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

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Jcbaran

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PostSubject: Where the Heart Beats - John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists   Sun Jul 22, 2012 2:01 am

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.


By Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times

July 22, 2012

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.

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

Copyright © 2012, Los Angeles Times
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PostSubject: Re: Where the Heart Beats - John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists   Mon Jul 23, 2012 9:11 am


July 22, 2012
Listening to the Void, Vital and Profound
By BEN RATLIFF

WHERE THE HEART BEATS
John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists
By Kay Larson


Illustrated. 474 pages. The Penguin Press. $29.95.

“Where the Heart Beats” is a book about a man learning to use and trust the void. It’s a kind of love story about overcoming the need for love.

Written by Kay Larson, who for 14 years was the art critic for New York magazine, it describes John Cage’s philosophical awakening through Zen Buddhism, which changed not only the sort of music he composed but, seemingly, everything he did and said. 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 (if indeed that is the place he ought to occupy).

For more than 40 years — from the time of his 1951 talks at the Club, a loft space on East Eighth Street in Manhattan opened by the sculptor Philip Pavia, until his death in 1992 — Cage often found himself around devoted scribes and live microphones. He was an apothegm slinger; he was unstoppable. “I have to get out of here,” the sculptor Richard Lippold, Cage’s neighbor in a run-down Lower East Side building during the early 1950s, told the composer Morton Feldman. “John is just too persuasive.”

In his filmed and recorded interviews you almost always encounter a man who seems born into supreme contentment: he listened, asked questions and had a good, hard, helpless laugh. But in his writings he could sometimes be bizarrely dogmatic, even in his opposition to dogma, and Ms. Larson portrays the younger Cage more this way: agitated, uncool, a walking emergency.

In the late 1930s and early ‘40s he was a young composer who favored rhythm over harmony and the chaotic promise of random, atmospheric noise over the grammar of Western classical music with its “endless arrangements of the old sounds.” But he hadn’t, in either case, completely figured out why. He was unhappy in his work and otherwise; the words “crisis” and “suffering” come up often in the first half of Ms. Larson’s account.

The book relates Cage’s solutions for all the disjunctions in his life, including what Ms. Larson, treading lightly, portrays as his acceptance of his homosexuality. (He was married to Xenia Kashevaroff, the daughter of a Russian priest, for 10 years; he worked with the choreographer Merce Cunningham from the 1940s on and lived with him starting in 1971, though he rarely spoke on the record about it.) He sought to release himself from self-expression in his art and even from emotional expression in his life. “I discovered,” he said in a late-period interview, “that those who seldom dwell on their emotions know better than anyone else just what an emotion is.”

In any case, learning the Zen mind was Cage’s major solution. Daisetz T. Suzuki, the Japanese writer and scholar, came to North America in 1950 on a tour sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation, and Cage attended some of Suzuki’s lectures in New York. The lessons he absorbed — particularly one on the ego and the outside world, reconstructed and well narrated by Ms. Larson — solidified notions he’d already been swimming toward through his early studies in harmony with Arnold Schoenberg; his interest in the ideas of noise and anti-art taken from Futurism and Dada; and his readings of Christian and Hindu mystics. What he learned from Suzuki forms this book’s core, and even its structure.

Ms. Larson is on sure ground discussing Cage’s aesthetic world, particularly his connection with New York visual artists from the ’40s and ’50s. But she is also a practicing Buddhist, and she presents Cage almost as a figure in a parable.

The book is meticulous about dates, encounters and critical receptions. Still, there is no mistaking this for a straightforward biography. It concentrates on the most important period of Cage’s philosophical discoveries and starts drawing to a close in the early 1960s, when the composer still had more than a third of his life and work ahead of him.

Much of Ms. Larson’s story takes place inside Cage’s head, so she often has to speculate, with recourse to his interviews and writings, on what he may have been thinking. She imagines him picking up Suzuki’s “Essays in Zen Buddhism: First Series” and reading its first sentence. “How could he not instantly turn the page?” she writes. “From then on, throughout the introduction — and how could Cage not have seen it? — Suzuki seems to be reading Cage’s mind and speaking into his ear.”

Ms. Larson’s speculative soul reading is useful but perilous — not so much because it risks misrepresenting Cage’s thinking, but because it can sometimes generate homely, overempathetic prose. (“The heart-issues that Cage had never resolved were now beating like the undead on the locked doors of his awareness.”) It creates a solid heroic narrative around an awful lot of aesthetic and spiritual information. (This is the third of three excellent books on Cage to appear in less than two years; the other two are Kenneth Silverman’s traditional biography, “Begin Again,” and “No Such Thing as Silence,” by the music critic Kyle Gann, focused entirely on the creation and significance of the piece “4’33.” ”)

After an early interest in counterpoint and tone rows Cage became less interested in a fixed outcome for his music, instead creating structures in which he radically yielded control. The title of Ms. Larson’s book, taken from an essay Cage wrote in the late 1950s, refers to the blood pumping we inevitably hear when we try to experience what we call silence. He called that condition “zero”; for him it was similar to the Buddhist notion of shunyata, which Suzuki characterized as the “Absolute Void.”

Cage wanted to capture the void in his music. Within zero he found chance and indeterminacy, which guided such key works as “Music of Changes,” composed according to hundreds of decisions made with the I Ching; “Imaginary Landscape No. 4,” played by 24 performers on 12 radios, a piece whose output depends on what the airwaves are producing; and the notorious silent piece “4’33,” ” written for a pianist who never touches the keys.

He loved maxims, anecdotes, lessons and manifestoes. You encounter a lot of them here, and they are not breezed over: Ms. Larson writes elaborately on the teachings of Sri Ramakrishna, the “Huang Po Doctrine of Universal Mind,” the ancient Flower Garland Sutra and Heart Sutra of Mahayana Buddhism. These can slow down a reader who’s more interested in the foreground than the background, but the author stays gentle; she shows you explicitly how their ideas echoed through his work.

There’s plenty of fascinating paradox in this book. It’s about music that implicitly criticizes “music” and silence that isn’t “silent”; it’s also about creating the intention to move toward non-intention. “We really do need a structure,” Cage wrote in his “Lecture on Nothing,” “so we can see we are nowhere.”
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Ikuko



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PostSubject: Re: Where the Heart Beats - John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists   Mon Jul 23, 2012 2:56 pm

I worked with Cage in London,as I was a performer/deviser in a large collective of experimental "new music" artists.

We both seem to have been drawn to Zen,like a lot of imaginative dreamy people ,as a way and a discipline.

He was a gentle soul.He ,Cornelius Cardew,Michale Nyman,my agent Victor Schonfield,were kind of elders to the 100 or so strong Scratch Orchestra.

This collective was and still is a great inspiration to me.

I will read the Larson book.

Thank you as always Josh for the link.



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Ikuko
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Isan
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PostSubject: Re: Where the Heart Beats - John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists   Mon Jul 23, 2012 10:28 pm

Ikuko wrote:
I worked with Cage in London,as I was a performer/deviser in a large collective of experimental "new music" artists.

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Ikuko

Were you responsible for the toasters? :-)
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