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John Cage and collaborator/partner Merce Cunningham

Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists by Kay Larson has been my mainstay for the last several weeks. Every page has now been marked and annotated, leafed through many times. This is an unforgettable, inspiring, deeply moving book about a towering and yet famously accessible figure. Larson weaves this story through written words by John Cage himself and the historical evidence of the network of extraordinary people that Cage knew, learned from, influenced and collaborated with. For anyone interested in 20th century culture, art, dance, music, cultural history, Buddhism, Eastern thought or the varieties of spiritual experience, put this on your list.

Larson is an art historian (longtime denizens of Boston may remember her writing for The Real Paper before moving on to Artnews and New York magazine) who changed the trajectory of her life by entering into Zen practice at Zen Mountain Monastery in 1994. From her unique dual perspective of seasoned art observer and practicing Zen Buddhist, Larson is the perfect chronicler of John Cage’s richly lived life and inspirational work.

Larson describes her undertaking of this project :

This book has been a fifteen-year journey into the world of John Cage, who was teacher to so many, and who taught me, too. As real Zen teachers do, he modeled a way of life for me. This kind of teaching doesn’t need physical proximity. It is best displayed within the life of the person who teaches. What choices did he make? Why did he make them? What questions did he ask? Cage modeled a life that lives on in the daily moments of those who knew, loved, and were taught by him.

There are so many ways to slice into this complex, multi-layered biography, and perhaps over the next few weeks I will write a few more posts that explore some of the many themes that weave their way through this book. But for now I start with Larson’s account of Cage’s existential dilemma while he was still a relatively young artist. In his words:

So what is beautiful? So what’s art? So why do we write music? All these questions began to be of great importance to me, to such a great importance that I decided not to continue unless I could find suitable answers…

I had been taught in the schools that art was a question of communication. I observed that all of the composers were writing differently. If art was communication, we were using different languages.

The answer came through an Indian friend, Gita Sarabhai. Steeped in the teachings of Sri Ramakrishna, Gita answered Cage’s question with this: The function of art is to “sober and quiet the mind, thus rendering it susceptible to divine influences.”

From Cage’s journal:

I was tremendously struck by this. And then something really extraordinary happened. Lou Harrison, who had been doing research in early English music, came across a statement by the seventeenth-century English composer Thomas Mace expressing the same idea in almost exactly the same words. I decided then and there that this was the proper purpose of music. In time, I also came to see that all art before the Renaissance, both Oriental and Western, had shared this same basis, that Oriental art had continued to do so right along, and that the Renaissance idea of self expressive art was therefore heretical.

Cage becomes particularly compelled by Indian aesthetic theory and an art that measured itself by its reflection of the immeasurable. And to that end Cage wrote:

I felt that an artist had an ethical responsibility to society to keep alive to the contemporary spiritual needs. I felt that if he did this, admittedly vague as it is a thing to do, his work would automatically carry with it a usefulness to others.

And this deeply moving quote from Cage on the last page of the book:

We were artisans; now we’re the observers of miracles. All you have to do is go straight on, leaving the path at any moment, and to the right or to the left, coming back or never, coming in, of course, out of the rain.

Cage’s evolution as an artist, particularly his merging of wisdom traditions with creativity, is a personal and inspiring narrative. But in addition to a biography of Cage, this book is also a profound contemplation of the spiritual dimensions that can characterize an artist’s life. Larson delivers on the title of her book by all counts.


Composer John Adams

Much of what I do each day feels difficult to describe. For those of us who spend a lot of time alone in the studio, it is often hard to know what’s really going on. I am grateful when I find others who can language some of these emotions and experiences. And seeing correlations to other forms, like music and poetry, is often very useful.

Alex Ross has a silken gift, writing about music in a way that feels effortless and inviting. His read every one of his articles in the New Yorker, many of which have been compiled in his most recent book, the excellent Listen to This.

He wrote a review recently of a new oratorio by one of my favorite composers, John Adams. The Gospel According to the Other Mary premiered in Los Angeles a few months ago, and Ross’s review has several references that resonate for visual art as well.

