zenpundit.com » Blog Archive » Book review: Kay Larson on the zen of Cage

Book review: Kay Larson on the zen of Cage

[ by Charles Cameron ]

Kay Larson, Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists, Penguin, $29.95


Dropping silence into a concert turns things upside down: it brings the solo performer or group of performers into the position of audience, makes listeners of them – and makes keener listeners of the audience — perhaps with a touch of unease or self-consciousness, but with an unusual attentiveness, too.

Dropping John Cage‘s piece of silent music into a book right around the beginning… well, it has a similar impact. And that’s what Kay Larson‘s book Where the Heart Beats does, on the page numbered xiii so you’ll know the book hasn’t even started properly yet. Larsen points you, without giving you the URL, to YouTube, where you can find Cage’s most shocking, and thus his most famous piece, 4’33”, performed by the London Symphony at the Barbican, in three movements, all silent as demanded by the composer’s score – with breaks in between the movements for the usual coughing and fidgeting.

And how to say this? During the silence, you could have heard a pin drop? Or you could hear, as Tom Service said on the BBC, the “very distinct high hum” of the Barbican’s electrical system, and the occasional cough too – “you could cut the atmosphere with a knife, and every cough, every tiny noise was absolutely amplified, made into a massive musical event”.


You can tell the audience was delighted – self-satisfied perhaps, too? – from the hearty applause, and they had listened, had presumably taken onboard the idea that pauses – silences – are as much a part of music as sounds.

But what if I said that wine was just as much a part of drinking as glasses, and poured wine for my guests with no glasses to contain it?

The thing about John Cage’s 4’33” is that it straddles the line between the emperor having and not having clothes, between group assent and dissent, between “either” and “or” -– if it turns us from self-obsessed self-expressives into attentive listeners, it has reached into us musicically and carried us beyond the limits of music. And if it’s a bunch of boring minutes while an orchestra gets paid to SFU, it’s plain idiotic.

Which means that John Cage composed it right at the tipping point between the stupid and the profound.

I want to express it that way, and not tell you that Cage composes where the mind is fresh and inspiration flows, because it is stupid as well as fresh and profound.

As Hitler might have said, if he’d been asked…

And we haven’t really begun the book yet.


There are three stories here:

There’s the rigorous thread of western classical music, from its origins in the mist via Jewish cantillation and Gregorian chant into Polyphony and the Baroque, Classicism proper, Romanticism and the Modern. The music of Cage is the culmination, here, of this theme.

There’s the circling yet nonexistent circle, drawn as it were on glass with an ink brush dipped in water, of Zen, a “rebirth with neither beginning nor end”…

And there’s the world of the contemporary arts, centering in New York, with Cage a leading light.

They comes together when various characters have what Larson calls “life altering moments” — Larson herself, John Cage, Gary Snyder, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac in the first few pages alone, with the two Suzukis, DT Suzuki and Shunryu Suzuki Roshi and their experiences hovering in the background.

Zen is the pond, the emptiness, the silence, the stillness waiting into which like so many varied pebbles, the themes are character off the book will drop, in which their ripples will intersect…

Or to put that another way: silence, the stillness, is the pond into which Cage’s life and influence is dipped, and music and the arts the shingle on the beach from which the pebbles are dropped.


And Cage played in that shingle, sent notes from “prepared piano” and other instruments… formal and informal… skipping across the silence.

Cage not only invited silence into the concert hall, he also theorized it at length. I’d like to quote here a celebrated passage from his book, aptly named Silence: Lectures and Writings:

What happens to a piece of music when it is purposelessly made? What happens, for instance to silence? That is, how does the mind’s perception of it change?… Silence becomes something else — not silence at all, but sounds, the ambient sounds… Where ears are in connection with a mind that has nothing to do, that mind is free to enter into the act of listening, hearing each sound as it is, not as a phenomenon more or less approximating a preconception.


Zen is the simplest thing, it’s human nature. It is also the most difficult — it’s what we instinctively shy away from. And it can take all our resources, as those who “sit while going round in circles” well know — to break from the “boredom” of silence into listening, to dip into the sound stream, to hear the stillness.

Somehow, I’m hoping to nudge you into that kind of awareness, so that you can understand from within the taste of silence, the importance of Cage’s life, and of Kay Larson’s book.

Here’s another nudge, from a different angle — the Scottish poet Edwin Morgan‘s poem in homage to one of John Cage’s sayings:

Opening the Cage: 14 Variations on 14 Words
“I have nothing to say and I am saying it and that is poetry.” — John Cage

I have to say poetry and is that nothing and am I saying it
I am and I have poetry to say and is that nothing saying it
I am nothing and I have poetry to say and that is saying it
I that am saying poetry have nothing and it is I and to say
And I say that I am to have poetry and saying it is nothing
I am poetry and nothing and saying it is to say that I have
To have nothing is poetry and I am saying that and I say it
Poetry is saying I have nothing and I am to say that and it
Saying nothing I am poetry and I have to say that and it is
It is and I am and I have poetry saying say that to nothing
It is saying poetry to nothing and I say I have and am that
Poetry is saying I have it and I am nothing and to say that
And that nothing is poetry I am saying and I have to say it
Saying poetry is nothing and to that I say I am and have it

Edwin Morgan, The Second Life
Edinburgh University Press, 1968


In a follow up post on Monday or Tuesday, I shall describe Larson’s book in more conventional terms, and offer you some details from Cage’s intricate life and extraordinary network of friends..

For now, I just want to give you again that taste of silence from which this whole endeavor springs. Here is the pianist David Tudor, for whom the piece was written, playing 4’33”:

One Response to “Book review: Kay Larson on the zen of Cage”

  1. Heather J. @ TLC Book Tours Says:

    Thanks for including the videos – I hadn’t seen the piece performed before (or seen Hilter’s commentary on it!), and seeing it definitely makes an impact.

    Thanks for being on the tour! 

Switch to our mobile site