This will be the summer of John Cage anniversaries: 100 years since his birth, 20 years since his death, and 60 years since the first performance of his best-known composition, 4’33”. Cage was the preeminent avant-garde composer of his time, but his work had an even broader reach, profoundly influencing all the arts in the second half of the 20th century. Cage revolutionized music composition primarily through his use of what he called “chance operations” and “indeterminacy,” each a novel way of sacrificing a composer’s control. Through random events, such as the coin tosses involved in casting the I Ching, he allowed chance to guide his artistic process, rather than relying on his own taste and judgment. When he realized that chance operations allowed freedom to the composer but not to the performers, he devised indeterminacy, yielding many final decisions about a work to the performers themselves.

Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists
Kay Larson
The Penguin Press, 2012
478 pp.; $29.95 cloth

In Where the Heart Beats, her timely new biography of Cage, art critic Kay Larson attempts to illuminate the essentially Buddhist motivation behind these innovations. Chance and indeterminacy enabled Cage to create music that was not the product solely of the composer’s own ego, as she puts it, but a pursuit that flowed directly from his intense study of Zen. Although Cage said he did not wish his work “blamed on Zen,” at the same time he insisted that “without my engagement with Zen…I doubt whether I would have done what I have done.”

A longtime Zen practitioner herself— her teacher was the late John Daido Loori, to whom she dedicates the book— Larson begins with a loving chronicle of the early blossoming of Zen among the Beat generation. She devotes the first chapter and many subsequent sections to Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki, the largely self-taught Japanese Buddhist scholar who began translating texts and explicating Zen for an American audience in the 1920s. At that time, Buddhism was virtually unknown in the U.S. outside the Asian immigrant communities on the East and West Coasts. By the time Cage began his own spiritual explorations around 1950, all the available English-language books on Zen would have fit comfortably on a single bookshelf, with most of them by Suzuki.

D. T. Suzuki’s somewhat dry, erudite approach has largely gone out of style, as has his single-pointed focus on the personal enlightenment experience. (Several of the books Larson cites as most influential in the 1950s are now out of print.) Yet Larson does not exaggerate Suzuki’s role in the spread of Zen to the West. His philosophical rather than overtly spiritual texts were a good match for the heady intellectualism of Cage and his artistic peers. If later Zen teachers found fertile ground in America for their teachings, it was often Suzuki’s lectures and books that had prepared the soil.

The Japanese teachers who would arrive in America in subsequent decades were true Zen masters, and looked like it in their black robes, their shaved heads tanned by wind and sun. In the 1950s, though, Suzuki didn’t intimidate Western friends. He was probably just Zen enough.

Many in the Beat generation, including the poets Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, and Allen Ginsberg, first encountered Zen through Suzuki’s work. Larson takes the time to retell stories of their explorations in fascinating detail.

In 1958, on the day The Dharma Bums was published, [Jack] Kerouac spontaneously called up D. T. Suzuki and begged to visit. Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Ginsberg’s partner, Peter Orlovsky, were already on the way to a publishing party, but they diverted the car to Suzuki’s apartment on West Ninety-Fourth Street in Manhattan. In Kerouac’s mind, Suzuki was “a small man coming through an old house with panelled wood walls and many books.” Kerouac, the loner, seemed to yearn for the real Zen embodied by the old man. Perhaps he didn’t know or care how strange this giddy American-style homage might have appeared to a reclusive Japanese scholar.

D. T. Suzuki remained a pivotal figure throughout Cage’s life. After Suzuki’s death, Cage wrote a poem in his memory that contained the lines, “when I think of / you as now i have the Clear impression / tHat / tenderly smIling you’re alive as ever.”

Larson covers the period of Cage’s life from 1950 to 1952 in minute detail, devoting more than a quarter of the book to these three turbulent years. This is Cage’s enlightenment period, according to Larson, beginning roughly when he discovered Suzuki’s Essays in Zen Buddhism and culminating with the first performance of 4’33”—4 minutes and 33 seconds of near silence—and she structures the book to follow this “arc of revelation.” Cage dutifully attended Suzuki’s lectures at Columbia University during this time, and Larson tells us that the scholar’s “teaching on ego was ground zero in Cage’s transformation,” serving to “crack open his mind and show him a way out of suffering on a path of transformation.”

Unlike some of his Beat contemporaries, Cage was not a practicing Buddhist in a formal sense: he chose not to sit and considered music his practice. His moment of realization came not in a meditation hall but in the anechoic chamber at Harvard, “a sound-proof box lined with sound-absorbing baffles, guaranteeing the most perfect silence on earth.” Hoping to experience nothingness at last, Cage instead was overwhelmed by the sounds of his own body. He concluded that total silence doesn’t exist—and that silence, such as it is, “is not acoustic. It is a change of mind.”

When I went into that soundproof room, I really expected to hear nothing. With no idea of what nothing could sound like. The instant I heard myself producing two sounds, my blood circulating and my nervous system in operation, I was stupefied. For me, that was the turning point.

“In other words, there is no split between spirit and matter,” Cage later said. “Suzuki’s teachings suddenly made sense,” Larson tells us.

Cage continued to read and quote Buddhist texts throughout his life. Larson helpfully provides space for him to speak for himself, sprinkling quotations from his writing and talks through every chapter. (Cage’s 1992 Tricycle interview, conducted by experimental composer/performer Laurie Anderson, is quoted at length.) Larson conceived of the book as a conversation between herself and Cage, modeling the structure on Cage’s earlier imagined dialogue with the composer Erik Satie. The well-chosen passages in Cage’s voice make his Buddhist roots abundantly clear. At times he retells Zen stories he heard from Suzuki. Elsewhere he uses Zen language to express his own philosophy, as in a lecture on indeterminacy he gave in Darmstadt, Germany, in 1958:

Each performer, when he performs in a way consistent with the composition as written, will let go of his feelings, his taste, his automatism, his sense of the universal, not attaching himself to this or that, leaving by his performance no traces, providing by his actions no interruption to the fluency of nature. The performer, therefore, simply does what needs to be done, not splitting his mind in two, not separating it from his body, which is kept ready for direct and instantaneous contact with his instrument.