Ross refers to the progression to atonal music as having a “mystical aspect: these uncanny new chords could serve as esoteric icons, emblems of the sacred.” He points out how extensively twentieth century composers wrote sacred music, arguably eclipsing the output of the previous century. “Even secular-minded artists like György Ligeti and Morton Feldman wrote works of a spiritual nature, perhaps because their chosen language drew them towards the unsayable.”

Adams, a self-described “secular liberal living in Berkeley”, has “tilted towards sacred subjects” with many of his recent works, says Ross.

Regarding this latest oratorio:

A Passion play in all but name, it is a huge, strange, turbulent creation, brushing against chaos. The modernist tradition of the dark sacred, of the radical sublime, is alive and well; a composer who started out as an acolyte of Boulez, Stockhausen, and Cage has rediscovered his avant-garde roots, and those who prize him as an audience-friendly neo-Romantic are in for some shocks…it contains some of the strongest, more impassioned music of Adams’s career. Above all, it is a work of daring: a popular, celebrated artist has set aside familiar devices and stepped into the unknown…

At the age of sixty-five, Adams seems to be entering a new phase, revisiting the danger zones of twentieth-century style, and the first results are astonishing.

There is so much here to capture the imagination: the “dark sacred,” the “radical sublime,” the artist who is willing to step into the unknown and revisit “the danger zones” of style. Setting aside the familiar: That’s worthy of a mantra on my wall.

From my early days: Graphix 5, from 1977

David Cope is a Professor Emeritus of Music at the University of California at Santa Cruz (my alma mater). In a segment on Radio Lab over the weekend, he described an extraordinary project he began in 1981 when he was suffering from a serious case of composer’s block. After a conversation with a computer scientist, Cope developed the idea that it might be possible to use the computational power of a computer to identify the essential DNA of his compositional style and then aid him in assembling the opera he hoped to write.

A program called EMI, Experiments in Musical Intelligence, was the result of that effort. The description of how this “tool” works is fascinating. While he originally intended to use it for help with his own musical development, he quickly saw its potential to parse and uncover the patterning in all music.

The first results of this effort seemed lifeless to Cope. But with tweaking and adjustments, the results became quite extraordinary. It seems that there is a signature in the structure of a composition, and that signature can be used for propagation.

In Cope’s words:

My idea was that every work of music contains a set of instructions for creating different but highly related replications of itself. These instructions, interpreted correctly, can lead to interesting discoveries about musical structure as well as, hopefully, create new instances of stylistically-faithful music.

My rationale for discovering such instructions was based, in part, on the concept of recombinancy. Recombinancy can be defined simply as a method for producing new music by recombining extant music into new logical successions…recombinancy appears everywhere as a natural evolutionary and creative process. All the great books in the English language, for example, are constructed from recombinations of the twenty-six letters of the alphabet. Similarly, most of the great works of Western art music exist as recombinations of the twelve pitches of the equal-tempered scale and their octave equivalents. The secret lies not in the invention of new letters or notes but in the subtlety and elegance of their recombination.

Of course, simply breaking a musical work into smaller parts and randomly combining them into new orders almost certainly produces gibberish. Effective recombination requires extensive musical analysis and very careful recombination to be effective at even an elemental level no less the highly musical level of which I dreamed.

(The Radio Lab link above offers samples of music written using EMI by Cope as well as compositions “inspired” by the elemental DNA of Bach and other composers.)

This provokes my sense of what is signatory in art as well. Peter Schjeldahl wrote a piece in the New Yorker several years ago that has haunted me ever since. While suffering from dementia at the end of his life, de Kooning was still painting elementally de Kooning works. Which causes one to ask, where does style reside anyway? (I have also pondered the claim of neurologists who say a brain damaged person in the West can sing the happy birthday ditty even if they cannot speak or recognize their family members.) Researchers have tried to identify the fractal-like DNA of a Jackson Pollock painting—not without controversy, however—or those other small tells that end up determining the authenticity of a work of art.

