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

4.15  ·  Rating details ·  581 ratings  ·  74 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 5th 2012 by Penguin Press
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Start your review of Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists
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
Aug 29, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: non-fiction, music
This book focuses on John Cage and his relationship with Zen and Tao, and its very rich with thoughts about how that is related to his music, and to his approach to art. You get an idea, but I am sure there is more. i loved reading this, since it is the part of John Cage and his process which most interests me. Wonderful John Cage. ...more
George Jr.
Jun 29, 2012 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
Aug 13, 2012 rated it really liked it
Shelves: music
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 ...more
Jul 24, 2012 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 ...more
Tara Brabazon
Mar 23, 2016 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
Joe Noteboom
Jan 06, 2013 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."
kathy j.
Jan 27, 2013 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
Sep 12, 2018 rated it really liked it
A treasure trove of informantion about John Cage and his music. It wets the appetite to listen to more of Cage's music and to read more about Zen Buddhism. My only complaint that the otherwise engaging writing is often repetitive as if the author has written the short chapters over many years and then just stapled together.
Jeff Fink
May 09, 2014 rated it it was amazing
At the outset I didn't care for cage. By the end, I joined Larsen, in love.
Tony Guarino
Jan 01, 2016 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.
Greg Talbot
May 29, 2016 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
Dec 07, 2015 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

It sounds absurd to say: “Every artist should read this book,” but many absurdities are true. (In a sense, that’s the point of this book.) Kay explains how the occult Mystery ripples through the world. There’s the perfect preceptor (Buddha), the impeccable tradition (Buddhism), the shrewd translator (D. T. Suzuki), the perfect student (John Cage), and the student’s imperfect disciples (Jasper Johns, Dick Higgins, Sonic Youth, Fluxus, etc.)

Cage was the son of a failed inventor in early Los
This book made me fall in love with it, and with John Cage.

This narrative on John Cage's non-narrative philosophy completely blew my mind in a wonderful way, and I frequently had to go slow to savor. The author meticulously constructs what we can know abt Cage's spiritual process over the first 25 years of his career, while also showing a fair bit of respect to what we can't know. The book subtitle is fair... it is as much a reflection on Zen Buddhism or on the creative process of the Cageian
Gaetano Venezia
Sep 09, 2018 rated it it was amazing
An immersive, surprising, and life-altering read. I had no idea there were so many connections between Cage, modern art, and buddhism. Cage now seems more a cultural figure, conceptual artist, and teacher than a composer. Larson does a great job of revealing Cage's extensive network of influence by meandering through connections and following out their implications, instead of abiding by a strict chronology or primary theme. Larson seems to have embodied some Cagean and Buddhist approaches in ...more
Jul 21, 2015 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
Martin Henson
Sep 21, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A wonderful biography of part of the 20th century, in which John Cage is the star and in which so many other people and ideas spin around him. For me, it was a special reminder of my first encounter with “Silence” and “A Year From Monday” in the 70s - when I heard Stockhausen, Xenakis, Ligeti, Berio and others - but all of Cage’s music was entirely silent. I read this book with his music finally in my ears, listening to pieces whose names (William’s Mix, Imaginary Landscape ...) were entirely ...more
Aug 16, 2014 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
M Bettine
May 14, 2014 rated it it was amazing
There are many Cage biographies out there, but none have really put his life, and how he influenced our culture, into perspective until now. Larsen paints a portrait of a man who influenced not only music, but art, philosophy, writing, graphic design, dance, and many other art forms. Cage was a quiet man, so he isn't always thought of as the renaissance man he was, but his reach permeates the 20th century, and his influence lives on today.
Jul 05, 2012 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.
Megan Kirschenbaum
Dec 15, 2016 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.
Jan 26, 2016 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Much larger in scope than I anticipated. A truly consuming and life-affirming read- one of the best artist bios I've ever read. Additionally, I'm grateful to Larson's book if only for the fact that it opened my eyes to the reach of Cage's influence. An excellent and excellently researched piece of writing!
Fred Sampson
Jul 09, 2014 rated it it was amazing
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.)
Aug 16, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: timeless
A beautiful biography. Written across time with a heartfelt experience of a certain kind of Buddhist practice along with a deep contemporary response as an artist. Could've been slightly shorter but lovely nonetheless.
Michael Elliott
Aug 22, 2017 rated it it was amazing
I knew nothing of John Cage before buying this book on a whim. So happy I did, a very enjoyable and well written book dealing with Cage's life, music, time, and their intersection with Zen Buddhism and Suzuki Roshi, a teacher tasked with and greatly responsible for popularising Zen in the West.
Sheila Packa
Jul 12, 2015 rated it really liked it
A great slice of history. The book also traces who was in Cage's sphere: Peggy Guggenheim, Merce Cunningham, and several noteworthy artists and writers of the time.
Jan 13, 2017 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.
Jun 04, 2015 rated it it was amazing
This was a beautifully written book not just about John Cage, but about the NYC art scene of the 50s. I loved it.
Aug 22, 2018 rated it liked it
I struggled with this book as it seemed to wobble between a paean to John Cage, a long detailed history of every person who ever met Cage, and a study of the influence of zen in Cage's work. I was most interested in the zen.

But at the very end, two things happened. The author finally explained that the purpose of the book was to document how many artists were influenced by Cage during his long career, and I finally recognized the seemingly haphazard arrangement of facts, frequent and
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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.” 31 likes
“Good music can act as a guide to good living.” 4 likes
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