Making a Difference: Ramifications of Unity and Diversity, Repetition and Variation, in the Work of John Cage

Steve Lansford

1. Introduction: What Does it All Mean?

Repeated patterns, acting as they do on the conscious and unconscious mind, are an essential part of what makes language of any kind (whether verbal or non-verbal) intelligible to living consciousness. Keen awareness of these repeated patterns is particularly indispensable to many language-based professions such as cryptography, which uses this awareness as the starting point for discerning verbal language from gibberish. For this reason, it is not sufficient to encrypt a message by means of something as simple as a cipher (exemplified by newspaper-style cryptoquotes, for instance, which involve a one-on-one correspondence between symbols and the letters substituted for them). It thus becomes necessary in such cases to use a proper code, something that sufficiently scrambles a message so that the repeated patterns are not made explicit (but are still sufficiently implicit enough to be unscrambled by the right person).

This dance between unity and diversity, as Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure pointed out in the 19th century, is an essential aspect of all language, not just codes. In Course in General Linguistics, a posthumously published compilation of his insights, he used the analogy of monetary currency and noted that all so-called “linguistic values” are composed as follows:

(1) of a dissimilar thing that can be exchanged for the thing of which the value is determined; and

(2) of similar things that can be compared with the thing of which the value can be determined.[i]

Point (1) above posits that a term must be different from the idea that it represents in much the same way that a dollar is not identical to the merchandise that can be bought with it. Point (2), on the other hand, posits that a term must belong to a set of similar terms (i.e. a common language”) in much the same way that a dollar and a penny belong to the same currency while a franc does not. Again, all language depends upon a complementary relationship between the opposites of similarity and difference, but while socialized communication emphasizes similarity and conformism, code emphasizes difference and alienation.

The oppressive nature of these extremes was not lost on John Cage (who frequently abhorred terms such as “ideas”, “symbols”, and “code” because of the frequent pretensions of absolutist, intrinsic meaning implied by them), and it was arguably a lifetime pursuit, throughout his work, to liberate his own mind (and that of his audience) from such notions of conformism or alienation. In “Four Statements on the Dance” from Silence, for example, he relates an experience that his performance with Merce Cunningham’s dance troupe had on an audience member:

At a recent performance of ours at Cornell College in Iowa, a student turned to a teacher and said, “What does it mean?” The teacher’s reply was, “Relax, there are no symbols here to confuse you. Enjoy yourself!” I may add that there are no stories and no psychological problems. There is simply an activity of movement, sound, and light.[ii]

Cage’s most experimental writing, in an attempt to break down the code-like nature of language, would also go to the other extreme, that is, scrambling the text to such an extent that the original sense of it was hardly salvageable at all. The title work from Empty Words is a case in point, with its use of chance operations on Henry David Thoreau’s Journal.[iii] In four stages, Cage fragmented the sentences of Thoreau’s work into phrases then into words and syllables until, in the fourth stage, until little more than letters and open spaces are left. Furthermore, abstractly drawn patterns are also placed on the page, thus emphasizing the letters as mere visual objects, not sounds. The effects of these variations were quite surprising, even to Cage himself: some two- and three-letter combinations (“ly”, “est”, etc.) still hint at English suffixes, and an occasional isolated letter “a” can still be potentially interpreted as a letter, a syllable, and a word all three. Consequently, successive variation does not merely break down meaning but has the paradoxical effect of generating new and more multifaceted meaning. As shall be observed later, this insight also had social ramifications for Cage, who reveled in such play and work with words, which he frequently described it as “the demilitarization of language.”[iv]

2. Cage and Music

Repetition and variation, as Cage remarks to Joan Retallack in a series of interviews entitled Musicage, do not exist in isolation from each other. When talking of his studies under Arnold Schoenberg, for instance, Cage made the following point: “The things that Schoenberg emphasized in his teaching were repetition and variation, which would tend to what we call relationships. And then he said—to simplify it—then he said that everything was a repetition. Even a variation was a repetition, with some things changed and some things not.”[v]