On a more personal level, can you spot the signatory patterns in your own work? Looking back at my early efforts I see all sorts of patterns, proclivities, inclinations and tendencies that feel familiar to me now. Cope’s approach is scientific and my judgment is subjective, but the question is still floating for me.

More recent work: Sloycha, 2011

The Goat Rodeo ensemble (Chris Thile, Aoife O’Donovan, Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer and Stuart Duncan) performed Tuesday night at House of Blues. Photo: Jeremy Cowart

Interstices are everywhere, in and around every field of expression. They can be found by diving into the margins between big obvious things. And sometimes those in between zones open up a whole new world full of complexity, texture and wonder. It was there all the time, just waiting to be uncovered and explored.

My latest interstitial delight is the unlikely confluence of legendary cellist Yo-Yo Ma with a few other legends from completely different musical time zones—bluegrass fiddler extraordinaire Stuart Duncan, composer/bassist/visionary Edgar Meyer and magical mandolinist Chris Thile. The music that emerges from this coming together carries the DNA of a complex and delicious variety of musical lineages. These exquisite soundings (refreshingly) do not fit into any existing classifications. Add a crazy name, The Goat Rodeo Sessions (a phrase describing an exceptionally chaotic situation), put on a live broadcast performance for a SRO crowd at the House of Blues and you have something new and fun. With drinks in the hands of the folding chaired audience and a phalanx of camera boom arms roaming the hall to capture the performance for theaters all over America, this was no staid Symphony Hall concert. Not for these Goaters, especially since it looked like they were having as much fun as all of us.

Ma is a wonder. Unlike so many purist classical musicians whose hardening of the categories prevents them from exploring alternative musical forms, Ma just wants to make music with other gifted musicians. I remember seeing him several years ago sitting on a MIT classroom floor for a performance of proto-Romany trance music. Sometime after that he and Edgar Meyer collaborated on a new musical hybrid vein with their highly successful Appalachian Waltz and Appalachian Journey recordings. Ma’s Silk Road project went in another direction altogether and brought forth new musical forms that his fans would never have found on their own.

Watching the utter pleasure in Ma’s face reminded me how vital joy is in making, whether one’s métier is art, music, literature, theater. Visual artists don’t usually get the chance to share those rare but deeply blissful highs with others. For us those moments happen in the studio when we are alone, those exquisite breakthroughs that appear in an instant, out of the blue. But I want to remember Ma’s face, to remind myself to celebrate the pleasure and joy of making and doing.

Robert Plant

I call it “squinting”—you will have your own term. You’ve chosen a favorite musician, probably in your teen years, and the relationship grows through awkward phases…Along the way, you find yourself squinting to keep seeing what made you fall in love…In pop music, which is a worse deal for the aging than painting and fiction are, there can be a fair amount of effort involved.

This is the start of Sasha Frere-Jones’ review, Gut Check, of PJ Harvey’s latest release. (And PJ falls into that squinting category for me—some of her music was ecstasy embodied for me.) But when it comes to issues of doing your art and aging, pop music and ballet have to be two of the most youth-centric. Some would say they are youth-centric to a draconian degree.

But as my wise friend Sally Reed reminded me on the occasion of my birthday this week, forms change. It’s a mantra worthy of my studio wall as well as my bathroom mirror. And look at how even the forms of pop music and dance have stretched and morphed. How many aging rockers are touring and making music? It isn’t just superstars like Robert Plant, The Rolling Stones, Paul McCarthy and Bob Dylan—even Robbie Robertson, the Band heartthrob from the 70’s, just released a new album. In the words of Mitchell Stephens, “Once upon a time, these men reinvented what it meant to play rock-and-roll. Is it not possible that they might also be capable of reinventing what it means to be ‘old’ and still playing rock-and-roll? Age has, after all, done them a few favors. To begin with, it has given these fellows, none of whom has ever been saddled with a day job, years of practice. They’re better musicians than they were at 25, and better singers too.”

