John Cage’s I Ching chance operations

The visual art of John Cage – a review article


Kathan Brown. 'John Cage – Visual Art: To Sober and Quiet the Mind.' San Francisco: Crown Point Press, 2000, hardback, 144 pages with 116 colour images. $42.00. ISBN 1-891300-16-4.


'If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.' – John Cage


If you search, you can come across scattered references to the use by John Cage (1912–1992) of the I Ching in his composition of music, writing, and visual art. It is mentioned, for instance, on about thirty pages of Richard Kostelanetz's book of interviews over a 40-year period, 'Conversing with Cage' (New York: Routledge, 2003). But as for the actual methodology he used, details are hard to fathom and if you want to try it yourself it would be better to make up your own method, which is essentially what he did (on pp 93–94 of 'Conversing with Cage' he describes how he used the I Ching to compose the Freeman Etudes for solo violin, but even he apparently forgot his own method after letting the pieces sit unfinished in a drawer for nine years; on p 135 he describes how he used the I Ching to choose words from a dictionary and thereby create a text; pp 137–139 he describes a very involved method of making a text).

The basic principle is to remove one's own intention from the work and hand that over to the oracle. Intention is always to some extent circumscribed by one's own tastes and personality, whereas non-intention moves beyond like and dislike and becomes something more resembling an act of nature. In a sense then, you can hear what the I Ching would compose as a piece of music, or what it would draw as a picture (much as you can see what kind of life it would create by using it for every non-spontaneous decision). Although I don't think Cage necessarily considered that – that the oracle itself may have an intention – he used it to free himself, in the large part, from having to choose. The artistic choice he reserved for himself then became solely choosing what questions to ask, something he constantly emphasised the importance of. That he called the casting of hexagrams 'chance operations' suggests a deliberate distancing when using the I Ching solely for the generation of numbers that could be translated into art (though he distinguished 'by chance' from 'at random'), but he did also use it personally when he – occasionally – felt troubled:

If I ask the I Ching a question as though it were a book of wisdom, which it is, I generally say, "What do you have to say about this?" and then I just listen to what it says and see if some bells ring or not.


– 'Conversing with Cage', p 17

When consulting the I Ching in this conventional way it needs to be interpreted but when consulting it as a chance operation it is simply giving a number – the text isn't used – and that number already has a prefigured function, such as time, position, which tool, how many lines, etc. There is no thinking or choosing to do. When Cage first began doing his chance operations he was throwing nickels or quarters even on short subway journeys, simply to generate a large number of hexagrams from which the piece would be built. Later he employed an assistant to make the coin throws, and got visitors to help, but eventually he progressed to a computer program created for him by Ed Kobrin.

But Cage's chance operations in his compositional strategies are not solely regarded as a means of producing work without any intention of his own determining its direction, but also seen, ultimately, as an agent of personal change:

I use chance operations instead of operating according to my likes and dislikes. I use my work to change myself and I accept what the chance operations say. The I Ching says that if you don't accept the chance operations you have no right to use them. Which is very clear, so that's what I do.


– 'Conversing with Cage', p 215

The disciplined use of chance for discovery, in other words, not to be confused with improvisation (where non-intention weaves in and out of remembered, habitual, and favoured forms). Some have criticised Cage's reliance on chance operations as so rigorous that 'nothing is left to chance', a clever sneer, but not an entirely empty comment. And of course the decision to use the I Ching, or to compose music, are intentions. But one will always hit the wall of this dichotomy in thinking about it. The Chinese wuwei or 'not doing' and the Japanese mushotoku, 'no goal/object', are relative to doing and having a goal, they are not absolutes.

Cage essentially used the I Ching as a mechanism to filter out his own intention for the joy of seeing what would arise. He had an expectation that he should find it interesting. Even though the artwork should be produced without like and dislike, he seems to have wanted to like the final result. Most of the time he doesn't appear to have had to struggle to like it, there is often a childlike joy at what has come. He said in 'Autobiographical Statement' (1989):

My favorite music is the music I haven't yet heard. I don't hear the music I write. I write in order to hear the music I haven't yet heard.

Interviewers were forever pointing out the presence of intention and personal taste in his work, genuinely trying to get to the bottom of it, to know the boundaries of chance. But it is always easier for artists to understand their own vague areas since they don't have to explain them, they can let them remain vague and still be driven by them. Only from outside does it appear a super-efficient method every detail of which needs to be pinned down. In reality, his methodology was meticulous not in a scientific manner but an obsessional one; this is what makes it interesting.

