One Hand Clapping: Hearing Zen in «Recueil de pierre et de sable»

Duncan William Reehl, Bates College


In America, Buddhist and oftentimes “Zen” thought in particular has had an impact on the arts. Music in the western art music tradition is no exception. Its use in WAM most famously traces back to the work of John Cage, whose contact with Zen under the gnosis of Buddhist scholar D.T. Suzuki during the 1950s transformed Cage’s music, and in part through his influence—but also in part, I posit, through certain qualities of Zen especially resonant with artistic practice—the art world in general. This thesis is an inquiry into the usage of Zen-related aesthetic, spiritual, and philosophical concepts by WAM composers, framed around the locus of a case study. Specifically, I focus on a composition by American composer Joshua Fineberg (b. 1969), «Recueil de pierre et de sable» (1998), which I note as a relatively recent example of a piece that is, per its composer, title, and concert program, predicated on Zen content. Drawing on ethnomusicological theories and the music-analysis theory of “spectral semiotics,” I suggest that Fineberg employs compositional elements on the aural/musical, deep-structural, and experiential levels which are indexical of Zen thought and experience, based on his tempered usage of aesthetic concepts associated with Zen such as wabi (asymmetric, withered beauty) and yohaku no bi (beauty of empty space) in composition by focusing on the musical parameters of temporality and timbral evocation of spatiality, as well as considering the piece, its audience, and my own analysis in cultural context.