John Cage, preparing a piano (c.1960)
Many books have attempted to explain John Cage, one of the 20th century’s most controversial composers, but author Kay Larson’s is the first one to concentrate on how Zen Buddhism empowered him to create his music, liberate his divided mind, reconstruct his character, remove personal crises and thus allow him to transform the entire narrative
of 20th-century art.
Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists (Penguin, $29.95) notes that Cage (1912-92) was not necessarily the first American composer to fuse East and West, but his approach to remove all ego and intention from his art emerged directly from his exposure to Zen. His approach permanently altered the historic flow of several creative disciplines.
Arguments about Cage and near-aggressive reactions to the things he said still rage today, but his role as a precursor to performance art, conceptual art, turntablism, installation art, minimalism, live electronic music and “be-in”-style happenings cannot be denied.
Today, anyone making sounds with turntables owes a debt to John Cage. Anyone choreographing a dance without an intentional narrative flowing through it owes a debt to the lifelong creative and emotional partnership between Cage and Merce Cunningham.
Larson was an art critic in New York for many years and also a Zen practitioner, which is why her refreshingly nonlinear, non-Western understanding of Cage works so well. She presents Cage’s life as he experienced it, along with all the questions he asked, and presents his story as a classic spiritual path of suffering, realization and release from suffering.
Writes Larson: “Cage [had] been struggling with self-judgments, self-loathing, anxiety about his sexual identity, fear of being himself—yet a powerful need to be himself, too. The mystics of West and East have told him to look up from his four walls and see the sky.”
She specifically tracks the influence of the Huang Po Doctrine of Universal Mind, and how it emerged in Cage’s approach to indeterminacy and composing music without intention. From Huang Po, “Cage saw the amazing potential of dwelling in the omnipresent, silent, pure, glorious, mysterious, peaceful joy of nonintention.”
As he found himself at the epicenter of the mid–20th-century avant-garde, influencing and/or infuriating all those he came in contact with, Cage became a blueprint for disenfranchised artists everywhere.
“I said to my husband that I was addressing three of the most esoteric of topics: the life of an oddball experimental composer, cryptic Zen sutras and the origins of the art avant-garde,” Larson writes. “Yet the theme that unites them all—and that allowed Cage to open his arms to all of us and welcome us to a new world—was his realization of the path out of suffering. It’s available to everyone. And it’s transformative.”