Cage was first influenced in the direction of non-intentionality by his interest in Zen, which he studied with D T Suzuki in New York in 1945–46, and then in late 1950 or early 1951 he saw a practical way of achieving it in the arts when Christian Wolff gave him a copy of the new Bollingen (Princeton) two-volume Wilhelm-Baynes English translation of the I Ching (Wolff's father had just published it at Pantheon Books). It appears to have been the 8 × 8 hexagram finding chart at the back of the book, the 'Key for Identifying the Hexagrams', that first drew his attention to the book's possibilities in composition, as he was at that time using a magic square. He says:

I saw immediately that the chart was better than the Magic Square. So I began writing the Music of Changes and later the Imaginary Landscape No. 4 for twelve radios. The reason I wrote that was because Henry Cowell had said that I had not freed myself from my tastes in the Music of Changes.


– 'Conversing with Cage', p 63

Lou Harrison in a 1971 interview says that he drew Cage's attention to the Legge translation [PDF] around 1943 and told him he was using it to compose music (p 130, 'The Roaring Silence: John Cage – A Life', by David Revill, Arcade 1992). In Part II of the Q & A of the Norton Lectures (1988–89) Cage himself mentions at 5:05 min that Lou Harrison showed him the I Ching in San Francisco Public Library, but at that time he didn't have a use for it. (He mentions here seeing the 'chart of the 64 hexagrams', but this is not the 'Key for Identifying the Hexagrams' that inspired him from Wilhelm-Baynes, as such a chart doesn't exist in the Legge translation. He must mean either plate I, which is the 8 × 8 grid of the hexagrams in the King Wen sequence, or Plate II, fig 1, which is the xiantian fangyuan tu, or 'Before Heaven square and circle diagram'.)

'Music of Changes' is the first complete piece he composed using the I Ching. Cage was composing the 'Concerto for Prepared Piano and Chamber Orchestra' when he saw a connection between the charts he was already using for that piece and the hexagram chart. So he first used I Ching chance operations on the third and final movement of the 'Concerto'. David Revill in his Cage biography 'The Roaring Silence', p 131, goes into a some detail about the composition procedure, confirming also that Cage made use of moving lines in his chance operations. I haven't come across much about how Cage used moving lines, and for a while I wasn't even sure whether he used them at all. The thing that strikes you about the third movement compared with the first two is the long silences; the first two movements seem to want to fill the ear all the time with something, but then in the third movement there comes this confident handling of nothing. It is the I Ching chance operations that put this absence in Cage's work, as in the print series 'Changes and Disappearances', to be discussed shortly.

Less well known than Cage's use of chance operations for creating music and texts is his use of them to produce visual art. So I was fascinated to come across Kathan Brown's attractively produced book 'John Cage – Visual Art: To Sober and Quiet the Mind', which deals with this topic in some depth. In the last fourteen years of his life Cage spent a week or two every year producing etchings at Brown's Crown Point Press, going there first at her invitation on New Year's Day 1978, when the press was in Oakland (it is now in San Francisco). He was sixty-five years old and had never done any etchings before. In fifteen visits in total he made twenty-seven series of prints containing 667 individually composed works. The book contains a good selection in full colour, and I find them quite beautiful. My calligraphy teacher years ago, the enigmatic Singaporean artist Tang Da Wu, frequently spoke about 'marks talking to marks' – you can see this very well in Cage's work (two pieces reproduced below).

Brown describes how he went about his chance operations for his first print project, 'Seven Day Diary':

He numbered the different tools and asked which to use, then how many marks to make with each tool. Next he asked how many marks should be long, how many medium, how many short. He had with him a sheaf of pages showing I Ching-derived numbers, computer-printed and ready to use to get answers without the need to throw coins. (p 79)

It appears from this that Cage had a print-out of hexagrams to use for his chance operations before he asked the questions – the hexagrams weren't generated there and then in response to the questions, but rather he just used the next on a pregenerated list.

The book has a technical section on pp 64–77 printed on a cream background, set off against the white of the rest of the book and in smaller type, in which the specifics of the chance operations are discussed in much more detail than one usually sees, although even then not all questions are answered. There is a photograph on p 65 of part of Cage's print-out for 'Seven Day Diary' (1978):

The first row shows the 'original hexagram', with changing lines marked in the usual way, and the row directly below that has the 'changed hexagram', with the numbers of both hexagrams on the next two rows down. He appears to have used both sets of numbers to work out first which tool, then how many marks was assigned to it, followed by how many of those marks should be short, medium, and long. It's unclear whether he used the unchanging hexagrams or ignored them. The difficulty Brown has had deciphering as much of Cage's method as she has is palpable. In any case, the numbers, whichever he focused on, could be used to choose between different options:

There are 64 hexagrams, so his choices always ran from one to 64. He answered questions of This? or That?, for example, by treating the numbers one to thirty-one as This and thirty-two to sixty-four as That. (p 65)

For choices between a wider range of options, he had equivalency tables that broke up the number 64 into from two to 63 parts. Later he had his computer set up to print out what were called 'IC Supply Sheets', which were tables of numbers derived from the I Ching that had already been adapted for equivalency. Such that when he needed an answer for the next thing to do, it was directly at hand. But the chance operations still led to art that time after time looks like his because he chose the questions, he chose to make marks, he chose that they should be of three different lengths, he let go of how many and which tool. Chance operations were also used to position the plate and mix the inks.