Schoenberg’s own twelve-tone technique, devised as a response to Western-style tonality and modality, strived to give a composition as much variation as possible through tone rows that would allow all twelve chromatic tones to have equal time, with the barest minimum of repetition of any given tone. Schoenberg would then vary these tone rows themselves by subjecting them to inversion, retrograde, and retrograde inversion. Interestingly, even with such variations, the finite nature of using twelve chromatic tones within an octave still allows for some element of consistency, as may be seen with a sample tone row below:


[C]       B         F          B♭   [F#]   A         G         A♭     C#       E          D         E♭


[C]       C#       G         D         [F#]     E♭      F          E          B         A♭     B♭     A


E♭      D         E          C#       A♭     G         A         [F#]     B♭     F          B         [C]

Retrograde Inversion:

A         B♭     A♭     B         E          F          E♭      [F#]     D         G         C#       [C]

As may be seen above, the nature of the sharp fourth as the dead center of any given octave leads to a potential tritone emphasis (seen here as C and F#) that remains unchanged between the initial tone of the row or inversion and the tone a sharp fourth away from it. This emphasis also potentially appears in a mirrored form (seen here as F# and C) between the last tone of the retrograde or retrograde inversion and the tone a sharp fourth away from it. Repetition of this tritone would be particularly pronounced in chordal situations but also potentially obvious in melodic situations.

Cage’s own music in the 1930s used his own modified version of twelve-tone principles, as exemplified by his 1938 piano suite Metamorphosis. The first of the five pieces in the suite starts off in 5/4 time with a five-note pattern that is highly diatonic but does not hint at any particular tonal framework (except for maybe a “corrupted” melodic minor scale). Throughout the first page, the pattern is transposed with each repetition and eventually undergoes noticeable octave displacement (also distinctive features of Schoenberg’s music), but otherwise remains constant:



FIG. 2     Measures 1-16 from the first piece in Metamorphosis

On the second page, the measure changes to 6/4, and a highly octave-displaced, three-note “diatonic” pattern is introduced:




FIG. 2     Measures 17-29 from the first piece in Metamorphosis
Copyright © 1961 by Henmar Press, Inc.
Sole Selling Agents: C.F. Peters Corporation
International Copyright Secured. All Rights Reserved.

The end result is a shifting polymeter (of 5/4 in the left hand and 6/4 in the right) that ultimately gives way to the three-note pattern in 6/4. In the third piece from the suite, the five-note pattern is changed in terms of the intervals and in the order of the tones but retains what Milton Babbitt would later describe as the same pitch classes. This modified pattern has a strong tritone emphasis this time and is placed in counterpoint with itself, much in the same manner as a two-part fugue:



FIG. 3     Measures 1-8 from the third piece in Metamorphosis
Copyright © 1961 by Henmar Press, Inc.
Sole Selling Agents: C.F. Peters Corporation
International Copyright Secured. All Rights Reserved.

Overall, the piece remains true to its title and serves as an example how much tonal variation a few simple ideas can undergo while still retaining an uncompromisingly “demonstrable” logic throughout.

Cage, with Metamorphosis, seemed to raise the question of whether or not there is any such thing as true variation. If such was the case, then, his piano piece In a Landscape, written ten years later, might possible have raised the question of whether or not there is any such thing as true repetition. In contrast to most of his previous works (Four Walls being a notable, large-scale exception), the piece intentionally used a highly limited number of tones. The eight tones in the piece make up the first portion of the circle of fifths starting on B♭:

B♭      F          C         G         D         A         E          B

The theme and arpeggiated accompaniment that appear in the first several measures include all these notes except for the E, and there is a strong emphasis on thirds above all other intervals:



FIG. 4     Measures 1-25 from In a Landscape

The soft pedal and sustain pedal are also held down for the entire length of the piece, and this action causes notes to sustain over each other constantly so that even the most repetitive patterns take on a new texture each time that they appear. Later, a second theme is introduced that includes the missing E and has a strong emphasis, through its octaves, on the circle of fifths:


FIG. 4     Measures 76-90 from In a Landscape
Copyright © 1960 by Henmar Press, Inc.
Sole Selling Agents: C.F. Peters Corporation
International Copyright Secured. All Rights Reserved.