Another great moment recently on this same theme: Charles Lloyd, jazz veteran at 73, came out of semi-retirement to blow our minds. He recently performed at the Regatta Bar in Cambridge with his latest quartet, now playing with three extraordinary young musicians in their 30s—Reuben Rogers, Eric Harland and my favorite all time jazz pianist, Jason Moran.* It was an evening I will never forget.

And then there was the stunning moment at the end of the National Theater’s recent broadcast of Fela! when Bill T. Jones jumped up on stage and danced with the cast, shirtless. Like Mark Morris, Jones continues to engage us with the way his body can move.

All anecdotes worth considering. Yes, forms change. And sometimes what shows up surprises everybody.

Charles Lloyd Quartet

* For a list of my many blog posts about Jason Moran, go here.

Portion of an image by Anna Hepler from her show at the Portland Museum of Art this summer

This unexpected report from the New York Times: Jane Moss, vice president for programming at Lincoln Center, talks about her ideas behind the 3 week long White Light Festival, an event that is explicitly based on a primary theme of spirituality: “Many if not all of the answers to one’s own life actually lie inside ourselves. I believe deeply in having access to, and spending time with, one’s interior life.”

From Steve Smith’s article:

Insisting that she is no Luddite, Ms. Moss singled out the omnipresent siren call of cellphones, BlackBerries and similar electronic gadgets as a possible barrier to inner contemplation and artistic communion. “If you’ve got 423 e-mails to answer or you’ve got 12 texts coming in, there is enormous seduction in that,” she said. “You’re being productive. You’re busy. You’re important.”

Breaking with that incessant barrage, Ms. Moss suggested, is an increasingly urgent objective for many harried professionals, herself included. That she conceived of this festival during a yoga class sounds too good to be true, but is.

“It was in those classes that I just had this moment,” Ms. Moss said, “and it sounds really ridiculous, but it was this moment of thinking, ‘Beethoven can do this for you too,’ and that we were somehow not articulating the ultimate power of what music is.” Conceiving a festival meant to illustrate and support that idea required a shift in curatorial philosophy…

Uniting it all is Ms. Moss’s fervent belief that beyond aesthetic concerns, music has a distinct capacity for offering transcendence.

“To me the ultimate success, I suppose, would be that you, the listener, fall in love the way I do every day of my life,” she said. “If I were able to give that to people — that, ‘Oh my God, this music makes me feel whole,’ for maybe only two hours — that would feel good to be able to do that.”

Jane Moss’ credo from the White Light Festival website:

The White Light Festival is our new annual fall festival focused on music’s transcendent capacity to illuminate our larger interior universe. In this inaugural season, we explore the spiritual dimension of music as manifested in different cultural and musical traditions, from masterpieces of the Western classical canon to Muslim and Hindu musical linkages in northern India and the mystical minimalism of the Baltic region.

We invite you to extend your White Light experience through a variety of free events, including discussions with the participating artists, in-depth explorations of festival themes, and informal post-performance parties. We hope these musical encounters will enable you, if only for the course of an evening, to experience moments of connection and wholeness in an increasingly frenetic and fragmented world.

The Festival will run from October 28 through November 18.

A quick shout out for Jason Moran who was awarded a genius grant from the MacArthur Foundation. Jason is a friend and an extraordinary musician. This is so well deserved!

Previous posts on Slow Muse about Jason:

Light Seekers

Jason Moran and The Bandwagon: Milestone

Jason Moran in Cambridge

Jason Moran

Lowell Lieberman, composer

My sister Rebecca is a musician and composer, and I’ve been piggybacking off of her exquisite ear for most of my life. She first introduced me to the music of Lowell Lieberman 20 years ago and we have followed his music making with a quiet reverence ever since.

His approach to tonality and melodic line set him apart from the strongly atonal dissonance that has been so prevalent in contemporary composition. That is a position that hasn’t garnered him much encouragement from critics or his peers over the years. But traveling on another road is something Lieberman has been willing to do regardless.

In an interview with David Weininger at the Boston Globe, Lieberman shares a seminal experience from his years of studying composition at Julliard. Lieberman worked with the composer David Diamond during a period of heightened academic interest in serialism and atonality, but Lieberman was hopeful for approval when shared his first symphony with his teacher. The piece flowed through dissonance and into resolution, ending in a chorale like series of tonal chords.

