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

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

by Kay Larson
     
 

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The first biography of composer John Cage to show how his work, and that of countless American artists, was transformed by Zen Buddhism.

One of the greatest American composers of the twentieth century, John Cage created music that defies easy explanation. Many writers have grappled with Cage’s music—which used notes chosen by chance,

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Overview

The first biography of composer John Cage to show how his work, and that of countless American artists, was transformed by Zen Buddhism.

One of the greatest American composers of the twentieth century, John Cage created music that defies easy explanation. Many writers have grappled with Cage’s music—which used notes chosen by chance, randomly tuned radios, and even silence—trying to understand what his music means rather than where it came from. An unprecedented and revelatory book, Where the Heart Beats reveals what actually empowered Cage to compose his incredible music, and how he inspired the tremendous artistic transformations of mid-century America.

Where the Heart Beats is the first biography of John Cage to address the phenomenal importance of Zen Buddhism to the composer’s life, and to the artistic avant-garde of the 1950s and 60s. Zen’s power of transforming Cage’s troubled mind, by showing him his own enlightened nature—which is also the nature of all living things—liberated Cage from an acute personal crisis that threatened his life, his music, and his relationship with his life-partner, Merce Cunningham. Caught in a society that rejected his music, his politics, and his sexual orientation, Cage was transformed by Zen from an overlooked and somewhat marginal musician into the absolute epicenter of the avant garde.

Using Cage’s life as a starting point, Where the Heart Beats looks beyond to the individuals he influenced and the art he inspired. His circle included Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, Merce Cunningham, Yoko Ono, Jasper Johns, Morton Feldman, and Leo Castelli, who all went on to revolutionize their respective disciplines. As Cage’s story progresses, as his students’ trajectories unfurl, Where the Heart Beats shows the blossoming of Zen in the very heart of American culture.

 

Both an innovative biography and a ground-breaking cultural history of the American Century, Where the Heart Beats is the work of acclaimed art critic Kay Larson. Following her time at New York Magazine and The Village Voice, Larson practiced Zen at a Buddhist monastery in upstate New York. Larson’s deep knowledge of Zen Buddhism, her long familiarity with New York’s art world, and her exhaustive original research all make Where the Heart Beats the definitive story about one of America’s most enduringly important artists.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Part biography, part cultural history, and part adoring fan’s notes, journalist Larson’s inventive and contemplative reflections on Cage’s encounters with and absorption of Zen Buddhism opens new windows on Cage’s often complex yet always compelling, music. Weaving threads of the teachings of Zen Buddhist writer D.T. Suzuki and Alan Watts, along with Cage’s own reflections and writings on art, music, dance, and life, Larson patches together a brilliant quilt that covers Cage’s growing understanding of the nature of noise and silence and the roles that each plays in music. Although Cage studied with Suzuki, he admits that he didn’t understand Buddhism until one day when he was walking in the woods looking for mushrooms, the meaning of Suzuki’s teachings came to him. He lived from that moment practicing the Buddhist belief in the interpenetration of all things. By 1946, Cage was reaching out to the great contemplative traditions to comprehend the nature of his suffering self—his marriage was breaking up, and his relationship with Merce Cunningham was quickly developing—and to reflect his great love, music, in the mirror of a greater love. Larson’s thoughtful meditation on Cage offers a glimpse at the evolution of an artist who abandoned many of the musical structures of the past and opened new doors for several generations of musicians and artists. Agent, Anne Edelstein. (July)
Kirkus Reviews
An unconventional biography of avant-garde composer John Cage (1912–1992) and the profound influence Zen Buddhism had on his music. Cage is most famous for 4'33", a 1952 work whose audacity--essentially four minutes and 33 seconds of silence in which the only sounds are those of the performance environment--inspired a raft of experimental artists. The piece has also been mocked for its anybody-can-do-that simplicity. However, as longtime art critic Larson makes clear, it sprung from years of deep spiritual practice and hard thinking about the structure of music. Beginning his career on the West Coast, Cage studied with pioneering modernist composers Arnold Schoenberg and Henry Cowell but broke free to find ways to integrate music with the noise of everyday life. At the same time, he grew enchanted with varieties of religious mysticism, studying under D.T. Suzuki, who helped promote Zen Buddhism in the West. In time, Cage's work acquired an openness that ultimately produced 4'33". Larson structures the book as a kind of call and response between Cage and his associates, alternating paragraphs of conventional biography with extended, often gnomic, quotations from Cage. The strategy is most effective when it shows the effect his uncanny calm had on others: Composers like Morton Feldman and Yoko Ono and painters like Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns were all influenced by Cage's thinking. However, Larson's approach does leave Cage's life as more of a mystery than a biography perhaps ought to. After the triumph of 4'33", she dwells little on the details of her subject's life, only briefly noting that Cage struggled with his homosexuality and kept his decades-long relationship with choreographer Merce Cunningham a secret. Some wooly mysticism fogs up these pages but overall, a well-researched and thoughtfully framed study of an often misunderstood artist.
The New York Times
Cage's music and his interactions have been documented in many other books, but what makes Where the Heart Beats different is that it centers first on the ideas behind the work: why he sought them, when he came upon them, and where and how he used them. Only secondarily is it about his notated and copyrighted scores, and Cage's place within the history of music…
—Ben Ratliff
From the Publisher
“Heroic… fascinating.” New York Times