This theme, with its octaves and slightly louder dynamic level (mp above, but sometimes also mf), has the effect of triggering off harmonic overtones from previously sustained notes. Some of these overtones include notes not physically played with the hands (F#, C#, G#) but triggered off by the D, A, and E, respectively (the D# is triggered off by the B from preceding measures). This second theme marks the point where all twelve tones get to make their appearance (albeit sometimes very quietly), and when the first theme reappears immediately after it toward the end, the second theme gives the first a richer texture than anything that it had in the previous appearances. The shifting textures that result from the uninterrupted use of the sustain pedal thus make this piece a sonic embodiment of Heraclitus’ proverb, “You cannot step into the same river twice, for fresh waters are ever flowing in upon you.”

In the 1950s, Cage sought ways to intensify the element of variation in his music even further, and this effort led him to chance operations, including the use of the I Ching, sometimes known in English as the Book of Changes. Its eight trigrams each consist of threefold permutations of yin and yang over themselves or each other, and each trigram replicates over itself or one of the other seven to form an 8 ´ 8 structure of 64 hexagrams. Consequently, the I Ching itself can be seen as an abstracted embodiment of repetition and variation playing out on a primordial level throughout the physical and metaphysical universe as a whole. Cage’s 1951 piano composition Music of Changes was his first piece to use chance operations. 8 ´ 8 charts were created for each essential element of the composition: polyphony, tempo, duration, sound, and dynamics. For duration, sound, and dynamics, charts were evenly divided up so as to determine if a given element was “mobile” (used only one) or “immobile” (used again), and for sound, great efforts were made to ensure that a given sound did not have any common characteristics (or as Cage himself put it, “interference”) with the immediately preceding sound.[vi] It is worth comparing this piece with Karlheinz Stockhausen’s 1953 composition Kontra-Punkte for ten instruments, which was then the most highly serialized composition of its time. In both compositions the same thing is never heard twice, but the serialization in Stockhausen’s piece still creates a sense of a consistent structure, even if no two events are audibly the same. Given that its musical execution itself is fundamentally the same from performance to performance, however, Music of Changes was still only chance music in terms of its compositional process. Using a similar set of I Ching charts, Cage would soon afterward write Imaginary Landscape No. 4 for twelve radios, the execution of which would follow a score but be different with each performance, depending on the time of day and the physical location in which the radios were used.

3. Cage and Society

Music of Changes and Imaginary Landscape No. 4 were arguably Cage’s first attempts at music having “complete” variation (although significantly, all sound events in both compositions are still heard “together” for the length of time that one listens). When summing up these two compositions in his essay “Composition” from Silence, Cage boldly stated the following:

It is thus possible to make a musical composition the continuity of which is free of individual taste and memory (psychology) and also of the literature and “traditions” of the art. The sounds enter the time-space centered within themselves, unimpeded by service to any abstraction, their 360 degrees of circumference free for an infinite play of interpenetration.

Value judgements are not in the nature of this work as regards either composition, performance, or listening. The idea of relation (the idea: 2) being absent, anything (the idea: 1) may happen. A “mistake” is beside the point, for once anything happens it authentically is.[vii]

It is possibly worthwhile to compare this above statement with what he says about Schoenberg’s compositional method elsewhere in Silence, in his essay entitled “The Future of Music: Credo”:

Schoenberg’s method assigns to each material, in a group of equal materials, its function with respect to the group. (Harmony assigned to each material, in a group of unequal materials, its function with respect to the most fundamental or most important material in the group.) Schoenberg’s method is analogous to a society in which the emphasis is on the group and the integration of the individual in the group.[viii]

Cage’s own newfound compositional process also had social ramifications, and for him it was a question of how to realize a true diversity that could exist not within an artificially imposed unity or within a lack of unity (which is also, by definition, artificially imposed) but within a unity that is ever present and commonly, naturally felt by each person involved. Put another way, there is no need to impose or preserve unity when unity already exists, and conversely, any artificially imposed, finite unity is bound to lead to social tension once such artificiality is perceived and its boundaries are stretched.