Writing in a Guardian article, Kathan Brown comments on the colour mixes in 'Changes and Disappearances' (1979–82):

Each line on each plate was inked with its own individually mixed colour each time it went through the press. Cage said he wanted his colours "to look like they went to graduate school" and the formulas were complex. Because of the blue cast of the paper, each ink colour included some proportion of blue. More and more lines accumulated as the work progressed, and the final print (number 35) contains 298 colours. Printing went on seemingly endlessly, and when a printer wondered if it would ever be done Cage murmured, with a grin, "We must be free of such concerns!"

The 'Changes and Disappearances' series was originally entitled 'Changes', but the chance operations sometimes led to the plates being placed such that a line would be off the edge of the paper. This became a disappearance. Lilah Toland, the printer, wonders whether she will still have to mix the colours for such the line:

"No sweetie," Cage replies. "I'm not going to give you any unnecessary work." It is the end of the day and they open bottles of beer. Toland is counting, a chart in front of her. "Forty-five!" she exclaims. "Forty-five colors, and that's just for the first print. I think I'll end up in Napa State Hospital. I'll be sitting there saying, 'BC to CD is four parts manganese blue to two parts titanium white'." (p 79)

Patience indeed, particularly when you consider that when you start mixing in earth colours such as burnt sienna, burnt umber, and raw umber you tend to end up with a barely distinguishable range of variations. But Cage believed it was important to make the work as complicated as it could be. At the time of 'Changes and Disappearances' he was also working on the 'Freeman Etudes', about which he said:

I wanted to make the music as difficult as possible so that a performance would show that the impossible is not impossible. (p 78)

I don't quite know why he apparently favoured complexity over simplicity. It appears to have been a sacrosanct intention here, chance operations would have to operate within it. Perhaps when you start using chance operations to build a world you realise you must use them even to decide the consistency of the cement for laying the foundations, even for the granularity of the sand (he did use chance operations to decide whether the rosin grains for the aquatints should be fine, medium, or coarse). Perhaps complexity is implied, and inescapable.

Cage used a protractor for positioning plates at an angle to a grid, getting these angles from chance operations. I have not read anything about him ever using the circular diagram of the hexagrams, but certainly it presents further possibilities for chance operations as it can be used to cast directions, as can József Drasny's Yi-globe for orientation in three dimensions.

The book goes into considerable detail about how Cage set up his 'maps' and 'scores' for two series of etchings, 'Changes and Disappearances' and 'Déreau' (1982). The maps showed positioning graphically; the scores preserved the details of the chance operations, such as the mixing of inks and how many minutes the acid should be allowed to bite each image on the plate (affecting how strongly it would print). Some may say what is the difference between just dropping the plates randomly to determine their position and relying on virtual coin falls to do the same thing? While you can say that both methods are 'random' or 'chance', it is the discipline of the latter method that makes the difference. Not to mention the fact that Cage enjoyed the complexity and aesthetic of the I Ching ('Music of Changes' and 4'33" were not written exclusively with the I Ching, he also used tarot cards for some chance operations, but he disliked the tarot's 'melodrama'). Sometimes Cage did incorporate randomness, such as using the way a piece of string fell to determine the path of a line. (You could actually create a program to 'take a line for a walk', in Klee's phrase, using a hexagram generator and the circular diagram to determine the way the line turned.)

Kathan Brown has produced a splendid book, visually appealing in itself and very nicely bound.


Two of John Cage’s Crown Point Press works

Above, number 23 from 'Déreau' (1982), a series of 38 engravings with drypoint, aquatint, and photoetching (14 × 18 inches). 'Déreau' is a merging of 'décor' and 'Thoreau'. Below, 'HV2 24' (1992), from a series of 15 aquatints (12 × 14 inches). '24' refers to how many plates were used, 'HV2' for Horizontal/Vertical 2nd series. Both the 'Déreau' and 'HV2' series are reproduced in their entirety in the book.


