There’s a tendency to acknowledge a certain area of John Cage’s aesthetic without overly considering it. The bright-eyed and necktied young man so eager to define art for the 20th century seems generally to have weathered better than the mushroom-collecting Zen enthusiast, bearded and dressed in denim, that Cage became in later years. There seems to be, in other words, an effort (collective-subconsciously, perhaps) to protect Cage from being seen as hokey, or (equally incriminatingly) proto New Age.
But much of what makes Cage Cage also makes New Age New Age. Consider by way of example a strip from the reliably wryly observant comic Doonesbury. The no-nonsense football and military hero BD comes home to find his former cheerleader wife Boopsie listening to a New Age record. She asks him if he likes it and he says he can’t hear anything. Isn’t it wonderful?, she replies, it’s called “Air Pudding.” Boopsie could just as easily have been listening to the work Cage will always be most famous for.
That discussion—framed around New Age sensibilities or not—is key to an honest portrait of John Cage. And the root of that particular conversation is Cage’s deep interest in Buddhism. It’s not ignored in most profiles of him, but often it is treated—like being gay or being from L.A.—as a biographical detail, an interesting aside. Kay Larson, in her Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Buddhism and the Inner Life of Artists, attempts to provide a fresh perspective on Cage by viewing him through a Zen lens.
It’s a delicate task to take on. Cage loved knowledge and even sought outside input into the creation of his work to the extent of actively ceding decision-making power in his own compositions in order to make room for external influences. And certainly Buddhist thought was one of the principle external influences that guided his life and work. But a tight focus on a figure as complex as Cage is likely to lead to tunnel vision-induced errors. One could, for example, construct a biography of Cage based on his love for Thoreau and the natural world or say that the whole of his work was a reaction against Schoenberg. In neither case would the biographical details be wrong exactly, but both would fail in getting the whole picture. Defining a figure as complex as Cage in terms of his influences runs the risk of seeing the thinness of a dime without noticing that it’s also round.
This is the trap Larson falls into. Her writings about art have appeared in ARTnews, The Village Voice, and The New York Times, and she has been a practicing Buddhist since 1994, so she’s well equipped for the task she’s taken on. But in a sense, she fails to see the trees for the forest.
Larson takes a keen interest in Cage’s personal life, more than most biographers have in the past. Other writers have shied away from Cage’s homosexuality perhaps because he himself never spoke about it. While he and choreographer Merce Cunningham lived and worked together for most of their lives, their private life was kept private. The rules change, of course, after a public figure’s death, and consideration of the details of Cage’s sexuality and how repressing it during repressed times might have affected him is at this point fair game. But Larson romanticizes it. She describes their first meeting, when Cage was hired to accompany dance classes at Cornish College in Seattle, saying: “The two men met in that moment, even if neither of them quite realized it.” Later, in discussing Cage’s closeted homosexuality, she writes, “The heart-issues that Cage had never resolved were now beating like the undead on the locked doors of his awareness.”
It comes off as a bit prurient, and all the more so given the fact that she seems to have little to say about the actual music. She gives historical details but generally avoids any reactions to or analysis of the works. (She does call the mesmerizing cacophony of HPSCHD “excruciating,” however, and makes reference to Schoenberg’s “agonizing dissonance.”) It’s more than a little telling that the one piece she discusses at any length is 4’33”, the piece for which Cage famously wrote no music.
Larson’s interest in Zen, however, and her interest in Cage as a person, give her rather specialized biography some interesting angles. She provides a nice consideration to the philosopher and author D. T. Suzuki, a scholar respected in his time for bringing Buddhist thought to the West. He isn’t a major figure in the history of Buddhist practice, but he was one of the most profound influences in Cage’s understanding of Eastern thought. While Cage biographies tend not to give him much more than a passing mention, Larson gives him the page space to become a character in his own right. Likewise, her concern for knowing the passions of her subject lead her to give a more complete picture of Xenia Kashevaroff, Cage’s wife from 1935 to 1945, and of the circle of painters and composers he surrounded himself with in New York in the 1950s.
While Larson’s interest in Cage as a practitioner—an applied philosopher perhaps—is clear, one can’t help but imagine her wishing Cage had stopped with the so-called silent piece so she wouldn’t have had to listen to anything more. And in fact, she pretty much skips over the last 30 years of his life. Ultimately, the assignment she’s given herself is a curious one. Buddhism was one of Cage’s lifelong interests, but he never called himself a “Buddhist,” so while her accounts of his life and of the tenets of Buddhism aren’t wrong, she can never quite be all the way right. The fit is a bit forced from the outset.
Cage’s relationship with Buddhist thought isn’t the driving force behind Rob Haskins’ concise biography, simply titled John Cage, but he gives a more balanced assessment in a ten-page section on the subject than Larson does in her whole book. Haskins, an assistant professor in the department of music at the University of New Hampshire, Durham, does a fine job of dealing with Cage’s many facets—his use of chance and thoughts about the ego and individualism, his flair for populism, his poetry and visual art—in much the same way he handles the Buddhist element: he deals with them intelligently and succinctly and then moves along. He also manages what Larson doesn’t quite find in herself, which is to deal with the music. In discussing Cartridge Music, one of Cage’s least “musical” works, he quite candidly writes, “At first, one hardly knows how to listen to such music: the electronics lend a certain harshness to the sounds that makes them seem overly mechanical. Soon enough, though, the complexity of the sounds becomes noticeable.” This is exactly how Cage listened to the forest, or traffic, and how we must listen to him.
Whether or not the world needs another John Cage biography is an open question. Haskins doesn’t best David Revill’s excellent 1993 bio The Roaring Silence: John Cage—a Life in any way except for brevity: at 180 pages, it’s about half the length and so might hold more appeal to the casual centenary celebrator. In that regard, Haskins does a laudably thorough job. It’s a quick, intelligent, and quite readable book.
In his epilogue, Haskins addresses quite nicely the problem of considering Cage as too much of any one thing:
Cage’s complexity resides not least in his own heterogeneity—his famous, cheerful restlessness—which in turn accounts for the great number of extraordinary misunderstandings his work has provoked and for the tendency to view askance or to minimize one or another of his creative activities. […] Cage cannot be, and will never be, explained completely: he will always retain the capacity to infuriate and confound, and even his most poetic achievements will perhaps amuse many more than they inspire.
Why should we study John Cage? Because we can never understand him. And there lies the Zen of Cage.
Kurt Gottschalk’s writing about jazz, rock and new music has appeared in All About Jazz, Time Out, The Village Voice, and The Wire as well as publications in France, Ireland, Portugal and Russia. He is the host of the weekly program Miniature Minotaurs on WFMU and recently published a collection of poetry, Sentences. His occasionally-updated blog can be found at spearmintmusic.blogspot.com.