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

4.09  ·  Rating Details ·  423 Ratings  ·  65 Reviews
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—
Hardcover, 496 pages
Published July 10th 2012 by Penguin Press HC, The (first published July 5th 2012)
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This book is vast. Larson's focus is John Cage, but all that made him, followed by all that he made, encompasses the shifting ways of producing and experiencing art that was the Twentieth Century.

Revolution, evolution: the world r/evolved; art r/evolved; Cage took it all in and turned the mirror both out and in. What reflected back was unpredictable, startling, a surprise.

Of course the well-known tipping point is Cage's piece 4'33": is silence music? Or: how often do we stop and find even one mi
Sep 08, 2012 Jeff rated it really liked it
Most bios and studies of John Cage acknowledge that in the middle of the century, Cage became interested in first Hindu philosophy and then Zen Buddhism, and that studying these things shaped his subsequent works and "substituted for psychoanalysis" in his personal life. Few of the scholars who note this, however, have really explored exactly what that means. Kay Larson's new book brings its strongest focus precisely on the period between 1948 and 1952 when Cage's ideas were undergoing their mos ...more
Sep 09, 2012 Robert rated it it was ok
(7.24.12) Reviewed in yesterday's Times. (8.1.12) Had a bit of an accident in Elliott Bay Bookstore last night: bought this and four other books. (8.6.12) Started reading this today, having just finished the nonsensical Lost History of Skin. I'm hoping for a quick passage from the ridiculous to the sublime. (8.25.12) Today I finally finished ploughing through it. What a disappointment! And what a shame: what could have been a fabulous book turned out to be dreadful. It's badly written, badly edi ...more
George Jr.
Aug 05, 2012 George Jr. rated it did not like it
Shelves: reviewing-this
My more detailed review is here, but the enthusiasm for this book at goodreads compels me to add to it. I understand the appeal of this book, but, especially in this John Cage centennial year, it provides a misleading and shallow view of the man and his work.

The influence of Zen thought on Cage's work is important, but it's a part of a whole. Zen thought was a component of his move towards his encompassing philosophy of composition as process. But it was just a part, and as Cage moved through th
kathy j.
Feb 20, 2013 kathy j. rated it liked it
I loved the first 150ish-200 pages of this book. I knew little about John Cage and found it fascinating to learn about his history in general and his time here in Seattle. I'm down with Buddhism and enjoyed learning more about DT Suzuki's introduction of Buddhism to America and thoroughly enjoyed reading about the art scene in New York at the time.

Until...something happened about 200 pages into the book where it was just a hot mess of uninteresting and unfinished work. I was looking forward to h
Joe Noteboom
Feb 02, 2015 Joe Noteboom rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
As more or less a philistine when it comes to the avant-garde and, for the most part, willfully ignorant of Buddhist philosophy, I wasn't sure this book was for me. But after a few false starts over a few years, I'm glad I committed to getting through it. As Larson/Cage puts it: "You can become narrow-minded, literally, by only liking certain things, and disliking others. But you can become open-minded, literally, by giving up your likes and dislikes and becoming interested in things."
Tara Brabazon
Mar 23, 2016 Tara Brabazon rated it it was amazing
I can't help it. Any book that probes, pushes and engages with John Cage - I have to reward with 5 stars. Yes, at times, Larson does over-egg the Zen Buddhist connections with Cage's work. But there is a respectfulness and a rigour, a compassion and a care, granted to Cage's life here.

Cage's quotations gleam through the book. He was - simply - one of the most important, influential and transformative people of the 20th century. While most histories of the century focus on war, brutality and viol
Aug 31, 2015 Dan rated it liked it
There's a pretty strong disconnect between the content of this book and how it's written which is a shame.