As Lieberman tells it, “Diamond said to me, ‘You can’t do that! The critics will tear you apart!’ At the time I thought that was so strange for a composer of his status and reputation being concerned about what critics would think.”

Weininger writes:

For the young composer, the lesson was one he’s adhered to throughout his career. ”I’ve never paid attention to trends that were going on or what other people thought I should be writing,” he says. “I write the music I’m interested in writing.”

That determination to ignore fashion and follow his own compass has come in handy throughout his career…but he’s been a persistent target of critics who find his intensely lyrical works to be anachronistic and derivative. During the 1990s he was frequently referred to as a “neo-Romantic” or “new tonalist”…A 1999 New York Times article…offered a kind of backhanded compliment when it described [him] as “[caring] little about the modernist obsession with originality.”

Lieberman never cared for either moniker. He points out that his concern with musical form and organic unity allies him more closely with classicism than Romanticism, and that he does use non-tonal elements in his music. As a general matter, he continues, “labels are almost always oversimplications and just prevent a real valid look at the music itself.”

Weininger asks Lieberman to describe his own music, a question most artists (myself included) buckle at just a bit and usually try to dodge. But I like Lieberman’s very straightforward answer to that dicey request:

My aim as a composer is to communicate as clearly as possible. When you have certain pieces that are so complex and so personal to the composer that you need a user’s manual to figure out what they are trying to do, to me that’s a defect in the communication…that does not mean pandering to an audience or to what I think other people would want to hear. Because I think the only thing one can do as a composer is to write the music that you would want to hear if you were sitting in the audience.”

It is easy to draw parallels in the visual art world where trends are intense and defined, serving to mark off the territory into what’s cool and what isn’t. The current fad of idea-dependent visual imaging which comes with a highly cerebral text to decipher its meaning is a good example as is insistence on shock, entertainment or overscaling.

I remember wise advise from sculptor Petah Coyne from many years ago who said (this is a paraphrase) that everyone has their work to do. Maybe you will be lucky and your work is appreciated by lots of people. Maybe you won’t be popular at all. But even if you don’t have a huge following you have to do what you have to do. Making art that is authentic and that comes from that very deeply personal place does not pander to an audience. The temptations to do otherwise are everywhere, but Coyne’s law is to stay true.

Some would view her advice as a fatalistic and defeatist position. I heartily disagree. Lieberman is a good reminder of how creative conviction is both personal and essential. No matter what you think of his work, it is his. Undeniably so.

To learn more about Lieberman’s oeuvre, visit his website.

Sarah McLachlan in 1998. Her 2010 Lilith Fair tour has had to cancel dates. Lady Gaga, whose influence is pervasive among many female pop singers. (Photo: Steve Granitz/WireImage—Getty Images; Andy Paradise/Associated Press)

Sincerity. I knew it was beleaguered but who knew it was on life support? The Sunday Times‘ Arts & Leisure above-the-fold article is about the sea change in women’s pop music: Pure Gaga: Sincerity Becomes a Tough Sell, as Spectacle Rules in Women’s Pop.

OK, sure, there’s more involved here than just the sincerity quotient. But while I take an “I’m curious about everything” stance with music and find both Sarah McLachlan and Lady Gaga of interest, the stark reality is that what has shifted in women’s pop music is just one more facet of a shift in creative culture in general. As Jon Caramanica states it in his article, McLachlan’s Lilith Fair “trafficked in a very specific brand of feminism: organic, direct, unadorned, intimate…But in the recent pop mainstream these female artists are far outweighed by the eccentrics, the freaks, the adventuresome. For them performance and exteriority are central to their self-presentation, far more so than any lyrical message.”

It’s getting more difficult to get both/and in a cultural mood that seems to swing from one end of the extreme to the other.

