My guess is that most people answering this question would remove their headphones and provide the name of the bands currently cued up on their listening device.  But based on some articles I have been reading lately, the question is somewhat deeper than that (more like “what is the sound of one hand clapping” deep).  It points to how we respond to music (and sound in general) and trying to answer it can help us better understand both creative and spiritual practices.

It has been a while since my last post.  It’s not that my left brain hasn’t been coming up with stuff to write (maybe I should call it my “Write Brain”).  Rather it is that my right brain has been “compelling” me to spend time learning how to use the new music production software I purchased several months ago.  I have spend most of my “creative time” playing with this program, happily trying out all kinds of wild stuff, not at all concerned about whether it will ever be heard or liked by others.

Much of what I have come up with in my experimental creations does not neatly fit into most of the categories used to describe music; in fact it is not even clear that it is music.  So, recently the left brain started pestering me to find some sort of label for whatever it is I am doing.  By the way, this questioning seems to be rooted in the basic left brain concerns about whether what I was doing was worthwhile or “good” or whether it would be understandable to others.  Anyway, I started to do some research on the internet and so this, and subsequent blog posts, will be inspired by the reading I have done.  I’ll be quoting and paraphrasing heavily from some of the articles I’ve discovered. And, as always, I will try to point to some links with the practice of Zen, where I can.

An article by Robert Worby titled “An Introduction to Sound Art” suggests that maybe what I have been doing is best categorized as “Sound Art”. (http://www.robertworby.com/writing/an-introduction-to-sound-art)   In reality, it probably doesn’t matter how my work is labeled.  At some point I may post some examples and let you decide what it is, but, for now, let’s look at what Worby has to say about ”sound art”.  I think his ideas are relevant  to those interested in any kind of artistic practice or any kind of spiritual practice where one attempts to be more in touch with the senses.

Worby starts off by examining the nature of sound (it is extremely impermanent as you Zen practioners might suspect) and by differentiating between the process of “hearing” and the process of “listening”.  According to Worby:

Sound is constantly pouring into our ears. Most of it goes unnoticed because we are not listening to it. Listening occurs when we become conscious of sound and connect with it. We hear it and we engage our intellect, our emotions, our memory and many other faculties. Hearing is a physical process, listening is a psychological act. And when we listen to sound we are beginning the process of generating meaning with it. If we are listening properly our curiosity is aroused and we might begin to ask questions about the sound; not just the usual questions about what produced the sound but questions about what we are hearing: How loud is it? For how long does it continue? Is it pitched? If it is pitched, how high is it? How low is it? How far away is it? Is it moving? In which direction? How fast? Is it changing? How is it changing? What is changing? And, if there is more than one sound, how many sounds are there? How do they relate to one another? How do individual sounds relate to the mass of sound? There are many, many questions of this type we can ask and, if we ask them, they help us to perceive sounds with greater clarity. This aroused perception generates more detail and raises our consciousness. We have more to say about sound and we can comprehend it in greater detail. All of this may, in turn, help us to generate feelings about what we can hear and it may help to generate meaning from what we are able to hear.(Underlines are mine.)

Worby goes on to say:

Listening is an art. It is an art just as composing and performing are arts. Listening involves action, we cannot listen and remain passive. If we are passive and uninvolved then we are only hearing. Listening is creative and it is this auditory creativity that has given rise to what is now called sound art.

Although Worby looks at a variety of historical sources of “sound art”, he pays particular attention to the work of John Cage, who expressly connected his art and his practice of Zen (Search for previous posts on this topic by entering keywords Cage or Duchamp).  In general, I think, Cage’s work, even if he called it “music” rather than “sound art” can be seen as raising the kinds of questions that Worby says in the previous quotation are raised when we really start to listen to sounds.  According to Worby:

 Cage’s most notorious piece is commonly known as ‘4’ 33”’. It is in three movements (a very conventional Western musical structure) and the notation for each movement simply reads ‘Tacet’. This is the musical term meaning ‘Be silent’. Cage is asking the performer to be silent for three consecutive movements. The piece does not instruct the performer to ‘do nothing’ (a common misconception) but it does require the performer to ‘be silent’. During the first performance, in 1952, the pianist, David Tudor, indicated the passage of the three movements by closing the piano lid at the beginning of each movement and opening it at the end. Hopefully he made no sound. But there was plenty to hear. Four minutes thirty three seconds is quite a long time, for an unsuspecting public, to sit and listen. The sound of the audience twitching, coughing and nervously shuffling filled the space and sounds drifted into the auditorium from outside. Cage had outlined a situation in which sound could be heard but he had no control over those sounds. The conventional roles of composer, performer and listener had been completely subverted. It was difficult to say who was the composer or who was the performer or who was the listener. The listeners were making the sounds so, in conventional terms, they were the performers. The performer, David Tudor, was also a listener. The composer had no hand in crafting what was heard, this was done entirely by the listeners, so, in effect, they were the composers. Cage had turned conventional music making inside out.


