When John Cage died
from something I'm working on
I thought about the composer John Cage’s fatal stroke as you would think about chance operations, which he used in much of his work.
So many possibilities of what can happen at every moment of one’s life, and at each instant the fates are rolling dice, or consulting their I Ching, or whatever their method is. And the operation each time involves the possibility of death. Each time. The probability is all that changes.
Early in life, only extremely bad luck, at least in the modern industrialized world, gets you the undesired outcome. It is not linear in its alteration. It is slightly higher just after birth than it becomes around the second or third year, when it reaches the lowest point it will attain. Then it slowly starts to climb.
Inexorably, the probability that snake eyes will come up increases. Until finally it is the only outcome that can materialize. At each roll, though, it is possible. Theoretically.
In Cage’s case, it came just as he was making tea, on an August evening, less than a month before the completion of his 80th year. He did not die immediately after the stroke that emerged from the dice throw that evening, but was taken to a hospital, where he perished early the next morning.
It is always unexpected. Always.
Yet it should never be so. We should always be anticipating it, knowing, by the numbers, that it must inevitably come. It is the only certain outcome, terribly determined, fully inevitable.
But we are always taken by surprise.
The thing we have to know is coming always arrives to be greeted with shock and dismay. Now? How? Because the dice came to rest in that position, and the event immediately manifested.
Cage’s death manifested as he made tea.
Perfectly appropriate for such a man, an arranger of sounds who had tried to remove his will from the process, and who embraced the mundanity of all creative endeavor. What more prosaic, and yet completely artistic, than the preparation of tea? Even without the elaborate ceremony of the Japanese Zen ritual of preparation and presentation of matcha.
You can imagine him laughing, pleased with the form of the thing. How could it have been better had he chosen his final act? The leaves in the container, the hot water into the cups, as every other day at this hour, perfectly mundane, perfectly composed, and then, on this one occasion, a chance disruption: the descent of the death angel.
Where precisely had he been in the process of preparing the tea? At which step in the rite? I longed to know that detail, which of course cannot be known to anyone who wasn’t there, and perhaps not even to such a person.
Merce Cunningham, Cage’s companion, was presumably in the apartment, but that does not mean he could answer the question. Had he been watching the process? Having seen Cage do it day after day for decades, one suspects he might have been less than attentive. Would he have been able to recite the exact step in the preparatory sequence in which Cage moaned, if he moaned, and dropped the cup, if he did drop a cup, and closed his eyes in a grimace, if he did that, and then dropped to the ground?
Likely not. The details of the momentous chance event almost always escape us because we do not know whether this or that or another moment that is passing before us will matter in such a way. We know most of them will not and we calibrate our attention accordingly. But this habit cheats us of something beyond value.
Is this the precise instant that someone who has shared my life drops dead before me, or is it just another forgettable part of a forgettable day?
How would our lives be different if we truly believed, at every moment, that such a thing was possible, and were accordingly aware and attuned? For surely it is possible.
When I heard the news of Cage’s death, on the other side of the continent, I immediately walked out the door of my apartment and began to head north, toward the beach. As I walked, I tried to avoid thinking of anything not immediately present in the world around me: the wind, the headlights of cars, the sky overhead.
In an hour, I had arrived. Once there, I sat in the sand. Darkness slowly made its way over the waves. I sat there all night, listening.