I absolutely loved learning about John Cage's life and thoughts, and Larson gives you a pretty thorough rundown of a lot of it, especially for a newcomer. But the book kind of plods along like "John Cage did this... then he went over here and met these people... then he read this thing... then he went over to this other place for a bit" and the organization of the book is a mess. The chapte
Barry Graham
Dec 09, 2013 Barry Graham rated it liked it
This is a good book, but it might have been a great one if Kay Larson showed more interest in John Cage and D.T. Suzuki and less interest in herself. On the rare occasions when she manages to shut up about her own speculations as to what she imagines Cage may have been thinking at a given moment and just tells the story, her book is interesting. When she’s just quoting Cage’s words, it is compelling. Sadly, this is a book about an ego-transcending genius written by an ego-driven mediocrity. Too ...more
Sep 04, 2014 Ted rated it liked it
Maria Popova rave. Interesting topic, fascinating subjects, decent writing, a little too much breathless use of core theme to explain every small action and event in Cage's wanderings. Didn't read all the way through because it was more detail than I cared to know, but an interesting and insightful book for anyone interested in John Cage and his social circle and the principles driving his work.
Tony Guarino
Mar 27, 2016 Tony Guarino rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A detailed cookbook for making John Cage, with a vast collection of stories from his musical and spiritual influences.
Jeff Fink
May 09, 2014 Jeff Fink rated it it was amazing
At the outset I didn't care for cage. By the end, I joined Larsen, in love.
Jan 13, 2017 Serdar rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Occasionally twee but still valuable and thoughtful. Cage was a big personal influence and I might well recommend this as a first resource to explain what it was I saw in him.
Dec 28, 2013 Lucas rated it really liked it
Kay Larson obviously knows her John Cage, but readers looking for a comprehensive biography should know to look elsewhere: this is primarily an exploration of Cage's encounter with Zen Buddhism and his relationship with other artists, including Merce Cunningham, Jackson Pollock, David Tudor, Morton Feldman, Christian Wolff, Jaspar Johns, and Marcel Duchamp.

Larson makes the case that Cage was responsible for introducing zen philosophy to many American artists of the '50s and '60s, especially tho
While Kay Larson's Where the Heart Beats covers much of Cage's life up to the early 60s (with particular attention to his years in Los Angeles, Seattle and his early years in New York), its true focus is not so much on his biography as it is on:

* the evolving intellectual/artistic influences on Cage (Russolo, Schoenberg, Duchamp, etc.);

* the evolving philosophical/religious influences on him (The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna, the iChing, Zhuang Zhou, Zen, etc.);

* and, finally, Cage's own impact on
Craig Werner
It's a bit difficult to figure out where to begin in describing this rich, multi-faceted gem. In part a biography of John Cage, Where the Heart Beats honors the composer/philosopher/sensei by understanding that his life took on meaning in large part because it inspired so many others to take themselves (not too) seriously, which is why the book's also a kind of group biography of those who either gathered around or shaped their journeys in response to Cage: Merce Cunningham, Robert Rauschenberg, ...more
Megan Kirschenbaum
Dec 15, 2016 Megan Kirschenbaum rated it it was amazing
A well written and unique approach to understanding John Cage. This book does a wonderful job of weaving in the growth of Zen Buddhism in the West and how John Cage's work and his personal growth were influenced and affected by it. John Cage's relationship with Buddhism is encompassing, making this book a great avenue in understanding his approach to music and sound. A lovely and calm read.
Greg Talbot
May 31, 2016 Greg Talbot rated it it was amazing
The crack in the egg, happened for Cage when he was 38. As a young man he would tour Europe to learn about the world. Inspired by Dada and futurism, he would look for the vanguard of the art world. He would join an art collective as a young adult, have relationships and lovers, with the well-to-do crowd. And yet, all of his work started to really take shape with the teachings of D.T. Suzuki., and "The Essays of Zen" from the 1930s.

This book has so many touchpoints that resonate with me. Buddhist
Matt Hagle
Aug 12, 2016 Matt Hagle rated it it was amazing
Wonderful book.I found this book to be very helpful in giving an understanding of Cage's involvement with Zen Buddhism and how central it was to his artistic vision. One of the most interesting features of the book is how the author plausibly argues that Cage's deep interest in Zen transformed both his work and his sometimes volatile emotional life; this kind of connection between work and life is, I think, one of the reasons that people write and read artistic biographies. It isn't always easy ...more
Mar 18, 2016 Brian rated it really liked it
For what it is, I think this book sets the standard. It's about John Cage, and it's a sensitive, deeply-researched look at a singular artist, but because Larson is fully interested in, and fully capable of, situating and contextualizing Cage, it's also necessarily a book about the times and circles he moved in. And those circles are like THE first circles to appear in a pond when a stone is thrown, culturally speaking -- ripples that moved out and changed what they touched. He moved in a veritab ...more
Ed Summers
Sep 22, 2013 Ed Summers rated it really liked it
I'm no expert on John Cage or Buddhism, so I'm not a good person to speak to the accuracy of the material in this book. But Kay Larson provided a very accessible and inspired look at the life of an artist, who found peace and inspiration in the teachings of DT Suzuki, and how he went on to be a formative influence on postmodern art. The story of Cage's relationship with Merce Cunningham and their inner circle of friends and artists was lovingly told. One of my favorite parts of the book was Lars ...more
Dec 11, 2012 M rated it liked it
Beautiful and thrilling intellectual history here, and the anecdotes are priceless, but just too speculative to trust. I think the Zen contributions to midcentury postmodernism are very real, and she does some gorgeous reading in the echoes between Cage's work and the lectures of DT Suzuki, but I think the bar is really, really high when you write a religious conversion narrative about someone who may not quite have had the conversion you describe in quite the way you describe it. So very many m ...more
Nov 07, 2012 John rated it it was amazing
I'd never been able to appreciate abstract expressionism, before reading this book. I had a kneejerk reaction to it as hopelessly conceptual and elitist. This book changed my view, appreciating the barriers Johns, Rauchsenberg, Twombly and Co. were trying to break down in taking "art" off the museum walls and creating actions and processes, not artifacts. John Cage's zen journey was deep and intimate, anchored by his study of and association with D.T. Suzuki. This book itself doesn't so much try ...more
Geri Degruy
Apr 13, 2014 Geri Degruy rated it it was amazing
I cannot speak highly enough of this book! The evolution of John Cage's music and philosophy is fascinating. But then to see how his innovations and courageous experiments influence artists of all media and propel art in the 20th and 21st centuries is awesome! We meet many different famed artists and see how they are mentored by Cage and how his influences change the trajectory of their work.