Composing is one thing, performing is another, listening is yet a third. What can they have to do with one another?”  John Cage


From today’s perspective, the performance of Cage’s 4′ 33″ seems rather contrived and passé, much like Duchamp’s hanging of an urinal at an art show (Search for previous posts on this topic using the keyword “Cage” or “Duchamp”).  Although those attending the first performance of Cage’s piece may have been shocked into pondering questions about the nature of sound and music, most people today would attend because it was the cool thing to do.  However contrived they seem now, both Cage and Duchamp managed to call attention to the importance of the mental attitude of the audience and both had a profound effect on how artists approached their practices since then.  I think that it is no accident that both of these guys were influenced by their knowledge of Buddhist philosophy and practice.

Cage with D. T. Suzuki

It’s not clear to me whether Cage actually used the term “sound art” to describe his work but the term has consistently been used that way by others.  So, exactly what is sound art?  

At this point it appears that the term “sound art” refers to a diverse set of practices (ranging from Dada nonsense poetry to recording of natural sounds at various sites) and there is still no clear distinction between “sound art” and “music”. (Below I have links to 3 short videos to provide some examples of  “sound art”.)  The term “experimental music” is often used to characterize musical compositions that veer away from conventional ideas about music, but I would be hard pressed to describe the distinction.  In Worby’s words:

 The multiple threads of sound art practice weave a fabulously rich tapestry. It celebrates the ear in a world that we mostly perceive with our eyes. Language, our tool for thought, is very much orientated towards what we can see. Sound art encourages us to listen, it sharpens the ears and the imagination and so develops what it is to be human.

Cage at the Piano

While any piece of music can have these effects, it seems that “sound artists” see the main goal of their creative endeavor as encouraging real listening.  Whether someone truly “listens” to music or any other sounds depends upon the person’s mental set.  Sound art, as I understand it, is designed to make it induce listening as Worby has defined it.  In future posts I will consider the writings of other authors who have used the terms “deep listening” and “mindful listening” to seemly capture the essence of what Worby is saying.

Since Zen and other spiritual disciplines encourage practioners to be mindfully present and aware and a wide variety of situations, I would suggest that these disciplines share a common goals with much of what might be called sound art (this is most clear in the case of John Cage).  In future post’s I’ll be exploring how music/sound can become a mindfulness practice and looking material suggesting that mindfulness practice can enhance our listening to sounds/music and that listening can increase our mindfulness.

Personally, although I can appreciate the goal of making me more active in the process of listening, I find a lot of sound art and experimental music to be rather irritating; I’m sure I would have been one of the first people out the door at the first performance of Cage’s 4′ 33″.  Doing all of this reading and thinking (thanks left brain!) has led me to wonder whether I can create sounds that are musical and yet can raise listerner’s awareness in the manner that Worby has described.  That is, can sound art be engaging/entertaining and still be consciousness expanding? Maybe it really doesn’t matter as long as I am having fun doing it (thank you right brain!)

 Check out these short videos showing some examples of “sound art”.  Also see my previous post titled “Border Music by Glenn Weyant”





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Right after I posted the video “What is it (Marcel Duchamp)? (see previous Post), my wife called me from Florida where she was visiting relatives.  She told me that she had just watched it in the company of her six year old grandniece, Catalina.  Apparently after viewing it, Catalina simply said “It’s like kind of crazy”.

 My painting teacher, Sally Pearce, once told me that the most useful critiques of my painting would come from children.  So it occurred to me that I should give this comment some thought.

First, Catalina’s comment brought to mind, a couple of similar comments I’d heard recently coming from fellow Zen students.  The first was elicited after the person had read the teachings of Buddha in the Diamond Sutra which includes the central Buddhist notion that what we think of as “self” is not real. The verse in question has Buddha saying the following to his student Subhuti:

And why not? Subhuti, a bodhisattva who creates the perception of a being cannot be called a ‘bodhisattva’. And why not? Subhuti, no one can be called a bodhisattva who creates the perception of a self or who creates the perception of a being, a life, or a soul.”"