One consequence of this social vision was to write compositions with parts but no score, such as 1967’s Musicircus that can be performed by an unlimited number of musical and/or non-musical performers for an unlimited amount of time, with no structure other than suggested positions for the performers, as well as suggested works by Erik Satie, John Cage himself, and others. In a mesostic essay from composition in retrospect, Cage summed up the basic philosophy behind this work:

           	                                              Things going on 
                                                       at thE same time
	                                           a theatRe of differences together
                                          not a single Plan
	                                    just a spacE of time
                                             as many pEople as are willing
                                       performing in The same place
                                                       a laRge
                                                         plAce a gymnasium
                                                an archiTecture
                                                       that Isn’t 
                                               with makiNg the stage

                                                             dIrectly opposite
                                               the audieNce and higher…[ix]

John Cage’s new aesthetic direction, then, was no arbitrary decision but a real response to a social conscience that was increasingly reifying and artificially defining such seemingly innocuous terms as “individuality” and “togetherness”. The “artificially imposed unity” described above is something that Jean Baudrillard touched on in his 1970 work The Consumer Society, where a real crisis of human identity is shown to be at stake:

It has to be recognized that consumption is not ordered around an individual with his personal needs, which are then subsequently indexed, according to demands of prestige or conformity, to a group context. There is first a structural logic of differentiation, which produces individuals as personalized, that is to say, as different from one another, but in terms of general models and a code, to which, in the very act of particularlizing themselves, they conform.[x]

Translated into contemporary terms, consumerism espouses the banal diversity of several dozen soft drink choices in a convenience store or hundreds of cell phone models that still function in the same basic way, and in such a situation, any hint of novelty or change must be heavily focus-grouped before being allowed out in public. However, if the human mind cannot keep pace with the naturally existing change or diversity of one’s own intimate experience or of one’s own identity, it cannot be expected to keep pace with the change or diversity present in one’s surrounding environment either.

4. Cage and Everything Else

Music and the other arts that John Cage engaged in were not merely pastimes enjoyed for their own sake, but rather means for keenly and constantly investigating the nature of reality itself, and throughout the course of his own life, art and life were treated less and less like two separate things. In this light, repetition and variation were not elements to be explored as part of music or other arts but as part of all sensory and mental experience. In the “Composition as Process” section of Silence, Cage mentioned two complementary concepts learned from his interaction with Zen Master Daisetz Susuki, namely, unimpededness and interpenetration:

Now this unimpededness is seeing that in all of space each thing and each human being is at the center and furthermore that each one being at the center is the most honored one of all. Interpenetration means that each one of these most honored ones of all is moving out in all directions penetrating and being interpenetrated by every other one no matter what the time or what the space.[xi]

This first quality of unimpededness, corresponding to the stable, centered, and grounded aspect of existence, can possibly be characterized as the “repetition” aspect, and the notion of space (and implicitly, an infinite universe) in this passage bars against any solipsistic or hierarchical connotations that this quality might otherwise have. Interpenetration, on the other hand, corresponds to the dynamic, changing aspect of reality and thus can reflect the “variation” aspect (which also, paradoxically, points up one’s commonality with everyone else).

