Thursday, July 19, 2012

Where the Heart Beats

John Cage is probably the most impressive experimental composer of the 20th century. He challenged conventional definitions of music by exploring household objects as percussions, everyday sounds as music, and most famously, silence. Kay Larson, author of Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists, reveals the deeply conflicted genius of Cage as he struggles during the 1950s to find his voice as an artist, how to live as a gay man in a country where homosexuality was still illegal, and how to make his art live as an extension of his spiritual life. What Larson paints is the portrait of a fascinating man, who in true Zen fashion, literally fused his life with his art.

In addition to being a fearless avante-garde composer, in true renaissance fashion, Cage was a writer, lecturer, teacher, poet, and painter. However, Cages is most well known for 4'33". If you have never heard it performed, here it is:

As you can tell from the performance, silence, for Cage, is more than the absence of sound (which he ultimately discovers is an impossibility); it is a void pregnant with creative energy and potential. The connections to Buddhist sunyata, or the Absolute, are immediately apparent. Just as there is Absolute without the relative, there is no silence not bursting with sound.

Cage, as Larson reveals, was a close student and friend of famed Zen scholar D.T. Suzuki, whose influence on Cage's work and life cannot be underestimated. This is where Cage gets his Zen inspiration. Some of my favorite sections of the book, in fact, are devoted to the brilliant Suzuki.

As with all aspects of this complex man, Cage was not a Zen Buddhist in any traditional sense. Like Huineng, the 6th ancestor, I don't recall Cage ever meditating, which in no way prevented him from having and then sharing some of the greatest spiritual experiences ever captured in Western art (a la William Blake).

Even though I have no background in experimental composition--I'm an old-school metalhead--I absolutely fell in love with Kay Larson's book. It is brilliantly written; her prose is beautiful and her research impeccable (it took her 20 years to write this book, and it shows). My favorite part is when Cage, inspired by a sudden burst of creativity, experiments with a piano. He stuffs any object he can find--forks, knives, blankets--inside the piano to create a one-of-a-kind sound, literally. One slight movement of the piano would budge a fork and then the whole sound would be lost.

The effect, like life itself, is completely un-reproducible.

Cage's work is a celebration of impermanence and all that it means to be human. Where the Heart Beats brings Cage to life in startling detail. His life, like his art, is beautiful, filled with joy, sadness, love, and passion. The book honors Cage in the best way any book can--by being a work of art itself.

Thanks to Kay Larson for sharing your passion for such a great artist, and to Penguin Press for an advanced press copy.


  1. Until I started reading reviews of this book I didn't know anything about the subject...

    1. Me, too. I didn't know much about Cage until I read the book. He really was a fascinating artist, especially how Zen influenced his life and work. Thanks for reading.

  2. I'm so glad you fell in love with the book and with Cage. Thanks for being on the tour!