The Zen student wrote me that the Buddha’s comments “sounds insane”.  Most of us would agree. (For more details see Discussion #3 on the FORUM page of this blog).

 The other comment was one of those commonly heard observations about the state of the world; i.e. “everyone’s crazy”. This student didn’t really say whether he considered himself in this category or not. Certainly one possible translation of the rapper’s dialogue in the video “What is it (Marcel Duchamp)? could be “IT is crazy”, where IT refers to what Jiyu Roshi often refers to as “the whole ball of wax”. EVERYTHING’S CRAZY!

Eihei Dogen, one of the most influential Zen philosophers, didn’t use the word “crazy” but did say that we all live in “delusion”.  And for those who are used to thinking that “enlightenment” is somehow an antidote for or the opposite of “delusion”, he argues that they are one and same.  Now, THAT sounds crazy, doesn’t it?  (If you haven’t already, you may want to check out an earlier post titled “SUN RA, THE ALIEN: THE THIN LINE BETWEEN GENIUS, SPIRITUALITY AND CRAZY”)

Whether something is considered to be “good” or “bad”, “crazy” or “sane” or “enlightened” or “delusional” depends on how that “thing” is defined. As Dogen and many Western philosophers’ have shown us, definitions are not fixed and do not enjoy complete consensus as to their meanings.  This seems to be the point of Duchamp’s “Fountain”.


In doing research for the video, I learned that Marcel Duchamp was fascinated by the concept of “transubstantiation“.  If you watched the video closely you saw that I played with this concept in the video.  According to Wikipedia this term was first, or most famously, used at The Fourth Council of the Lateran (1215) where it was stated that Christ’s “body and blood are truly contained in the sacrament of the altar under the forms of bread and wine, the bread and wine having been transubstantiated, by God’s power, into his body and blood.” From this perspective, the bread and wine are not just symbols of Christ’s body and bread but are his body and blood, although in another form.  Later, more liberal interpretations allow that the bread and body are symbols or metaphors for Christ consciousness and that what makes this real or true is the faith of the participants in Communion.  In other words it  is as if the wine was Christ’s blood.

Here is how Duchamp used the term transubstantiation:

  • “The spectator experiences the phenomenon of transmutation; through the change from inert matter into a work of art, an actual transubstantiation has taken place… …All in all, the creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work into contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.”
    • “The Writings of Marcel Duchamp (Marchand du Sel)” e.d. Michel Sanouille and Elmer Peterson,New York1973, pp. 139-140

When Duchamp entered the urinal in a art show, he was obviously raising the question “What is it?”, or more to the point, “Is it art?”  His point seems to be that it all depends on how “it” is seen by the spectators.  If it is defined and perceived as art, (as if it were art) by viewers, then  it will be perceived and responded to differently than if it is seen as  ”just a urinal”.  If something is seen as “art” it brings forth a special mode of attention that is different from something seen as part of  “everyday life”.

What is the special kind of attention associated with art?  Those of you who have been reading my previous post know that is what I have been calling being “present/awake/alive”.  As I suggested in an earlier post ”Performer/Audience Communication“, some works of art allow the artist and the audience to share this unusual mode of consciousness.


"An Oak Tree" by Michael Craig-Martin

The piece pictured to the left is a continuation of Duchamp’s dialogue  by conceptual artist Michael Craig-Martin.  His work “An Oak Tree”, installed in the Tate Modern consists of a glass of water, which the artist has declared he turned into a “full-grown oak tree”, “without altering the accidents of the glass of water”   Craig-Martin is claiming that, although the form of the piece looks like a glass of water, it is in fact or in substance an oak tree, which is transubstantiation of the kind that is central to the Christian doctrine.  Of course such work is likely to provoke remarks such as “Is it really art?” or “It’s like kind of crazy”.


Since Duchamp created “The Fountain”, artists of all stripes have been interested in exposing the tenuous nature of the distinction between art and all other aspects of life.  For instance, in “Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life”, Allan Kaprow wrote:

“Consider certain common transactions–shaking hands, eating, saying goodbye– as Readymades (a term Durchamp used for pre-existing “art objects” like the urinal).  Their only unusual feature will be the attentiveness brought to bear on them.  They aren’t someone else’s routines that are to be observed but one’s own. just as they happen”.

