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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

Larson is an exuberant writer about Buddhism and the art world. If she goes fancifully overboard when she tries to give voice to Cage's spirit, she nicely fleshes out Suzuki and his circle, and she mentions, it seems, every visual artist who had even marginal contact with Cage (although she leaves out the important conceptual artist and devoted Cagean William Anastasi). Larson, however, has very little to say about music and practically nothing to say about Cage's work in the last 35 years of his life, when he wrote his greatest music.

She also makes music-related errors. One is describing Ara Guzelimian, who is provost and dean of the Juilliard School, as a composer and concert pianist. Her musical descriptions, moreover, can be naively romantic, and she is unduly harsh on Schoenberg. For all his rebelliousness, Cage never lost his devotion to the man or his love of the music. But she is insightful when it comes to Cage's more conceptual work, which often flummoxes musical analysts.

Larson's Cage breaks out of the four walls enclosing his mind, and that's pretty much where she leaves him. Although never diminishing the inspiration of Suzuki, Cage later in life was more likely to cite Thoreau, James Joyce, Marshall McLuhan, Buckminster Fuller and Norman O. Brown. And for all his influence on the art world — Larson credits him, not irresponsibly, with setting the stage for pop art and showing artists how to appreciate Marcel Duchamp — Cage was first and foremost a composer.

So it's a good idea to follow Larson's book with a useful small volume published by Reaction Books in its "Critical Lives" series. Rob Haskins rushes through Cage's early years, but he shows, with an often lovely turn of phrase, how brilliantly — and profoundly musically — Cage was able to apply Zen to the process of writing music. Larson encourages us to love Cage. Haskins tells us why we should. It's good to have, despite their limitations, both books.

mark.swed@latimes.com

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