On a deeper level, however, these two qualities also mirror the principles behind two complementary forms of Buddhist meditation. The first one to mention here is samatha, or concentration practice. It essentially consists of single-minded focus on a particular object, such as one’s fingertip, while de-emphasizing the rest of one’s experience. In such case, the finer details of one’s fingertip would not be emphasized, so the raw experience of this practice would entail a repeated “looping” of the awareness of one’s fingertip. As finer details and distractions drop away from one’s experience of this object, the object itself is then experienced as a generalized calm sensation that is gradually stripped of any stimulating quality and becomes increasingly more serene. This consequence of concentration practice obviously makes it very seductive, and it is arguably the practice that fits most people’s notions of what meditation is in general. The primary problem with concentration practice, however, is that the temporary high generated from this looping of calm sensation can seem more lasting than it actually is. Daniel Ingram, in his work Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha, puts it more specifically:

Concentration practices develop concentration but they don’t develop wisdom. The problem is that concentration states can easily fool people into thinking that they are the end goal of the spiritual path because these states can become so blissful, spacious, and even formless, and thus can match some imprecise descriptions or expectations of what [spiritual] awakening might be like.[xii]

To achieve the wisdom that Ingram mentions above, it becomes necessary to practice what is known as vipassana, or insight meditation. In this practice, focus on an object like one’s fingertip would be merely a point of departure, followed by rigorous investigation of the minute pulses and vibrations of sensory and mental impressions that make up the meditation object and, for that matter, all objects. Such pulses and vibrations, with sharpened awareness, can be found to be occurring several times a second. Vipassana thus serves to test the limitations of all experiences (even the non-blissful ones) so as to realize that they are not as solid or permanent as they initially appear to be. Experiences that initially seem to “loop” or repeat are later shown, upon more minute investigation, to be full of seemingly limitless variation. Furthermore, interference patterns of sensations from surrounding objects also mingle with the sensations of one’s meditation object and thus serve to prove that one’s own awareness is not as solid or permanent as it appeared to be either. Fine-tuned experience of bliss may also appear, as with concentration practice, but so does fine-tuned experience of suffering and equanimity, eventually followed (after persistent investigation of reality) by enlightenment. Vipassana thus examines the whole spectrum of experience, whether positive, negative, or neutral, and Ingram and other commentators on Buddhist meditation refer to this as the Progress of Insight.[xiii]

Samatha and vipassana consequently also embody complementary aspects of repetition and variation, respectively, this time with respect to the texture of one’s physical and mental experience of reality in general. It is thus important to note that these two practices are not to be merely relegated to the meditation hall as pastimes separate from one’s everyday experience but are, in fact, accentuated versions of such experience. Furthermore, both practices are complementary, so the extent to which one is doing one practice and not the other is a matter of emphasis and degree. For example, when paying attention to the breath in meditation, this may be a concentration practice to the extent that one is focusing single-mindedly on the breath while tuning out surrounding objects, but it may also be an insight practice to the extent that one is paying attention to the inhale and exhale of the breath. Many of the various types of meditation that seem to exist are arguably just different combinations of these two complementary practices because the moment-to-moment texture of life is always perceived as being varying degrees of either solid or not solid.

Both these practices are explicitly mentioned in Theravada and Tibetan Buddhist traditions, among others, but Japanese Zen rarely, if ever, mentions these practices by name, so it is uncertain if John Cage would have conceptualized Buddhist meditation this way himself. Nevertheless, he did seem to have been aware of the two complementary ways of perceiving reality to which these practices correspond. When interviewing Cage for her book Musicage, Joan Retallack speaks to him about these complementary aspects as they relate to his work: “…your work does not seem to have to do with denying what is, or shutting out life. Though it does have to do with disciplines of attention. And attention, to the extent that it means heightened focus, means excluding things, leaving certain things out. At the same time, the challenge to return to life with open eyes and ears seems to be at the core of your work.”[xiv] Cage quickly responds that these tie in with Suzuki’s notions of nonobstruction and interpenetration, thus showing that these mental processes were a part of both his work and his Zen practice.

