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John Cage: Chance Operations

By December 7, 2016Uncategorized

‘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

John Milton Cage Jr. (September 5, 1912 – August 12, 1992) was an American composer, music theorist, writer, philosopher, and artist. (Wikipedia)

Cage studied Indian philosophy and Zen Buddhism in the late 1940s, and the I Ching became his source reference for life, using the guide as a random chance generator, as well as philosophical reference.

Between 1979 and 1982 Cage produced a number of large series of prints: Changes and Disappearances (1979–80), On the Surface (1980–82), and Déreau (1982). In 1983 he started using various unconventional materials such as cotton batting, foam, etc., and then used stones and fire (EninkaVariationsRyoanji, etc.) to create his visual works.  In 1988–1990 he produced watercolors at the Mountain Lake Workshop.


“Chance Operations” would seem a haphazard process, but these are structures, a series of strict rules that remove choice from the artist. Choice is what most artists most value. If you let go of choice, what remains in your artworks?


Ever get stuck with your painting, unsure of your next move to the point of anxiety or frustration? This kind of painting can be good for busy minds, or Option Paralysis. It is what it is, every answer is good.

Chance Operations

(The text below contains excerpts from http://www.biroco.com/yijing/cage.htm)

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.

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.

“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’

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 wuweior ‘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.

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 color, and I find them quite beautiful.

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.”

Each line on each plate was inked with its own individually mixed color each time it went through the press. Cage said he wanted his colors “to look like they went to graduate school” and the formulas were complex. Because of the blue cast of the paper, each ink color included some proportion of blue. More and more lines accumulated as the work progressed, and the final print (number 35) contains 298 colors. 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!”

Cage set up ‘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). What is the difference between just dropping the plates randomly to determine their position and relying on virtual coin falls? While you can say that both methods are ‘chance’, it is the discipline of the latter method that makes the difference.

Cage enjoyed the complexity and aesthetic of the I Ching. Sometimes he used tarot cards for some chance operations, but he disliked the tarot’s ‘melodrama’. On occasion Cage did incorporate randomness, such as using the way a piece of string fell to determine the path of a line.


Cage’s Eninka prints were made by simultaneously running crumpled and burning newspaper and a damp sheet of paper through a printing press. Cage was overjoyed by the first successful Eninka print:

“Oh, it’s beautiful! I can’t believe it. I couldn’t sleep all night. I thought my whole life had been a waste!”

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