Further resources on John Cage

UbuWeb Sound: John Cage – Selection of audio recordings. In Part I of the Q & A of the Norton Lectures (1988–89) he tells a story about making the etchings at the Crown Point Press, and in Part II he talks about the I Ching. The recording of 'Lecture on Nothing' is fascinating, the hypnotic and repetitive rhythm reminds me of Gertrude Stein's work. Someone made a good YouTube video of a small section of this.


UbuWeb Film: John Cage – Included among the video here is the wonderful 55 minute documentary: 'American Masters' – John Cage: I Have Nothing to Say and I Am Saying It (1990). Starting around 30:38 min he says of the I Ching: 'I use it as a discipline, in order to free my work from my memory and my likes and dislikes.' Also shown in this documentary is his use of the I Ching to film and cut a movie of a chess match. In For The Third Time (1978) Cage speaks with Richard Kostelanetz (who, oddly, has lost his voice) about how he applied chance operations to 'Finnegans Wake' to create mesostics on the name 'James Joyce'. One gets a real sense of how involved and laborious his process is, and the obsessional patience he applies to the task. In Peter Greenaway's film Four American Composers: John Cage (1983) Cage makes an interesting comment starting at 43:35 min when he says he opened 'Finnegans Wake' at random, which he goes on to qualify: 'Not by chance, but at random.' So the word 'chance' has become completely identified with his I Ching operations and is no longer the same thing as 'random'.


The Ten Thousand Things – Chapter six from James Pritchett's dissertation 'The use of chance techniques in the music of John Cage, 1950-1956'. Contains details of Cage's use of the I Ching in musical composition. Pritchett wrote 'The Music of John Cage' (Cambridge University Press, 1996).


Marcel Duchamp and John Cage – Marcel Duchamp's segment from Hans Richter's surrealist film 'Dreams That Money Can Buy', with the music Cage wrote for it, in 1947. A live performance of the same music here by Armin Fuchs in 2007. Cage wasn't using the I Ching to compose in 1947.


John Cage letter – Cage addresses a couple of questions in 1970 concerning the use of the I Ching in his work. The questioner asks about 'spiritual forces controlling I Ching'. Cage answers:

There is no split between body & spirit. We are one in and out. "Earth has no escape from Heaven."

I presume the questioner was wondering about external spiritual forces unique to the I Ching, while Cage seems to take it as a question about whether his mind may be controlling the chance operation. In I Ching studies the 'spiritual forces' controlling the I Ching are regarded as the ancestors, the spirits of the dead kings. To consult the I Ching, in common parlance, is 'to enquire of King Wen', and the imperative that drives the responses of the oracle is tianming, 'the mandate of heaven', its 'agenda' if you will. I think the main point with Cage was that he wanted to ensure that he wasn't controlling the result himself. As for what, if anything, was controlling the result, he called it chance. But he has said that 'the purpose of music is to sober and quiet the mind, thus making it susceptible to divine influences'. He goes on to say, 'a sober and quiet mind, according to perennial philosophy, is one that is free of its likes and dislikes' (mentioned in Henning Lohner's film 'John Cage – 22708 Types', below). So I think one could say that his chance operations were intended to draw in divine influences, however he may have conceived them.


John Cage – 22708 Types – A 1992 documentary by Henning Lohner about John Cage. English original with German subtitles. Presented in five parts on YouTube. Lohner directed Cage's film One high 11 and 103, which was finished two months before Cage died in 1992. [Ed's note: These videos have unfortunately disappeared from YouTube, but I'm leaving the reference so people can look it up.]


Water Walk – How an American TV gameshow audience was introduced to the music of John Cage in 1960. Very funny. In this vintage clip Cage is a master of taking himself seriously at the same time as not. The timings on his stopwatch were determined by the I Ching. (Also on YouTube.)


Listen: John Cage – Extract from Miroslav Sebestik's 1992 film 'Listen'. Another extract here.


Cage's fire monoprint technique – Cage experimented with setting fire to his paper in a controlled way. He wasn't the first to do this, but maybe the first to build the fire on the bed of the press. In this YouTube video the technique is demonstrated. Continues in Part Two. Kathan Brown shows a couple from this series ('Eninka') in 'John Cage: Visual Art'. The YouTube reconstruction isn't the exact technique, just the outer form of it, because Cage used chance operations to determine how many balls of newspaper to set on fire and to time how long to leave it burning before making the monoprint.


UK Cage exhibition – Approximately 200 of John Cage's drawings, watercolours, and etchings toured the UK in 2010 and 2011.


Jackson Mac Low (1922–2004) – The American poet Jackson Mac Low also used the I Ching to create poems and plays. His first play production was: 'The Marrying Maiden: A Play of Changes', New York, The Living Theater, 1960–1961. John Cage wrote the music for it. The title refers to hexagram 54.