On this note, it is worth mentioning another Zen teacher, Katsuki Sekida, whose work Zen Training describes human perception in another way that lends itself to a type of insight practice. He devotes an entire chapter to what he calls the “three nen actions” (nen being a Sino-Japanese syllable that generally denotes such concepts as “attention” or “mindfulness”).[xv] The first nen corresponds to the direct, raw impression of a physical sensation. This is quickly followed by a second nen that is a mental impression or “snapshot” of the first nen, and the third nen results from a synthesis of the first and second nen into a generalized concept, such as a word. These nen actions can occur many times a second, and any given third nen can take on the role of a first nen that gives rise to subsequent second and third nen, such as when a word gets conceptualized and verbalized in a variety of different ways. The third nen frequently corresponds to the deluded mind that overshadows the immediacy of the first nen, but as Sekida points out, when this third nen is “purified”– that is, retraced back to the first and second nen that gave rise to it in the first place – it can work in perfect harmony with the first nen.[xvi] In Silence, then, Cage’s attempt to “let sounds be themselves” embodies the first nen whereas using them as “vehicles for man-made theories or vehicles for human sentiments” embodies the unpurified third nen. But a few sentences later, Cage also illustrates the harmony between the first nen and the purified third nen as follows: “And sounds, when allowed to be themselves, do not require that those who hear them do so unfeelingly. The opposite is what is meant by response ability.”[xvii] Allowing sounds to “be themselves” thus does not entail some act of reification (a distinct trait of the unpurified third nen) but rather, involves a textured, in-the-moment experience of all the pertinent sensory and mental impressions of such sounds. Sekida’s notion of the workings of the second and third nen can consequently also be seen, in relation to the first nen, as a model for how all repetition and variation works on a primordial sensate and mental level.

5. Conclusion

The rhythm and texture of anything – whether it be music, language, art, or life itself – ultimately consists of varying degrees of repetition and variation, sameness and difference, and the keener one trains one’s awareness to be, the more rhythmic and textured one’s experience shows itself to be. Whether something is an object or an event may, in the end, simply be a matter of how closely one is able to pay attention, moment to moment. And whether or not John Cage’s creative work was intended as a form of meditation may ultimately be a moot point. To the extent that his work did engage, on an ongoing basis, with questions about the nature of reality – and to the extent that his work provided the physical and mental resources for his audience to explore reality with him, both within an all-inclusive space and in intimate detail – it ultimately served the same purpose. The indeterminate elements in his work invite us to experience the rhythm and texture of life more and more on our own terms as well as his, and such being the case, the artist within all of us may be closer than we think.



[i] Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, trans. Wade Baskin, edited by Charles Bally et al. (New York: The Philosophical Library, Inc., 1959), 115.

[ii] John Cage, “Four Statements on the Dance” in Silence (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1979), 94-95.

[iii] John Cage, “Empty Words” in Empty Words (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1981), 11-77.

[iv] John Cage, foreword to M: Writings, ’67 –‘72 (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1973), x.

[v] Joan Retallack, ed., MUSICAGE: Cage Muses on Words, Art, and Music (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1996), 176.

[vi] John Cage, “Composition” in Silence (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1979), 58.

[vii] Cage, “Composition”, 59.

[viii] John Cage, “The Future of Music: Credo” in Silence (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1979), 5.

[ix] John Cage, “composition in retrospect” in composition in retrospect (Cambridge, MA: Exact Change, 1993), 24.

[x] Jean Baudrillard, The Consumer Society: Myths and Structures (London; Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1998), 92.

[xi] John Cage, “Composition as Process” in Silence (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1979), 46.

[xii] Daniel Ingram, Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha, accessed March 30, 2012,, 133.

[xiii] Ingram, Mastering, 166.

[xiv] Retallack, MUSICAGE, 175.

[xv] Katsuki Sekida, “Three Nen Actions and One-Eon Nen” in Zen Training: Methods and Philosophy (Boston, MA; London: Shambhala, 2005), 108-127.

[xvi] Katsuki Sekida, “Pure Cognition and Kensho” in Zen Training: Methods and Philosophy (Boston, MA; London: Shambhala, 2005), 187.

[xvii] John Cage, “Experimental Music” in Silence (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1979), 10.