Engaging biographies, in my opinion, resonate on multiple levels. For example, they are foremost factual; they relate the relevance of the book’s subject to their world and time; also, they do so in a manner which satisfies the reader’s expectations of a story (like using a Western dramatic structure, for example). Ironically, Where the Heart Beats by Kay Larson satisfies all these expectations. Her book is an account of the effects of Zen Buddhism on John Cage’s life, and the subsequent ripples through art and culture stemming from his life and work, as well as a chronicle of D.T. Suzuki’s introduction of Zen Buddhism to America. This is only ironic in that it satisfies multiple expectations, which is contrary to one of Zen’s tenants of abandoning expectation (as it is a source of disappointment). However, since Zen is rife with paradoxes, this is not unexpected… and by virtue of discussion, it’s also untrue.
Larson begins our journey into the life of John Cage with a biographical introduction of Daisets Teitaro Suzuki- Cage’s mentor and prominent advocate/educator of Zen Buddhism. This is helpful as a pedagogical foundation for Cage, as well as for marking a cornerstone of Zen’s heritage in 20th century North America. The focus on Suzuki’s life and his character as a human being, just like Cage, emphasizes his integral part in this whole saga, rather than some mythic sage. We start to see Cage as a connecting figure in a larger epic of American musical, artistic and literary philosophies adopting Zen Buddhist influences in the 20th century. Where the Heart Beats unfurls with accounts of thoughts influencing thoughts and artists’ awakening to new and liberating truths, using John Cage’s life and work as a focal point.
John Cage’s effects on America’s cultural backdrop proved to be rhizomatic, as did those of Zen Buddhism. Initially reflected in Cage’s immediate circle of peers (whom were more visual artists rather than composers), continuing epicenters of influence emerged from east to west coasts and Europe. Through Cage’s practice of Zen Buddhism, and his applications of its teachings to his life and art, he gave himself permission to discover and reinvent our perception of music. Cage exemplified the belief that “it’s okay.” That is, it’s okay to follow intuition in the face of tradition and do something that hadn’t been done; it’s okay to NOT build on the shoulders of the past and instead invent something completely unique; it’s okay to be labeled as a charlatan, because those judgments are ultimately reflections of the judges, their preferences, and not of one’s work. These ideas were like stones cast into a still pond, whose effects are still seen throughout America’s artistic experience.
Where the Heart Beats offers a unique and insightful glimpse into America’s artistic heritage, and Kay Larson illuminates some of the impetus behind 20th century America’s significantly recognized art. Relevant examples of creative process, and corresponding analogical connections, are peppered throughout this biography; it truly offers multiple levels of enjoyment and provokes the imagination, all in the course of learning.