Considering the Sound of an Air Conditioner: John Cage and "Zen Ox-Herding Pictures"

John Cage and Mountain Lake Workshop
John Cage and Mountain Lake Workshop, "Zen Ox-Herding Pictures: Set One, Number 3," 1988. Private collection. Reproduced by permission of the John Cage Trust at Bard College. | Photo: Courtesy of Pomona College Museum of Art.

John Cage was a composer, philosopher, writer and visual artist whose interest in East Asian and Indian philosophy led him to renounce artistic intention and instead embrace process and chance in music, performance and visual art. In honor of the centenary of John Cage's birth, the Pomona College Museum of Art presents the traveling exhibition "John Cage: Zen Ox-Herding Pictures" through December 16, 2012. The exhibition brings together 55 watercolors made on brown paper towels, created by Cage in 1988 at the Mountain Lake Workshop in Blacksburg, Virginia. Initially, they were simply used for wiping watercolor brushes, that is, they were not intended as final works. But, as this exhibition demonstrates, most anything can be considered art--in the most positive sense--based on intention and context. The process behind their making and their inspiration also exemplifies the influence on his life of work of Zen Buddhism, which emphasizes that enlightenment can be achieved through a personal path, eschewing doctrine, but emphasizing dialogue with a teacher.

Born in Los Angeles in 1912, Cage attended Pomona College from 1928 to 1930. After a trip to Europe, Cage returned to the U.S. in 1931, eventually turning to music and art, studying with composers Richard Buhlig, Henry Cowell, Adolph Weiss and Arnold Schoenberg. In 1952, at Black Mountain College, he presented a theatrical event considered by many to have been the first Happening, a performance or event that purposefully eliminates the boundary between the artwork and its viewer in which the two are inseparable in the works execution. "4'33"" was written by Cage and performed by David Tudor sitting without playing in front of a piano for four minutes and thirty-three seconds. It is considered one of the most famous and important pieces in 20th-century avant-garde music and art. In essence, Cage's intention was the creation of an event in which the sounds of the environment gained importance for the listener, as act of active listening and mindfulness.

Shiraz Art Festival: David Tudor (left) and John Cage performing at the 1971 festival. | Photo: Courtesy Cunningham Dance Foundation archive. Photo from Wikipedia Commons.
Shiraz Art Festival: David Tudor (left) and John Cage performing at the 1971 festival. | Photo: Courtesy Cunningham Dance Foundation archive. Photo from Wikipedia Commons.

As I walk through the exhibition, one of two people in the galleries on a Saturday afternoon, reading translations of the Ox-Herding poems, John Cage's poetic aphorisms, and think of reconsidering my own paper towels before I discard them, I find myself considering the difference between the interior and exterior sounds of the building that house the galleries--perhaps charged with knowing of Cage's legacy of, as he says, "to let the sounds be themselves." This attentiveness to auditory margins is inspired also by Cage's use of chance operations in the creation of his compositions.

Installation view of 'John Cage: Zen Ox-Herding Pictures' at Pomona College Museum of Art. | Photo: Courtesy of Tyler Stallings.
Installation view of 'John Cage: Zen Ox-Herding Pictures' at Pomona College Museum of Art. | Photo: Courtesy of Tyler Stallings.

This overall lingering sensibility of being awake to subtle sounds remains with me throughout the day.

Back home, alone in the house, I find myself attuned to the sounds of the forced air through the ductwork. Its constant, unwavering resonance is calming. All other noises are silenced because of its delicate howl, as if standing in a forest atop a mountain. The windows are shut in order to retain the cool air, which also keeps exterior rattles at a distant too.

I have not lived in a house with air conditioning for decades because of living closer to the coastline in the past. The breezes from the ocean cannot leap the mountain range around Riverside, where I've lived for the past few years now. In the August and September months, the temperatures are in the low 100s. The latter month being the one in which Cage was born (September 5, 1912), hence the celebrations now, and the former month is when he died (August 12, 1992). Somehow, the coincidence of his birth and death months with the hottest months in Riverside, which necessitates running the air conditioner more than I like, seems appropriate to creating conditions for listening to the artifice of the forced air, but trying to accept rather than reject what it has to offer in its unintended mechanical composition.