What Kaprow seems to be saying is that living life attentively is making one’s life an art piece, which begins to sound  pretty “Zen-like”.   He strengthens this association by writing :  “Lifelike art in which nothing is separate is a training in letting go of the separate self”.  In the next Post, I will explore how the kinds of philosophical discussions prompted by Duchamp and others have been going on for centuries among Zen and other Buddhist’s philosophers.


The Zen-man is an artist to the extent that, as the sculptor chisels out a great figure deeply buried in the mass of inert matter, the Zen-man transforms his own life into a work of creation….” (Presumably Suzuki would agree that the same is true of a “Zen-woman”)

                                                        D.T Suzuki, Zen and the Japanese Culture

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The Artist is Present

I happened to see “Marina Abramovic The Artist is Present” on HBO the other night and would highly recommend it to this crowd of readers.  It is a documentary that follows the Serbian performance artist as she prepares for a retrospective of her work at The Museum of Modern Art inNew York.  It is available on Netflixs.

The retrospective included either videos of or reenactments (using hired artists) of performances carried out by Abramovic over the course of her career.  Photos of some of those early performance pieces are included below, along with some commentary.

Marina plays "game" stabbing knife between fingers rapidly for hours.

“The main problem in this relationship was what to do with the two artists’ egos. I had to find out how to put my ego down, as did he, to create something like a hermaphroditic state of being that we called the death “ self”

Marina on her relationship with Ulay.



Ulay and Marina screaming at one another as Performance Art


Performance piece with Ulay

   Abramovic lived on three connected platforms in full view of audience for 12 days.IN 2002 Marina lived for 12 days on three platforms in full view of the public. the ladders leading down from the platforms had rungs made of butcher knives.

A large part of the MOMA retrospective consisted of videos or reenactments of these and many other past performances by Abramovic.  However,the main attraction was the artist herself who sat motionless in a chair in the museum while gazing into the eyes of whoever wanted to sit across from her.  Thus, the title of the exhibit (and the documentary), “The Artist is Present”, was based on the fact that Marina was in the museum during every moment that the Museum was open during the 3 month exhibit; 7 1/2 hours a day, 6 days a week.

The title seems to have a double meaning.  Not only was she present in the sense that she was there at  her show every hour of every day- something, I’m sure, no other artist has accomplished- but she was totally “present” with everyone who sat before her.

In the film, Klaus Bresanbach , the curator for the exhibit, said:

What is so beautiful about the MOMA performance, she’s treating actually every human being she is encountered with the same attention and the same respect.


As you can see from the photos, many of those who waited in long lines to be in Abromovic’s presence were profoundly affected.  Many people openly wept and I found one person online who descibed herself as having an “out of body experience” while gazing into the artist’s eyes.  In the film Marina says of those who sat with her:

  Some of them are really open and you feel this incredible pain…….when they are sitting in the front of me, it’s not about me any more.  It’s very soon, that I’m just mirror of their own self.

 In other words,Marina was being “in the present” in the sense that I talked about this concept in the earlier post “What the ______was that Video About?  In the film, Marina tells us:  It doesn’t matter what kind of work you are doing as an artist.  The most important is from which state of mind you are doing what you are doing, and performance is all about state of mind.

 It is clear from the film and from other interviews with Marina that she sees her art as a means of transforming herself.  By confronting challenges and fears, she is able to create, not a new art object but a new self.  This reminds me of Suzuki’s statement as follows: The Zen-man is an artist to the extent that, as the sculptor chisels out a great figure deeply buried in a mass of inert matter, the Zen-man transforms his own life into a work of creation.  (D.. Suzuki, Zen and Japanese Culture)


Zen Meditation

There is much about Abramovic’s art practice and her life that reminds me of  serious Zen practioners.  Consider this quote from the movie:

The hardest thing is to do something that is close to nothing.  It’s demanding all of you because there is no story anymore to tell.  There’s no objects to hide behind.  You have to rely on your own pure energy and nothing else.

I am sure that any Zen student who has sat for hours in a prolonged meditation retreat can relate to her description.