“Inspirational… exuberant.” Los Angeles Times

"Revelatory… Where the Heart Beats may not just be the best book written yet about John Cage; it’s probably also one of the most substantive-yet-readable entryways into the nexus of 20th-century American art and the immortal qualities of Eastern thought… one of the most profound, not to mention unexpected, gifts imaginable."—Slate

"Absorbing… no future commentator on Cage's work or influence will be able to ignore Larson's contribution…a milestone in contemporary cultural criticism." —San Francisco Chronicle

"Remarkable… without a doubt the richest, most stimulating, most absorbing book I’ve read in the past year, if not decade — remarkably researched, exquisitely written, weaving together a great many threads of cultural history into a holistic understanding of both Cage as an artist and Zen as a lens on existence… Not unlike Cage’s music, Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists is impossible to distill, to synthesize, to relay. Rather, its goodness is best experienced in full, with complete surrender. "—Brain Pickings

"Strange and wonderful... a gloriously rich reading experience, studded with layers upon layers of deeply inspiring and endlessly fascinating paths. One of the best books of the year in any category." —NPR.org (A Favorie Music Book of the Year)
 

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781594203404
Publisher:
Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
Publication date:
07/05/2012
Pages:
496
Product dimensions:
6.62(w) x 9.32(h) x 1.50(d)
Age Range:
18 Years

What People are saying about this

Maria Popova
Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists is a remarkable new intellectual, creative, and spiritual biography of Cage — one of the most influential composers in modern history, whose influence reaches beyond the realm of music and into art, literature, cinema, and just about every other aesthetic and conceptual expression of curiosity about the world, yet also one of history's most misunderstood artists — by longtime art critic and practicing Buddhist Kay Larson. Fifteen years in the making, it is without a doubt the richest, most stimulating, most absorbing book I've read in the past year, if not decade — remarkably researched, exquisitely written, weaving together a great many threads of cultural history into a holistic understanding of both Cage as an artist and Zen as a lens on existence.
—Maria Popova (Brain Pickings)
From the Publisher
“Heroic… fascinating.” —New York Times

“Inspirational… exuberant.” —Los Angeles Times

"Revelatory… Where the Heart Beats may not just be the best book written yet about John Cage; it’s probably also one of the most substantive-yet-readable entryways into the nexus of 20th-century American art and the immortal qualities of Eastern thought… one of the most profound, not to mention unexpected, gifts imaginable."—Slate

"Absorbing… no future commentator on Cage's work or influence will be able to ignore Larson's contribution…a milestone in contemporary cultural criticism." —San Francisco Chronicle

"Remarkable… without a doubt the richest, most stimulating, most absorbing book I’ve read in the past year, if not decade — remarkably researched, exquisitely written, weaving together a great many threads of cultural history into a holistic understanding of both Cage as an artist and Zen as a lens on existence… Not unlike Cage’s music, Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists is impossible to distill, to synthesize, to relay. Rather, its goodness is best experienced in full, with complete surrender." —Brain Pickings

"Strange and wonderful... a gloriously rich reading experience, studded with layers upon layers of deeply inspiring and endlessly fascinating paths. One of the best books of the year in any category." —NPR.org (A Favorie Music Book of the Year)

 

Seth Colter Wall
Where the Heart Beats may not just be the best book written yet about John Cage; it's probably also one of the most substantive-yet-readable entryways into the nexus of 20th-century American art and the immortal qualities of Eastern thought…Tough-minded even when working at high levels of abstraction, Where the Heart Beats is one of the most profound, not to mention unexpected, gifts imaginable during John Cage's centenary year. Larson's is the first book about Cage to have the same feeling of listening to Cage—replete with the epiphanic moment of “ah,” at which point the skeptical, hidebound mind may find itself pushing up against all the quotidian objections to unusual ways of organizing information, before breaking through to some other form of understanding—and a new definition of what may constitute the good life. There's something very calmly Zen about this, the way Where the Heart Beats doesn't feel the need to put down or else diminish our enjoyment of pop-culture jokes like “Cage Does Cage” while making its points. Instead, it feels as though Larson's book only hopes to exist alongside those tropes, while giving us a few additional words to use when talking about an artist who resisted the fixed implications of so many languages.
—Seth Colter Walls (Slate)

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