Sunday, July 08, 2012
Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists
Brain Pickings Weekly
On love, liberty, and the pursuit of silence.
"Good music can act as a guide to good living," John Cage (1912-1992) once said. But what, exactly, is good music, or good living, or, for that matter, goodness itself?
Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists (public library) is a remarkable new intellectual, creative, and spiritual biography of Cage – one of the most influential composers in modern history, whose impact 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.
From his early life in California, defined by his investigations into the joy of sound, to his pivotal introduction to Zen Buddhism in Japanese Zen master D. T. Suzuki's Columbia University class, to his blossoming into a force of the mid-century avant-garde, Larson traces Cage's own journey as an artist and a soul, as well as his intermeshing with the journeys of other celebrated artists, including Marcel Duchamp, Jasper Johns, Yoko Ono, Robert Rauschenberg, Jackson Pollock, and, most importantly, Merce Cunningham.
The book itself has a beautiful compositional structure, conceived as a conversation with Cage and modeled after Cage's imagined conversations with Erik Satie, one of his mentors, long after Satie's death. Interspersed in Larson's immersive narrative are italicized excerpts of Cage's own writing, in his own voice.
Where to begin? Perhaps at the core – the core of what Cage has come to be known for, that expansive negative space, isn't nihilistic, isn't an absence, but, rather, it's life-affirming, a presence. Cage himself reflects:
Our intention is to affirm this life, not to bring order out of chaos, nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply to wake up to the very life we're living, which is so excellent once one gets one's mind and desires out of its way and lets it act of its own accord.