Parallels could be drawn from other creative métiers as well. I just finished reading Geoff Dyer’s Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, a novel that consists of two quite separate accounts that hint at a common protagonist but keeps it intentionally ambiguous. The first story takes place in Venice during a Biennale, the protagonist a disaffected journalist on assignment to report on this legendary international art event. Dyer savagely skewers an absurdist and hypocritical art world without ever having to take on a tone of bitter vitriol—the detached narration simply reports what journalist Jeff sees.

For example:

There was all this art and yet there was very little to see, or very little worth looking at anyway. Some of it was a waste of one’s eyes. Good. Because even though there was nothing to see, there was a lot of it to get round and Jeff had to at least poke his nose in everything. Quite a bit of the work on display could have been designated conceptual, in so far as the people looking at it were conceived has having the mentality of pupils at junior school. fair enough, except most of it looked like it was made by someone in primary school, albeit a primary school pupil with the ambition of a seventeen-year-old Russian whose widowed mother had saved every ruble to get him into a tennis academy in Florida. The work may have been puerile, but the hunger to succeed of which it was the product and symbol was ravenous. In different historical circumstances any number of these artists could have seized control of the Reichstag or ruled Cambodia with unprecedented ruthlessness.

Been there, done that. Dyer’s analogy is spot on IMHO.

The second half of the book takes place in Varanasi, India’s most holy city, and it has a very different texture and pace. The protagonist, once again a journalist on assignment, does not possess the parasitic hanger on, self-indulgent, freeloading proclivities of Jeff in Venice. The second half of the novel is a slow unwinding of story, character and tautness as the journalist renounces layer after layer of his life and his sense of himself. It is done in a manner that feels prescribed and ritualistic in its protracted measuredness.

Here’s a sampling:

Some people stop believing that happiness is going to come their way. On the brink of becoming one of them, I began to accept that it was my destiny to be unhappy. In the normal course of things I wold have made some accommodation with this, would have set up camp as a permanently unhappy person. But what had happened in Varanasi was that something was taken out of the equation so that there was nothing for unhappiness to fasten itself upon. That something was me. I had cheated destiny. Actually, the passive construction is more accurate: destiny had been cheated.

Dyer’s book maps a nonmoralistic devolution from the thrill of fame, drugs, sex and celebritism to that state where a postmodern, detached world has nothing to “fasten itself upon.” The contrast between the two narratives in this book—both taking place in water-centric cities (with names that both start with a V) that are self-contained, mythic laden and each overflowing with a singular mystique around death and loss—works as a metaphor for a range of either/ors that populate our contemporary consciousness.

While my particular version of an art world counter vision has more muscle than the slow fade of Dyer’s Varanasi, I’m firmly planted in a landscape that is increasingly becoming an artistic outsider counter vision. While my art making locale isn’t the crunchy granola of “organic, direct, unadorned, intimate” that is the Lilith Fair, it does feature art that has “residential” power (work you want to live with and look at every day) rather than the terminally clever, a quiet groundedness rather than showy theatricity, highly personal rather than detached. It’s a place where there is something to fasten upon, repeatedly, and where Roberta Smith’s memorable line (which I first wrote about here) is in full swing: An “art that seems made by one person out of intense personal necessity, often by hand.”

MIT Chapel, Cambridge MA. Eero Saarinen, 1955

There is something profoundly moving about this show; an inescapable nostalgia pervades it for that elusive American Century. The faith in the future, the belief that science and technology would bring us a better world, is part of a more innocent era. Seeing how one architect expressed its hopes and aspirations helps us to recapture the moment and value the maker on his own terms, in his own times, and in the context of what we have become.

Ada Louise Huxtable in the Wall Street Journal, from a review of the exhibit, “Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future,” currently on view at the Museum of the City of New York.

This passage from the inimitable Ada Louise made me stop and reflect on what has been lost, what didn’t traveled with us into this new century. Reading her review was closely coupled with an evening of extraordinary jazz by two legendary greats, Bucky Pizzarelli (who turned 84 on January 9th) and Carol Sloane, 73. Alert, engaged and gifted, they were still in their bliss. Listening to them brought me to that same reflective place of thinking about what they know and we can only imagine.