Larson also shows us Cage’s endearing fondness for koan-like questions, such as “If I can see it, do I have to hear it too?” and “Which is more musical, a truck passing by a factory or a truck passing by a music school?”

As the subtitle—John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists— suggests, Where the Heart Beats has very grand ambitions, and Larson’s fascinating treatment of Suzuki and the Beats is only one of countless discussions. While the chapters are nominally chronological, Larson leaps back and forth across the years, occasionally jumping all the way to the present as she recounts her own experiences in writing the book. Unfortunately, Larson’s meandering prose introduces us to so many different people that it’s sometimes difficult to keep them straight. The cast of characters includes not just the artists famously connected to Cage, such as the dancer Merce Cunningham and the painters Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, but also dozens of other people whose life and/or work touched Cage’s even tangentially. These run the gamut from the composers Arnold Schoenberg and Virgil Thomson to the arts patron Peggy Guggenheim to the scholar Joseph Campbell and his wife, the choreographer Jean Erdman, to subsequent generations of artists, writers, and performers who claim Cage as a creative mentor. Larson gives many of them their own lengthy sections but does not always succeed in justifying such long asides. Readers previously unfamiliar with Cage’s life may have difficulty distinguishing the key figures from the more peripheral. Even Cunningham, Cage’s life partner and most significant collaborator, occasionally gets lost in this sea of faces.

Some of the ground in Larson’s book has been covered before. Jaquelynn Baas, in her lavish Smile of the Buddha (2005), which looks at the influence of Eastern philosophy on modern Western artists, captures Cage’s life and work in a Buddhist context in a mere 15 pages. And Baas—like Larson a serious Buddhist practitioner—helpfully includes a few of Cage’s musical scores and samples of his artwork, which Larson’s book leaves us to imagine (or look up online). For readers interested primarily in Cage’s connection to Buddhism, Baas’s briefer and more accessible treatment may be sufficient.

But fifteen years of research and writing went into Where the Heart Beats, which accounts for the encyclopedic view of Cage’s times as well as his life. At moments, Larson allows her deep respect for her subject to veer dangerously close to hagiography. (Pondering Cage’s influence, she poses the question, “Is he a Zen adept and master teacher with a pipeline to visual artists?”) Her Cage seems to do no wrong, and his critics are often presented as ignorant, unenlightened, or both. When some in the music and art worlds reject Cage’s work, Larson implies that they simply lack a proper Buddhist perspective. Yet when Cage performed at Naropa Institute (now Naropa University) in Colorado in 1974, the Buddhists and Buddhist sympathizers in the hall didn’t react much better:

The crowd quickly grew restless. Irritated by the intermittent silences, people let loose with deafening shrieks, bird whistles, catcalls, and screams. Some twanged guitar strings or played their flutes, or threw things onto the dais. Others stormed the stage and danced or sang.

Larson doesn’t explain why this audience’s familiarity with the dharma was not enough to win them over, or whether in more recent years, Buddhist audiences have been more receptive to his compositions. She does, however, quote Cage on one response to his Naropa performance: “Ten years later I received a letter from a person who had been at that particular program, and he thanked me for that performance and said that it has changed his life.” How it changed it we are left to wonder.

Larson draws many parallels between Cage’s work and the concurrent revolutions in the visual arts. Cage’s influence on many of those artists was more than coincidental, she contends. Like Cage’s not-so-silent silence, Rauschenberg’s all-white canvases were not blank but filled with ever-changing light and shadow. Larson also cites critics like Barbara Rose, who saw in the work of the painters Rauschenberg, Johns, Larry Rivers, and Jim Dine, and in the Happenings and other spontaneous performance art of the 1960s, “a common origin”—namely, “the ideas and experiments” of Cage. Among Cage’s own early influences, Larson tells us, was the Dadaist Marcel Duchamp, whose exhibits of “readymades,” or found objects (among them, a bicycle wheel and a urinal) were grounded in the same view of life and art as inseparable that became a central theme of Cage’s work.

Larson devotes much space to Cage’s collaborations with other artists. Yet she glosses over an essential difference between the visual and performing arts: the element of time and with that, the loss of control. This is a problematic omission, given that surrendering control is so central to Larson’s interpretation of Cage’s work. Audience members in the visual arts remain masters of their own experience, choosing how long and from which angles to view a piece. In the performing arts, this control is largely ceded to the performers and composers. Some of the fiercest objections to Cage’s more audacious compositions— Larson quotes from an angry letter to a local newspaper after the first performance of 4’33”—seem to amount to a backlash against these strictures. Patrons who were perfectly comfortable gazing at Jackson Pollack’s seemingly random assemblages of color rebelled against the forced confinement of listening to Cage’s truly random collections of sound. However, Larson doesn’t seem to see that what felt liberating for Cage as a composer might feel imprisoning to his audience.

But despite the book’s shortcomings, Larson has done us a great service in creating what will likely become the definitive account of John Cage and Zen. She has shown how his “sound of no sound” may be the perfect embodiment of Buddhist emptiness in musical form. As Cage himself wrote, his work “leads out of the world of art into the whole of life.” Those with the patience to tackle this somewhat unruly volume will be rewarded with a portrait of how one man sought to express the truth of life beyond the ego. “We think we’re alone in our struggles,” Larson observes, “but his example suggests otherwise.”

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