Ever since I heard of John Cage and his unusual work, I was drawn to him. Here was a composer who wasn’t interested in composition in a traditional sense but instead wanted to open up music both to the elements of chance and of ambient sound. I found the daring quality of it very attractive and while it took me some time to attune my ears to the strange sounds in his compositions, I got used to them and began to enjoy them. There was, of course, another side of John Cage that I found interesting: his interest in Zen Buddhism.
Kay Larson’s recent book Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Lives of Artists is a kind of biography but it’s not a typical one. It does not give an overview of Cage’s life in any typical sense. Instead, it is a kind of overview and breakdown of Cage’s developmental thought, spanning from his early years and an interest in modernist art and music, to a burgeoning fascination with Indian mystic thought, to the much more down-to-earth practices of Zen which correlate directly with Cage’s musical development and philosophies. This last phase is the real center of the book.
When I first read this book it pleased me because it is so rich and deep, going into a tremendous amount of detail about not only Cage’s life and career but also the background of Zen teachings, other important figures of the middle twentieth century who were thinking about similar things as Cage, as well as about probably the most important figure in Cage’s life: the philosopher and popularizer of Zen thought in the West: D.T. Suzuki.
This book is tremendous from a number of perspectives. First of all, it is a really great biography of Cage, although it stops around the late ‘60s so we don’t get to know much about his last thirty or so years. Secondly, it’s a great breakdown of Zen history and thought. Thirdly, it is a detailed and fascinating accounting of the twentieth century American avant-garde, both in New York and on the West Coast, particularly Seattle. Fourthly, it is great guide for creative people to find the drive from which their work can grow.
An example of one of Cage’s more revolutionary works and a befuddled audience who didn’t get it:
When I say drive, I mean it in the sense of whatever strong energy that lies within you which you can help push your creative work forward. For John Cage, that force was Zen and the practice of meditation. For me, it tends to be the sense that if I don’t get down to work, I will be letting myself and my readers down. For others, it may be a sense that something important needs to be expressed. For you, it may be something else. Whatever it is, it’s important to listen to that force and use it as a source of your creative energy.
Kay Larson’s book is terrific for anyone who is looking for an instructional example of how one very original and fascinating artist was able to do something totally different from what had come before. Cage had to deal with a lot of negativity and rejection from those who thought his work silly or ridiculous. Nonetheless, he became probably the most influential composer in the latter half of the twentieth century. This is a reminder of the need to follow your inner force, that thing that pushes your creative work forward and to do what you think is best not what other people tell you is appropriate or doable. There’s a good chance it will pay off.