Zen Buddhism becomes more and more the motivation for Cage's selfless, random, indeterminate work and th
Carol Surges
Feb 26, 2014 Carol Surges rated it liked it
I have to say that this is not a beginner's book. If you're mining for basic biographical info on Cage you'll want to look elsewhere. The first section had lots of info but as soon as D.T. Suzuki came to NYC and Cage encountered him the book segued into heavy analysis of Cage's motivations and the thinking behind all of his work from that point on. The years 1950 through 1952 kept circling back, chapter after chapter as the author worked to meticulously expose and explain everything going on wit ...more
Oct 17, 2014 Mary-Marcia rated it it was amazing
Insightful into the creative process of John Cage and associate artists, development of chance method; a very interesting look at many intersecting influences. Enlightening it was for me. I appreciate Cage and others more because of this book

Form the book pg 407

" The book proposes that John Cage originated the worldview that showed artist how to appreciate the work of Marcel Duchamp.

In our own time, Duchamp universally gets credit for inventing the postmodernism at the center of twenty-first-cen
Jul 12, 2015 Christopherseelie rated it it was amazing
Recommendations for reading Where the Heart Beats:

Know your avant guardists. Many names enter into this narrative and it is richer for it.

Have some preliminary understanding of Buddhist thought. There are lovely explanations but they are woefully incomplete and somewhat skewed towards certain lineages. Extra points for having a meditation practice.

Indulge the speculations. They are easy to distinguish from the scholarship.

Savor the gumdrop pleasure of bits of John Cage's wisdom sprinkled through
Sep 16, 2013 Mark rated it liked it

A noble and mountainous pursuit for a first book.
She deserves credit for even trying to do this.

She harnesses a great deal of information toward her idea of the momentum of spirituality in Cage's life, and how it gains ground to inform his work, and how we can understand him by reading him through that lens.

I can't bring myself to say anything uncharitable about book, considering the above information, save for a gentle encouragement for a line editor (not content) for the paperback edition.
Sep 27, 2012 Ed rated it really liked it
The older I get, the more I enjoy the music of John Cage and his friend Morton Feldman. This book explores the influence of Zen Buddhism on Cage's life and work ... and by extension, a lot of other late 20th-century musical sub-genres, especially avant-grade rock. It's a bit repetitive and less than clear in places, but still an interesting ramble. Recommended for Zen practitioners, Cage/modern music fans, and lovers of American abstract expressionism in general.
Jun 13, 2014 Robin rated it really liked it
Larson did a wonderful, complete job explaining not only Cage's music but his artistic and spiritual influences. Other artistic and literary figures made brief appearances as though they were fun cameos. "Where The Heart Beats," wasn't so much a biography of Cage, but a biography of his work. It was a fantastic read, I just felt it could have wrapped up a little earlier, and that Larson could have used an editor for the last section of the book.
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“Suffering builds character and impels you to penetrate life’s secrets. It’s the path of great artists, great religious leaders, great social reformers. The problem is not suffering per se, but rather our identification with our own ego: our divided, dualistic, cramped view of things. ‘We are too ego-centered,’ Suzuki tells Cage.’ The ego-shell in which we live is the hardest thing to outgrow. We seem to carry it all the time from childhood up to the time we finally pass away.” 25 likes
“Good music can act as a guide to good living.” 3 likes
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