A “heroic” and “fascinating” biography of John Cage showing how his work, and that of countless American artists, was transformed by Zen Buddhism (The New York Times)
Where the Heart Beats is the story of the tremendous changes sweeping through American culture following the Second World War, a time when the arts in America broke away from centuries of tradition and reinvented themselves. Painters converted their canvases into arenas for action and gesture, dancers embraced pure movement over narrative, performance artists staged “happenings” in which anything could happen, poets wrote words determined by chance.
In this tumultuous period, a composer of experimental music began a spiritual quest to know himself better. His earnest inquiry touched thousands of lives and created controversies that are ongoing. He devised unique concerts—consisting of notes chosen by chance, randomly tuned radios, and silence—in the service of his absolute conviction that art and life are one inseparable truth, a seamless web of creation divided only by illusory thoughts.
What empowered John Cage to compose his incredible music—and what allowed him to inspire tremendous transformations in the lives of his fellow artists—was Cage’s improbable conversion to Zen Buddhism. This is the story of how Zen saved Cage from himself.
Where the Heart Beats is the first book to address the phenomenal importance of Zen Buddhism to John Cage’s life and to the artistic avant-garde of the 1950s and 1960s. Zen’s power to transform Cage’s troubled mind—by showing him his own enlightened nature—liberated Cage from an acute personal crisis that threatened everything he most deeply cared abouthis life, his music, and his relationship with his life partner, Merce Cunningham. Caught in a society that rejected his art, his politics, and his sexual orientation, Cage was transformed by Zen from an overlooked and 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 Cage influenced and the art he inspired. His creative genius touched Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, Yoko Ono, Alan Kaprow, Morton Feldman, and Leo Castelli, who all went on to revolutionize their respective disciplines. As Cage’s story progresses, as his collaborators’ trajectories unfurl, Where the Heart Beats shows the blossoming of Zen in the very heart of American culture.
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.