A downside in using the air conditioner is that it creates a dry environment throughout the house. But, then again, this lack of moisture reflects the outside desert environment--a geographic region that receives less than ten inches of annual precipitation defines a desert. This seems appropriate since deserts are often the sites of spiritual journeys; thus, the air conditioner serves both the purpose of creating a sonic environment conducive to meditation and also one that generates aspects of a spiritual geography.


According to the museum's press release, Ray Kass, the founder and director of the Mountain Lake Workshop, invited Cage there to paint, and they began a series of collaborative experiments with watercolor pigments. As Cage experimented with watercolor for the first time, he used paper towels as test sheets to acquaint himself with the new medium. Kass viewed these beautiful studies as more than just test sheets and encouraged Cage to make an artwork with them. Cage then invited Kass to make a piece with them. Twenty years later, Kass, along with Dr. Stephen Addiss, returned to Kass' collection of Cage's archived paper towel paintings, selecting works that reflect the Zen narrative of Ox-Herding pictures, an illustrated parable for the path to and beyond enlightenment that Cage often referred to in his writings. Accompanying each of the images is a poetic fragment from Cage's writings, selected by Addiss to further connect the images with the ancient Zen parable. Addiss is a composer, musician, poet, painter and historian of Japanese art. He studied with Cage in his now famous classes in "Experimental Composition" at The New School for Social Research, during which time Cage often talked about D.T. Suzuki, with whom he had studied Zen.

Cage often used the "I-Ching," also known as the "Book of Changes," and dates back to 3rd to the 2nd millennium BC, as a source for determining the direction to take in his composition and visual work. For example, in the book that accompanies the exhibition, "John Cage: Zen Ox-Herding Pictures," Ray Kass writes about when he presented Cage with a set up for producing a set of watercolor paintings based on smooth rocks in the New River, nearby the Mountain Lake Workshop, and perhaps inspired by Cage's own interest in the fifteen stones of the Zen-inspired Ry?an-ji garden in Kyoto, Japan, which is considered one of the finest examples of a kare-sansui, or Japanese rock garden.

I invited him to experiment in making watercolor paintings using the stones that he had selected the previous day. He was silent for a few moments while he looked over the arrangement of the materials that I had prepared. He then took out a folder containing a computer printout of random numbers based on the hexagrams of the "I-Ching" and immediately set to work making a program for a painting.

I-Ching Hexagrams. | Photo: Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.
I-Ching Hexagrams. | Photo: Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

During the process of making these works, Cage would test his brushes on brown paper towels. Kass' was intuitive enough at the time to see something special in them. He writes, "At one point I suggested that we do something with the collection, and Cage said that I should make a piece out of them."

In other words, Cage did not set out to consider his paper towel test sheets as responses to the Ox-Herding poems, nor did he generate the poems to accompany the test sheets. Although executed after his death, they have been done with Cage's implicit blessing and earlier instruction to Kass that he "make a piece out of them."

The idea that others could participate in the making and remaking of Cage's work is essential to Zen thought in which subject and object collapse. In this manner, life's struggles lessen as one embraces that which is out of one's control. In Los Angeles, Cage's process was perhaps most evident, in regard to visual art, in the posthumous 1993 exhibition at The Museum of Contemporary Art, "Rolywholyover A Circus." For example, in one of the galleries there were storage racks that contained a variety of works by almost 150 artists. Cage had instructed that the display of the art on the racks being changed daily by gallery attendants, based on the I-Ching.

Installation view of 'Rolywholyover A Circus,' 1993, The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. | Photo: Paula Goldman and Courtesy of The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles website.
Installation view of 'Rolywholyover A Circus,' 1993, The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. | Photo: Paula Goldman and Courtesy of The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles website.

