nolead begins John Cage, Zen Buddhism,
and the Inner Life of Artists
nolead ends

nolead begins By Kay Larson

Penguin. 496 pp. $29.95

nolead ends nolead begins

Reviewed by Elivi Varga

One of my favorite works to teach in music appreciation classes is John Cage's infamous 4'33''. I ask for a volunteer student to sit at the piano and not play a single note for the duration of four minutes and 33 seconds. Inevitably, a lively debate follows. Is this music? Is the hum of the air conditioner in the background pleasant? Can the sound of a candy wrapper be enjoyable instead of irritating? How did Cage come to conceive the idea of a performance that allows the listener to hear (and enjoy) sounds all around her in the concert hall, not just those coming from the stage? Is the point of the composition to concentrate on the silence or the noises? Is noise music?

In this centennial of Cage's birth, author Kay Larson pointillistically and thoroughly maps out how Cage arrived at 4'33" 60 years ago, and how he evolved after it, in Where the Heart Beats.

The title of the book encompasses an enormous amount of subject material, which Larson covers in great detail. Drawing from a vast collection of resources, she intersperses passages from Cage's words from letters, interviews, and lectures, while explaining the influence of Buddhism and his immense circle of artist friends on his life. Where the Heart Beats is equal parts a biography of Cage, a history of Buddhism, and a snapshot of U.S. and European artists and movements of the 20th century.

An art critic and columnist who has written for New York magazine and the New York Times, and herself a practicing Buddhist, Larson has done impressive research on all of these topics. The disjointed narrative - and the organization of the book into nonchronological, anecdotal vignettes, which jump around in time and topic - can be disruptive and frustrating, but ultimately this method prompts readers to discover their own connections.

The Japanese author and lecturer D.T. Suzuki, greatly responsible for helping spread Far Eastern philosophies to the West in the mid-20th century, helped Cage discover his own ideas about life and music. Cage's nonconformist compositional techniques, such as using chance operations (like tossing coins to decide what music to write) and instruments such as the prepared piano (placing objects on the piano strings to create unique sonorities), were revolutionary in the 1940s, yet all the while he was searching for something else: silence.

The seed for 4'33" came from the book The Art of Noises by Luigi Russolo. Larson writes that "Russolo saw a Futurist view of music, one that honored ordinary sounds as the art of advanced civilization." Cage read the manifesto in 1935 and included it on his list of the 10 books that had most influenced him.

Two other things leading Cage to 4'33" were Robert Rauschenberg's "White Paintings" of 1951 and Cage's experience of sitting in a soundproof chamber at Harvard University in 1952, although the idea started to percolate in the late 1940s. In the anechoic chamber, Cage had the revelation that there is no such thing as silence - he could hear his heart beating and blood circulating. As Larson writes, "In the quietest place on earth, John Cage hears the music of the world."

Throughout Where the Heart Beats we also learn about Cage's friendships and liaisons. His artistic and personal relationship with dancer Merce Cunningham, which lasted nearly 50 years until Cage's death in 1992, was "one of the great redemptive love affairs in the American arts." Larson's frequent highfalutin verbosity comes through in her description of their early relationship:

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.

But Larson is spectacular when describing the virtual who's who of artists that were to varying degrees part of Cage's life: Marcel Duchamp, Paul Klee, Vasily Kandinsky, John Steinbeck, Max Ernst, Josef Albers, Willem de Kooning, Yoko Ono, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, Pierre Boulez, Lou Harrison, Morton Feldman, and the list goes on.

One can learn a little about many of the major art movements of the 20th century in Where the Heart Beats, from modernism, Dadaism, surrealism, abstract expressionism, to pop art, minimalism, and postmodernism. One of the strongest influences for Cage was Duchamp, whose readymade urinal (Fountain) was far ahead of its time. (A version of the piece is at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Go to Gallery 182 in the Modern wing.) Larson states that her book "proposes that John Cage originated the worldview that showed artists how to appreciate the work of Marcel Duchamp." Is there anyone working now who can show us how to appreciate the work of John Cage?

The debate about the merits and meaning of 4'33" continues. The work

gives a perfect opening to people, who will unfailingly reveal who they are: arrogant, dismissive, argumentative and/or peaceful, accepting, reverent. The sarcastic comments on YouTube in response to the [BBC Symphony Orchestra performance] of 4'33" are a case in point.

The piece is still important - perhaps even more than ever amid our cacophonous society. At a memorial dance performance after Merce Cunningham died in 2009, the dancers stopped moving for four minutes and 33 seconds. There could be no more appropriate tribute.