John Cage, master questioner

Influenced by Zen Buddhism, Cage inspired others to question everything

Found a great quote the other day on the site Brain Pickings (which, by the way, is highly-recommended reading for inquisitive minds). The site was reviewing a book by author Kay Larson called Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists, about the legendary composer and creative maverick John Cage. The book covers a number of fascinating aspects of Cage’s life, including his lifelong habit of questioning everything—in his work, in his life, in the world around him.

Here’s Cage, talking about questioning:

What can be analyzed in my work, or criticized, are the questions.”

-and-

“My composition arises out of asking questions.”

Cage, who was greatly influenced by Zen Buddhism, clearly embraced the Zen concept of shoshin or “beginner’s mind” and applied it to his work. Every composition, every artistic challenge was a chance to “begin again” (which is the title of another Cage biography, this one by Kenneth Silverman). I’ve been finding in my research that many of the best questioners adopt a naïve mindset when taking on new challenges; it’s what enables/permits them to ask the fundamental questions that no one else is asking.

A fertile collaborative partnership with questions at its heart

While Cage was questioning and re-inventing music, his longtime life partner and creative collaborator, Merce Cunningham, was doing likewise in the world of dance. When Cunningham died in 2009 (17 years after Cage’s death in 1992), The New York Times wrote: “Over a career of nearly seven decades, Mr. Cunningham went on posing ‘But’ and ‘What if?’ questions, making people rethink the essence of dance and choreography.” The same article describes Cage and Cunningham’s creative partnership, in which Cage often composed music for Cunningham’s choreography. “The two began to develop what would emerge in the 1950s as the most radical of their ideas about dance theater: that dance and music should be performed at the same time but prepared separately, both autonomous and coexistent.”

The partnership of Cage and Cunningham serves as a wonderful model of collaborative inquiry. It’s clear that each man was asking his own, individualized questions about music and dance—but when they inquired together, the result was fascinating and groundbreaking.

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About the Author

Journalist and speaker Warren Berger realized that the majority of successful creatives and entrepreneurs he was interviewing over the years were great questioners. His wondering about "How can we all learn to do what they do?” led to this website and the writing of his latest book, A MORE BEAUTIFUL QUESTION. Follow him on Twitter at @GlimmerGuy and subscribe to his blog posts here.

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