Taking a cue from John Cage, and his willingness and encouragement to embrace that which is out of one's control as part of one's creative process, I've decided to recontextualize excerpts from the manual that accompanies my air conditioning unit (an apparatus that is dominant in my life at the moment during these hot months of Cage's centenary celebrations) by juxtaposing them with translations of the Ox-Herding poems, which are posted in the exhibition, that served as an ongoing inspiration to John Cage. I consider my reconceptualization to be in alignment with how this exhibition came together. Oddly, I feel that, even though the operating manual is written in a neutral manner, there is a subtext of a narrative about the struggle to control one's environment. This is true literally in that the goal of the manual is to instruct one on the best and effective manner for cooling the air in the house but, through juxtaposition with an ancient narrative about the struggle to control one's desires, fears, and ego, it also seems to be a metaphorical tale about the impossibility of maintaining control. Perhaps I will start a side business--Cage's HVAC Service, where we say, "Forced Air Is Music to Our Ears!"

HVAC Unit. | Photo: Courtesy of Tyler Stallings.
HVAC Unit. | Photo: Courtesy of Tyler Stallings.
Illustration by K'uo-an Shihyuan, ca. mid-twelfth century, of the last poem in the series in which the oxherder returns to society with a sense of compassion towards everyone after attaining enlightenment.
Illustration by K'uo-an Shihyuan, ca. mid-twelfth century, of the last poem in the series in which the oxherder returns to society with a sense of compassion towards everyone after attaining enlightenment.

An Operating Manual for Air Conditioner and Ox-Herding Poems

By Tyler Stallings in unintended collaboration with poet C'hing-chu and York Heating & Air Conditioning



The Ox-Herding Poems represent a spiritual journey that represents a search for one's true self that begins with a journey outward but then enlightenment is found through a journey inward, yet returns to the world with a new viewpoint of compassion for everyone and everything.

According to a didactic panel in the exhibition, the earliest series of Zen ox-herding poems was written in China around 1050 by C'hing-chu. The series that became the best known was written and illustrated by K'uo-an Shihyuan in the mid-twelfth century. His pupil Tz'u-yuan published these paintings and poems as woodblock prints. Translations of K'uoan's poems are provided by Stanley Lombardo, and are in italics.

I've written nutshell interpretations in the parentheses next to each heading.

Lastly, an excerpt from the air conditioning manual follows the poem. The paragraphs are in the same order found in the manual, as if they represented not only a journey of maintenance of hardware but of the spirit too. They have been edited slightly.


1. Searching for the Ox (aimless searching; the ox has been there waiting to be seen again)


Searching through tall, endless grass

Rivers, mountain ranges, the path trails off.

Weary, exhausted, no place left to hunt:

Maples rustle, evening, the cicada's song.


This high efficiency air conditioning system has been precision engineered, manufactured of high quality materials, and passed many rigorous tests and inspections to ensure years of satisfactory service. That's why you can rely on efficient, trouble-free operation.


2. Finding its Traces (beginning a path towards enlightenment)


Along the river, under trees--jumbled tracks?

Thick fragrant woods, is this the way?

Though the ox wanders far in the hills

His nose touches the sky. He cannot hide.


Your system is fully automatic. Set the thermostat and forget it. And it's automatically protected from damage by voltage fluctuations or excessive heating or cooling demands.


3. Seeing the Ox (perceiving the everyday as a source of realization)


Oriole on a branch chirps and chirps,

Sun warm, breeze through the willows.

There is the ox, cornered, alone.

That head, the horns! Who could paint them?


If your hand is wet and you blow on it, it feels cool because some of the moisture is evaporating and becoming a vapor. This process requires heat. The heat is being taken from your hand, so your hand feels cool. That's what happens with an air conditioner.


4. Catching the Ox (discipline is required to break old habits)


Last desperate effort, got him!

Hard to control, powerful and wild

The ox sprints up a hill and at the top

Disappears into the misty clouds.


