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

4.01 of 5 stars 4.01  ·  rating details  ·  244 ratings  ·  49 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—...more
Hardcover, 496 pages
Published July 5th 2012 by Penguin Press HC, The
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Larry
Jul 08, 2012 Larry marked it as to-read
Anything that Maria Popova (http://www.brainpickings.org/index.ph... as ... "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." says "add it to your list Larry.

If you do not know Maria, or brainpickings.org you are...more
Kerfe
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...more
Robert
(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
Jeff
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
George Grella
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...more
kathy j.
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...more
Barry Graham
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
Geri Degruy
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...more
Lucas
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...more
Jeff Fink
At the outset I didn't care for cage. By the end, I joined Larsen, in love.
Ted
Jul 12, 2014 Ted is currently reading it
Maria Popova rave
Ed Summers
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
Brian
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
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
Michael Alexander
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
John
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
Carol Surges
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
Fred Sampson
What a wonderful book! Full of connections and more connections, influences and influencers, so many threads to follow. Helped me realize the impact that reading Cage back in college ("Silence" and "A Year From Monday") had on my interest in Zen. (I performed 4'33" on Harry Partch's bass marimba at UCSD for a music class.)
Mark

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....more
Ed
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.
Rob
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.
Mills College Library
700.1 L3347 2012
Keith
The good: Incredible investigation of the influence that John Cage had on modern art. Wonderful depth into Cage's life and evolution of his thinking. Those interested in eastern thought will enjoy. The bad: too much repetition, a bit of a fan girl feel at times, some gratuitous name dropping, maybe a bit too long, maybe a bit too much of Larson's thinking projected on Cage and others. Overall, I liked it quite a bit.
Sam
A well written (and very well reviewed) biography of John Cage, largely focused on the impact of Zen Buddhism on his work. There are some brilliant passages scattered throughout Where the Heart Beats, although those (like me) who have a relatively minor interest in Cage or Zen Buddhism will find it slow moving at times. I'd also quickly recommend this to anyone interested in the philosophy of music.
KAR
A pitiful account of some of the most brilliant and passionate figures in 20th century art. Glosses over the thought processes behind the actual art creation for a re-imagining of Cage's more personal and sexual thoughts. I also object to the author describing a biographical event in Cage's life as having happened in a "Cage-ian manner." Wouldn't everything Cage did be Cage-ian?
Carmen
Nov 01, 2013 Carmen rated it 3 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Karen Mayes, Bob Chambers
Recommended to Carmen by: Brian Pickings list of best for 2012 for psychology and philsophy
A very different sort of book which doesn't seem to be well organized. Part is biographical but it jumps from stories about John Cage to philsophy and to stories of other artists. However, it was fascinating to research the artists John Cage influenced, to find their work in the Internet. I come away from this book knowing that there is no such thing as silence!
Duff
Fascinating study of Cage and his contemporary cultural influences and those he influenced. Larson does an amazing thing in connecting this to Zen studies and how he lived out his life. I do not have sufficient knowledge of Zen to critique her assessments, but I found it an amazingly good read.
Amanda Moore
I wanted to like this book SO much, and I worked and worked my way through it, convinced that in the next chapter i would find the inspiring portrait of this intriguing artist that so many friends and reviewers promised. Ultimately, I found the book dull and not organized very well.
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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.” 16 likes
“So it is with the places preparing to teach us. It's only when the heart begins to beat wildly and without pattern—when it begins to realize its boundlessness—that its newly adamant pulse bangs on the walls of its cage and is bruised by its enclosure... To feel the heart pound is only the beginning. Next is to feel the hurt—the tearing of the psyche—the prelude of entry into the place one has always feared. One fears that place because of being drawn to it, loving it, and wanting to be taught by it. Without the need to be taught, who would feel the psyche rip? Without the bruise, who would know where the walls are?” 0 likes
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