Although it is clear that Abramovic is aware of and has practiced various meditiation

Marina at the end of a day of sitting.

techniques, she does not identify herself as a spiritual seeker. As she said in a joint interview with Ulay:

…as we speak about a reserve of energy, about our bodies, you might think Zen Buddhism is behind our work, or other philosophies, but we’re really interested  only in  experience.” (http://www.flashartonline.com/interno.php?pagina=articolo_det&id_art=197&det=ok&title=MARINA-ABRAMOVIC-AND-ULAY)

Whether or not Abramovic’s art  is spiritual, it involves a practice that resembles what seems to be required in all genuine spiritual pursuits; the practice of raising ones awareness to the point where something new is a possible outcome.  This is nicely summed up in the movie when Marina says:

Artists have to be warriors.  Have to have this determination and have to have the stamina to conquer not just new territory, but also to conquer himself and his weaknesses.

This overlapping of spiritual and artistic practices is the central focus of this blog.



In my last two posts, I’ve been exploring some key points made by Jonah Lehrer in his new book Imagine: How Creativity Works.  At the end of this post I  will provide the answer to one of the word problems  (Marsha and Marjorie) that researchers have used to study how the brain comes up with creative solutions to problems. (By the way, there is a hint word contained in the body of this post, just in case you did not solve the problem.)

But, first want to take a slight detour.  Feedback (thank you, by the way) from some readers suggests  that it might not be so obvious to everyone as  to how or why creativity is relevant to either art or spiritual practices.

What Lehrer, and most others, mean by creativity is the creation of something that is new or novel.  Artist, by definition, create objects of art, but these objects vary widely in terms of their creativeness, in the sense that we are talking about it here.  There are a few artists, like Picasso, who, have  prompted “paradigm shifts” in art.  However, any particular piece of art , whether produced  by beginners or masters, could be judged to be more or less creative, depending on whether its creator found ways of introducing novel features into the artwork or not.

Those who regularly surprise themselves (and others) with works that are different in some way from what has been their norm, may be said to be more creative.  It should be said, however, that there is no direct correlation between an artist’s creativity, as defined above, and it’s  appreciation or demand by those who view, read or listen to it.

Thich Nhat Hanh

Ok.  What about the relationship between creativity and spiritual practices?

I will focus on Zen here, because that is what I know the best.  Generally Zen can be described as a way of life (a set of practices) intended  to minimize the suffering of the practitioner and others.  The process of moving towards this goal is often described as an “awakening” or “liberating” process. Art and Zen are not the same thing, but I find it helpful to see both as involving the possibilities of becoming more creative.

Suffering in the Buddhist tradition is seen as caused by ignorance.  This not does not mean the same thing as stupid.  Rather it refers to the tendency for us humans to be unable to see and thus ignore the fact that we are intimately interconnected with everything else.  Thus, we go throughout life with our self-centered notions of how our lives should flow and inevitably these plans and expectations clash with reality.  Because of this limited perspective, we suffer.  This is an oversimplified discussion but the length of this post would be tripled if I were to go into the topic with any depth.

Homer by Picasso

In the arts, creativity entails finding ways of going beyond limiting old habits and perspectives.  I would suggest that this is exactly what happens by practicing various spiritual disciplines.  In Zen and similar Buddhist meditative practices, the goal is to go beyond the limited viewpoints bound around the notion that the self is separate from others around us.

A key component of Zen meditation  is learning how to let go of the left-brain problem-solving processes that Lehrer says limits creative insights.  Zen Koans like “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” also entail “giving up” looking for rational solutions.

For the Zen practitioner, the goal is not to produce a new product but to produce a new self which is capable of meeting each new life situation, as it arises, by responding creatively rather than reacting through old patterns of behavior.  Throughout the hundreds of years that Zen was developed in China and then Japan, Zen students have also practiced various arts. It seems likely that the general creativity developed through Zen practice could “spill over” into artistic practice as well and vice. versa.

I think this is the same idea that D.T Suzuki was trying to express in rather awkward and sexist language in this quote from his renown book Zen and Japanese Culture :

The Zen-man is an artist to the extent that, as the sculptor chisels out a great figure deeply buried in a mass of inert matter,  the Zen-man transnsforms his own life into a work of creation.…..” (pg. 17).

PUZZLE ANSWER:  Marsha and Marjorie were triplets.  Lehrer reports that the researchers using these kinds of insight problems found that indirect hints often help the subject find the solution.  That’s why I included the work “tripled” above. Let us know how you worked with the problem.