Your thermostat puts full control of the comfort level in your home at your fingertips. DO NOT switch your thermostat rapidly "On" and "Off" or between "Heat" to "Cool." This could damage your equipment. Always allow at least five minutes between changes.


5. Taming the Ox (believe in your path and stop deluding yourself with too much doubt)


Don't lose the whip, hold on to the rope

Or he'll buck away into the dirt.

Herded well, in perfect harmony

He'll follow along without any constraint.


Although thermostats may vary widely in appearance, they are all designed to perform the same basic function: to control the operation of your air conditioning or heat pump system. Regardless of size or shape, each thermostat will feature a temperature indicator; a dial, arm, or push button for selection of the desired temperature; a fan switch to choose the indoor fan operation; and a comfort switch for you to select the system mode of operation.


6. Riding the Ox Home (joy is less struggle)


Riding the ox home, taking it easy,

The flute's notes vanish in the evening haze.

Tapping time to a folksong, happy as can be--

It's all too much for words.


The computerized electronic thermostat is actually a sophisticated electronic version of a manual changeover type. This thermostat includes features that allow "set-back" temperature variations for periods of sleep, or while you are away during the day, and means energy savings for you.


7. Forgetting the Ox (stillness and oneness with the ox, the self, and the world)


Reaching home on the back of the ox,

Rest now, the ox forgotten.

Taking a nap under the noon sun,

Whip and rope abandoned behind the hut.


The main power to the system must be kept "ON" at all times to prevent damage to the outdoor unit compressor. If necessary, the thermostat control switch should be used to turn the system "OFF". Should the main power be disconnected or interrupted for eight hours or longer, DO NOT attempt to start the system for eight hours after the power has been restored to the outdoor unit.


8. Transcending the Ox (emptiness and a lack of delusions allows openness to the world)


Whip, rope, self, ox--no traces left.

Thoughts cannot penetrate the vast blue sky,

Snowflakes cannot survive a red-hot stove.

Arriving here, meet the ancient teachers.


For the most efficient operation, keep storm windows and doors closed all year long. They not only help insulate against heat and cold, but they also keep out dirt, pollen, and noise. Closing drapes at night, keeping fireplace dampers closed when not in use, and running exhaust fans only when necessary will help you to retain the air you have already paid to heat. Keep lamps, televisions, or other heat producing sources away from the thermostat. The thermostat will sense this extra heat and will not be able to maintain the inside temperature to the desired comfort level.


9. Returning to the Source (view the world with serenity by not imposing one's will so much)


Return to the source, no more effort,

Just staying at home, sitting in the hut,

Blind and deaf to the world outside.

The river runs by itself, flowers are red.


With the comfort control switch in the "COOL" position, the system will operate as follows: When the indoor temperature rises above the level indicated by the temperature adjustment setting, the system will start. The outdoor unit will operate and the indoor fan will circulate cool, filtered air. When the room temperature is lowered to the setting selected, the system will shut off.


10. Entering the Marketplace (spread the good will of your enlightenment by returning to the world as an example)


Barefoot and shirtless, enter the market

Smiling through all the dirt and grime.

No immortal powers, no secret spells,

Just teach the withered trees to bloom.


A periodic inspection, cleaning, lubrication, and adjustment of your heat pump is available from your dealer. Be sure to ask him about this service."¨For those who prefer to do-it-yourself, follow the instructions to care for your system.

Cover for book that accompanies the exhibition, 'John Cage: Zen Ox-Herding Pictures.' | Photo: Courtesy of the publishers George Braziller, Inc. Publishers, New York, in association with the University of Richmond Museums.

There will be related special events at the Museum by writer Kay Larson on her new book "Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists," on Thursday, October 11, at 5 p.m., and a performance by visual artist Steve Roden on Thursday, October 25, at 5 p.m. Roden will read from his new book "365 X 433," his diary of performing Cage's "4'33"" every day in 2011.

For information on the Pomona College Museum of Art and the exhibition, please visit their website. For information on John Cage, please visit the official website.


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