The Zen of John Cage

Reading between the lines.
June 29 2012 11:37 PM

Quiet Riot

A new biography of 4’33” composer John Cage explores the role Zen played in his playful, revolutionary art.

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And if you do already have a copy of Credo, you’ll pull it out again upon reading Larson’s provocative suggestion, if only to marvel anew at how the piece’s subtle layering of randomized sound samples works so elegantly with the written-out parts for piano and drums, despite having been fashioned on deadline for a fast-approaching dance recital. (Of course Cunningham fell for Cage. Of course he left Martha Graham’s tutelage and conceptual approach behind. Wouldn’t you do the same, if an admirer wrote something so perfectly tailored to your movements?) Just months after the premiere of Credo, Cage and Cunningham debuted a new collaborative piece, and the way Larson narrates the latter’s contribution—“a short dance solo of leaps and half-turns of the spine and arms cocked at the elbow: movement without narrative content”—makes their coming together seem romantically and aesthetically inevitable.

Kay Larson.
Author Kay Larson.

Photo by Bernard Handzel.

Before his turn toward Zen, Cage’s experimental spirit was inspired by what he saw in Cunningham’s bearing—and to make that story sing, Larson has to tell the story of Cage’s sexual evolution, and some truths about the law-weaponized forms of homophobia as practiced in the 1940s against other (allegedly) gay composers, more directly than other biographers have dared. (Cage and Cunningham maintained separate apartments until 1971, in what Larson chalks up to an abundance of caution.) But the leeway Larson gives herself always seems to earn out—her readings of Bergmanesque self-torment in Cage’s Four Walls are persuasive, and fit sensibly enough in the composer’s personal timeline, when he was growing apart from his wife and toward Cunningham. And this section also prepares readers for the more startling sections to come, in which, by reading her intuition alongside the known biographical facts, Larson allows herself to make broad, convincing arguments for Cage’s magnetic power and pull over successive schools of artists.

And oh yes, by the way, basically every artist who mattered in the 20th century and who spent any time in America seems to make an appearance in this book: Duchamp, Pollock Warhol, Johns, Ono, and on and on—the gang’s all here. Larson proves to be a talented gumshoe, turning up house records thought lost from the Artists’ Club, started by New York’s downtown crew of renegade painters in 1949. (She just knocked on some old doors). Late in the book Larson quickens her pace as she clarifies Cage’s impact on successive generations of American artistic practice—Pop, Fluxus, the conceptual movements—as well as to individual artists like Alison Knowles and Bruce Nauman. These brief mentions could have sustained whole chapters.


Given that richness, who cares if Larson’s book isn’t grounded in dense music-theory knowledge? Other books have that territory covered, like Gann’s Silence, James Pritchett’s The Music of John Cage, and, the most biographically complete (if dry) work to date, Kenneth Silvermann’s Begin Again, published last year. But Larson is after altogether different game, and playing by different rules. Cage was an unreliable enough narrator of his own life that he probably deserves at least one author willing to venture beyond the bounds of strict propriety in biography-writing.

Take for example Cage’s discovery of D.T. Suzuki, a twist other books don’t narrate as confidently, since no one knows exactly how or when it transpired. Larson feels free to speculate—and to tell us that she’s doing so. There’s a lot of slippery work throughout in between royal-we stuff and Larson’s own voice, where “we’re” all of a sudden “imagining” Cage making his progress toward a complete spiritual overhaul at Suzuki’s hands:

It’s 1949 or (most likely) 1950. We imagine Cage happily browsing in Orientalia, casually flipping open book covers, and being stopped in his tracks by the first page of [Suzuki’s] First Series and its stunning first sentence … At this point, if I were Cage, I would buy the book and take it home.

Composer John Cage.
Composer John Cage.

Via Wikimedia Commons.

 The dangers here are evident. And yet, in part because Cage told different stories, over time, about this period in his life, there are things Larson (or any biographer) can’t know. And at least Larson’s methods are honest and transparent: Note how, when she can’t decide in which year a scene she has fully imagined might have had its best chance to happen, she tells us that with some parenthetical vacillating! Because of the intentionality of her ruses, this empirically minded reader of nonfiction was able to suppress his “Hey you can’t do that” reflex, similar to the one a serious concert-hall audience member might need to tamp down when told that everything happening on stage is being guided by a throw of Cage’s I Ching coins. Like the composer himself, Larson gets enough results from her unlikely conceptual approaches to blow past the objections of the form police.

Tough-minded even when working at high levels of abstraction, Where the Heart Beats is one of the most profound, not to mention unexpected, gifts imaginable during John Cage’s centenary year. Larson’s is the first book about Cage to have the same feeling of listening to Cage—replete with the epiphanic moment of “ah,” at which point the skeptical, hidebound mind may find itself pushing up against all the quotidian objections to unusual ways of organizing information, before breaking through to some other form of understanding—and a new definition of what may constitute the good life. There’s something very calmly Zen about this, the way Where the Heart Beats doesn’t feel the need to put down or else diminish our enjoyment of pop-culture jokes like “Cage Does Cage” while making its points. Instead, it feels as though Larson’s book only hopes to exist alongside those tropes, while giving us a few additional words to use when talking about an artist who resisted the fixed implications of so many languages.



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