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Review: Kay Larson's inspirational 'Where the Heart Beats'

At a low point in his life, composer John Cage turned to Zen Buddhism. In her book, Larson looks at Cage from the point of view of Buddhism and the visual arts rather than music.

July 22, 2012|By Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times
  • Composer John Cage.
Composer John Cage. (Victor Drees / Getty Images )

Where the Heart Beats
John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists

Kay Larson
Penguin: 477 pp., $29.95

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, composer John Cage underwent related crises in his personal and musical lives. He was America's most progressive, most original, most brilliant, most charming and most media-genic young artist. But he had reached a dead end.

Shortly after moving to New York from the West Coast by way of Chicago, Cage, who was born 100 years ago this September in Los Angeles, made his New York debut in 1943 with a concert of percussion music held at the Museum of Modern Art. It was big news and was excitedly reviewed even in Life magazine. But during his early New York years, Cage's marriage broke up over his growing relationship with dancer-choreographer Merce Cunningham. Music, he found, had become an inadequate medium for expressing emotions. Where he meant to reproduce the bleating of a broken heart, some listeners heard woodpeckers pecking. He was poor as a church mouse. It all seemed hopeless.

Cage tried everything. He dabbled in Jungian psychology. But Indian thought proved more conducive. With his luminous 1948 "Sonatas and Interludes" for prepared piano (his invention of placing nuts, bolts and other objects between the piano strings to create a one-man percussion band), Cage began a quest for answers outside the Western tradition, turning to Hinduism as a path to tranquillity. Then he began attending courses at Columbia University in Zen Buddhism given by D.T. Suzuki, a Japanese scholar whose books had become all the rage among New York artists and intellectuals.

That Suzuki changed (maybe even saved) Cage's life is the story that Kay Larson tells in her inspirational biography, "Where the Heart Beats." A former art critic of the Village Voice and New York Magazine, as well as a Zen practitioner, she looks at Cage from the point of view of Buddhism and the visual arts rather than music.

Cage often cited a Zen portrayal of enlightenment — first there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, but after enlightenment there is again a mountain. The only difference between before and after, Suzuki used to say, was that the feet were a little bit off the ground.

As a boy growing up in L.A., Cage simply loved music. As he studied music (famously with Arnold Schoenberg at USC and UCLA), things started to become confused, and they became more so as he devised elaborate intellectual and technical constructs in his early scores. Under Suzuki's guidance, Cage claimed to have rid himself of his likes and dislikes and was able to simply let sounds be.

Larson shapes her book and Cage's life around this Zen parable. She then credits Suzuki with leading Cage into a state of satori, removing the divide between heart and mind. Cage absorbed the essence of Zen teaching, which is that all things in the universe interpenetrate, into his being and his work.

Cage then located his problems with his ego, and he adopted chance procedures to free his music from himself. That led to his most famous piece, 4'33." At its 1952 premiere in Woodstock, N.Y., the great pianist David Tudor sat silently at the piano for four minutes and 33 seconds, producing outrage in an audience made up mostly of members of the New Philharmonic, who spent their summers in the Catskills.

First, though, Larson traces the beginning of Cage's spiritual education to his first job as a dance accompanist at the Cornish School in Seattle, where Buddhism was in the air. In fact, Cage's involvement in Eastern thought began far earlier than any of his biographers have revealed.

When he was a student at Los Angeles High, he sometimes visited the Theosophical Society in Hollywood. The first orchestra concerts he attended were led by the Los Angeles Philharmonic's then mystically inclined music director, Artur Rodzinski. In the early 1930s, Cage was mentored by Los Angeles' leading virtuoso pianist, Richard Buhlig, a visionary who introduced Cage to Hinduism. Composer Henry Cowell brought Cage in contact with the musics of China and Japan. While studying with Schoenberg, Cage attended lectures by Krishnamurti in Ojai.

That Cage ultimately found that Zen and other forms of Eastern thought could be a means to help him musically and spiritually is then hardly surprising. He was all but wired for that. He was also always on the lookout for ideas to use in his life and work. But it might be giving Zen too much credit to say that it removed Cage's ego.

No one changes art the way Cage changed art without an enormous ego, and Cage's commanding one could be felt in just about everything he ever wrote or did. In conversation, Cage would usually present a radical notion by saying, "Don't you agree?" Or he might just say, "Hmm," his pitch rising. It was very hard to argue with him: He was too persuasive. What Zen did was to encourage Cage to pay attention to the world outside himself and put his ego to excellent use.

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