaking experiments were among John Cage’s last visual art projects. 

John Cage, “Wild Edible Drawing #7” (1990)


East Village Community Gardens During the Pandemic

Installation + Zine
Is it possible to hear the sounds of the past? By firing up the imagination, by tapping into an intricate network of knowledge, by experiencing things first-hand and putting one’s sixth sense to work? This question may be an unexpected one, but I decided to try just that, by standing in the community gardens of the East Village and listening closely.

Strolling through the East Village neighborhood of Manhattan, you will find oases of greenery all over the place. These are known as “community gardens,” and they are used for diverse purposes: as places for neighbors to rest and relax; for children to play; for gardeners to cultivate vegetables, herbs, and flowers; for works of art to be exhibited and performances staged […]

The following is a record of what I heard and saw (and possibly experienced with senses beyond the usual five) during my explorations of East Village community gardens between April and August 2020.

– Aki Onda (2020)


WISH TREE (for Asheville), 2021

 Make a wish. Write it down on a piece of paper. Fold it and tie it around the branch of the Wish Tree. Ask your friend to do the same. Keep wishing – Yoko Ono (2021)
Wishes from over 3,000 visitors from across the globe were tied to the branches of Yoko Ono’s Wish Tree (for Asheville). They have now found their way to the IMAGINE PEACE TOWER in Reykjavík Iceland, an outdoor work of art created by Ono in memory of John Lennon.

John Cage: Art, Life & Zen

Companion Faith in Arts chapbook

Published in collaboration with Atelier Èditions
John Cage: Art, Life & Zen is an exploration of celebrated avant-garde composer John Cage and the many ways Zen Buddhism influenced his inventive practice. Featuring Cage’s writings, stories, and artworks, with new contributions from artist Laurie Anderson, poet J Mae Barizo, author Kay Larson, and poet Richard Chess.

Published in conjunction with the inaugural Faith in Arts Institute 

Header: John Cage, HAIKU, 1952. Printed by Carroll Williams, Black Mountain College Music Press. Edition of 300. Drawing Matter Collection.