The Sounds of Silence

Dan Zigmond

Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists
Kay Larson
The Penguin Press, 2012
478 pp.; $29.95 cloth

where the heart beatsThis will be the summer of John Cage anniversaries: 100 years since his birth, 20 years since his death, and 60 years since the first performance of his best-known composition, 4'33". Cage was the preeminent avant-garde composer of his time, but his work had an even broader reach, profoundly influencing all the arts in the second half of the 20th century. Cage revolutionized music composition primarily through his use of what he called “chance operations” and “indeterminacy,” each a novel way of sacrificing a composer’s control. Through random events, such as the coin tosses involved in casting the I Ching, he allowed chance to guide his artistic process, rather than relying on his own taste and judgment. When he realized that chance operations allowed freedom to the composer but not to the performers, he devised indeterminacy, yielding many final decisions about a work to the performers themselves.

In Where the Heart Beats, her timely new biography of Cage, art critic Kay Larson attempts to illuminate the essentially Buddhist motivation behind these innovations. Chance and indeterminacy enabled Cage to create music that was not the product solely of the composer’s own ego, as she puts it, but a pursuit that flowed directly from his intense study of Zen. Although Cage said he did not wish his work “blamed on Zen,” at the same time he insisted that “without my engagement with Zen...I doubt whether I would have done what I have done.”

A longtime Zen practitioner herself— her teacher was the late John Daido Loori, to whom she dedicates the book— Larson begins with a loving chronicle of the early blossoming of Zen among the Beat generation. She devotes the first chapter and many subsequent sections to Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki, the largely self-taught Japanese Buddhist scholar who began translating texts and explicating Zen for an American audience in the 1920s. At that time, Buddhism was virtually unknown in the U.S. outside the Asian immigrant communities on the East and West Coasts. By the time Cage began his own spiritual explorations around 1950, all the available English-language books on Zen would have fit comfortably on a single bookshelf, with most of them by Suzuki.

D. T. Suzuki’s somewhat dry, erudite approach has largely gone out of style, as has his single-pointed focus on the personal enlightenment experience. (Several of the books Larson cites as most influential in the 1950s are now out of print.) Yet Larson does not exaggerate Suzuki’s role in the spread of Zen to the West. His philosophical rather than overtly spiritual texts were a good match for the heady intellectualism of Cage and his artistic peers. If later Zen teachers found fertile ground in America for their teachings, it was often Suzuki’s lectures and books that had prepared the soil.

The Japanese teachers who would arrive in America in subsequent decades were true Zen masters, and looked like it in their black robes, their shaved heads tanned by wind and sun. In the 1950s, though, Suzuki didn’t intimidate Western friends. He was probably just Zen enough.

Many in the Beat generation, including the poets Gary Snyder, Philip Whalen, and Allen Ginsberg, first encountered Zen through Suzuki’s work. Larson takes the time to retell stories of their explorations in fascinating detail.

In 1958, on the day The Dharma Bums was published, [Jack] Kerouac spontaneously called up D. T. Suzuki and begged to visit. Kerouac, Ginsberg, and Ginsberg’s partner, Peter Orlovsky, were already on the way to a publishing party, but they diverted the car to Suzuki’s apartment on West Ninety-Fourth Street in Manhattan. In Kerouac’s mind, Suzuki was “a small man coming through an old house with panelled wood walls and many books.” Kerouac, the loner, seemed to yearn for the real Zen embodied by the old man. Perhaps he didn’t know or care how strange this giddy American-style homage might have appeared to a reclusive Japanese scholar.

D. T. Suzuki remained a pivotal figure throughout Cage’s life. After Suzuki’s death, Cage wrote a poem in his memory that contained the lines, “when I think of / you as now i have the Clear impression / tHat / tenderly smIling you’re alive as ever.”

Larson covers the period of Cage’s life from 1950 to 1952 in minute detail, devoting more than a quarter of the book to these three turbulent years. This is Cage’s enlightenment period, according to Larson, beginning roughly when he discovered Suzuki’s Essays in Zen Buddhism and culminating with the first performance of 4'33"—4 minutes and 33 seconds of near silence—and she structures the book to follow this “arc of revelation.” Cage dutifully attended Suzuki’s lectures at Columbia University during this time, and Larson tells us that the scholar’s “teaching on ego was ground zero in Cage’s transformation,” serving to “crack open his mind and show him a way out of suffering on a path of transformation.”

Unlike some of his Beat contemporaries, Cage was not a practicing Buddhist in a formal sense: he chose not to sit and considered music his practice. His moment of realization came not in a meditation hall but in the anechoic chamber at Harvard, “a sound-proof box lined with sound-absorbing baffles, guaranteeing the most perfect silence on earth.” Hoping to experience nothingness at last, Cage instead was overwhelmed by the sounds of his own body. He concluded that total silence doesn’t exist—and that silence, such as it is, “is not acoustic. It is a change of mind.”

When I went into that soundproof room, I really expected to hear nothing. With no idea of what nothing could sound like. The instant I heard myself producing two sounds, my blood circulating and my nervous system in operation, I was stupefied. For me, that was the turning point.

“In other words, there is no split between spirit and matter,” Cage later said. “Suzuki’s teachings suddenly made sense,” Larson tells us.

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