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John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists

by Kay Larson

Pub Date: July 9th, 2012
ISBN: 978-1-59420-340-4
Publisher: Penguin Press

An unconventional biography of avant-garde composer John Cage (1912–1992) and the profound influence Zen Buddhism had on his music.

Cage is most famous for 4’33”, a 1952 work whose audacity—essentially four minutes and 33 seconds of silence in which the only sounds are those of the performance environment—inspired a raft of experimental artists. The piece has also been mocked for its anybody-can-do-that simplicity. However, as longtime art critic Larson makes clear, it sprung from years of deep spiritual practice and hard thinking about the structure of music. Beginning his career on the West Coast, Cage studied with pioneering modernist composers Arnold Schoenberg and Henry Cowell but broke free to find ways to integrate music with the noise of everyday life. At the same time, he grew enchanted with varieties of religious mysticism, studying under D.T. Suzuki, who helped promote Zen Buddhism in the West. In time, Cage’s work acquired an openness that ultimately produced 4’33”. Larson structures the book as a kind of call and response between Cage and his associates, alternating paragraphs of conventional biography with extended, often gnomic, quotations from Cage. The strategy is most effective when it shows the effect his uncanny calm had on others: Composers like Morton Feldman and Yoko Ono and painters like Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns were all influenced by Cage’s thinking. However, Larson’s approach does leave Cage’s life as more of a mystery than a biography perhaps ought to. After the triumph of 4’33”, she dwells little on the details of her subject’s life, only briefly noting that Cage struggled with his homosexuality and kept his decades-long relationship with choreographer Merce Cunningham a secret.

Some wooly mysticism fogs up these pages but overall, a well-researched and thoughtfully framed study of an often misunderstood artist.