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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.

Images of emergence: Hall’s Pond in January

The gestation of a project or a body of work—how it starts, forms and then comes into existence—is mysterious and unpredictable.

Some jump into their fullness quickly, in a flash. My poet friend Nicole Long describes this process as egg-like: A whole thing that emerges out of us only when it is complete and perfect.

Other birthings need to rattle around inside us for a long time. Some make a number of attempts to emerge, only to fall back into the inchoate place of churning restlessness. Then, at last, it happens. A final form manifests.

One of my favorite bloggers, David Marshall, published a post this weekend on Signals to Attend that speaks eloquently to this. In response to attending a reading by the author Chad Harbach, author of the bestseller The Art of Fielding, David had this to say:

The audience seemed most intrigued, however, by the history of this his first novel, and how it took almost twelve years to complete…for all that time, he carried his characters around. His account of those years brought to mind a man with a bag of snakes, thoughts crawling all over each other, knotting and unknotting and never taking a shape allowing him to withdraw them whole.

And the split of his life into “living” and “my novel” may have become an agitating status quo. Perhaps people casually asked him, “How’s the book coming?” but satisfactory answers couldn’t have been so casual. Maybe he just shrugged and said “Oh, good,” as, meanwhile, those snakes writhed…

Outcomes change a process. With art particularly, results often seem destined and make the making more purposeful and deliberate than it was at the time. When the work reaches completion, everything aimed at an appointed end. During composition, any sense of destiny relies on faith…Harbach couldn’t have believed in his book all twelve years, and a brain carrying plots, characters, scenes, images, and accreting fragments of prose likely became onerous at times. So much imagination imprisoned—how did he deal with keeping his written world secret? How do you coexist with an alternate reality that’s yours exclusively?

I wrote a previous post about Gillian Welch and the slow gestation of her award winning album, The Harrow and the Harvest. Here is an excerpt:

I was moved to hear Gillian Welch, musician extraordinaire, talk frankly and openly about times when her process just wasn’t working well. It’s a bit like a politician going public with an admission of depression for an artist to acknowledge that there are long, dry spells when nothing comes together. Her new release, aptly named The Harrow and the Harvest, was eight years coming.

Eight years. The thought of being in my studio, painting, and not feeling connected to my work for nearly a decade IS harrowing.

But Welch talks of this difficult phase of her life without drama. When asked why she felt stuck, she doesn’t have an answer. But she is forthcoming about her circumstances. “It wasn’t writer’s block. It was creative block. I was writing songs. I just didn’t like any of them.” She had to wait until she loved what she was writing again. The turning point came just last year. Something shifted and the songs just started to flow again.

“A creative dilemma is a spiritual dilemma,” says Welch.

Ah yes.

Continuing the theme of music and its multifarious explorations…

I follow with my eyes the proud and futile wake. Which, as it bears me from no fatherland away, bears me onward to no shipwreck.

–Samuel Beckett, Molloy

What an evocative quote to start Alex Ross‘ most recent book, Listen to This. His columns in The New Yorker are so consistently good, and I found his first book, The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century, smart, sensitive and insightful.

The preface to this latest book speaks to one of my most consistent themes: Exquisite experiences with art live in us outside of the power of language, but we are nonetheless continually driven to share, explain, decode those states of mind:

Writing about music isn’t especially difficult. Whoever coined the epigram “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture”—the statement has been attributed variously to Martin Mull, Steve Martin and Elvis Costello—was muddying the waters. Certainly, music criticism is a curious and dubious science…But it is no more dubious than any other form of criticism. Every art form fights the noose of verbal description. Writing about dance is like singing about architecture; writing about writing is like making buildings about ballet. There is a fog-enshrouded border past which language cannot go…In my writing on musc, I try to demystify the art to some extent, dispel the hocus-pocus, while still respecting the boundless human complexity that gives it life.

Onward into that journey.

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.

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.”

A few remembrances from the inimitable John Cage:

“The sound experience I prefer to all others is silence,” he says in this short clip on You Tube. And for most of us on the planet, says Cage, the sound of silence is actually traffic. He rhapsodizes that the sound of traffic is constantly modulating and cannot be predicted. “I don’t need sound to talk to me,” he says simply.

My favorite vignette about Cage has always been the one that I heard during a Laurie Anderson performance. Asked to interview him for the Buddhist magazine Tricycle, Laurie was intent upon asking him a really difficult question: Is life getting better or is it getting worse?

When she finally did pose this query to Cage, he looked at her intently and then answered in a very measured fashion:

“Well of course it is getting better Laurie. It’s just that it is happening so slowly.”


I have recently (re)fallen under the spell of Levon Helm’s music. His latest releases—Dirt Farmer (2007) and Electric Dirt (2009)—have some cuts that will be part of the soundtrack for this phase of my life. “The Mountain,” by Steve Earle, (on Dirt Farmer) is a heartbreak every time I listen. And “When I Go Away” on Electric Dirt is the best “Lord, I’m ready to die” song I know right now.

Coming back from throat cancer and suffering a number of other calamities (like the burning down of his barn studio), Helm now comes across as an indestructible force. Both these releases are a full return to his southern roots. And with his daughter Amy singing harmony, the whole project feels like home.

I’ve loved Helm since his days in The Band. Even though his post-cancer voice has more of a rasp, this is still the guy who sang lead on those great Band recordings like “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” and “Rag Mama Rag.”

And then, in the New Yorker, I find this wonderful poem. Pure delight.

Alternate Take: Levon Helm

I’ve been beating my head all day long on the same six lines,
Snapped off and whittled to nothing like the nub of a pencil
Chewed up and smoothed over, yellow paint flecking my teeth.

And this whole time a hot wind’s been swatting down my door,
Spat from his mouth and landing smack against my ear.
All day pounding the devil out of six lines and coming up dry

While he drives donuts through my mind’s back woods with that
Dirt-road voice of his, kicking up gravel like a runaway Buick.
He asks Should I come in with that back beat, and whatever those

Six lines were bothered by skitters off like water in hot grease.
Come in with your lips stretched tight and that pig-eyed grin,
Bass mallet socking it to the drum. Lay it down like you know

You know how, shoulders hiked nice and high, chin tipped back,
So the song has to climb its way out like a man from a mine.

–Tracy K. Smith

Tracy K. Smith has received awards and fellowships from the Rona Jaffe Foundation, the Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and the Whiting Foundation. She teaches creative writing at Princeton University.


This is such good news—composer Steve Reich won the Pulitzer Prize for his Double Sextet. Reich’s music has played such a significant role in my life. Back in 1976 I was living in Manhattan and I heard my first live performance of his legendary Music for 18 Musicians that year. It was unlike anything I had ever heard before, and through my love of his music I was introduced to an entire gallery of minimalist/experimental composers and musicians. Because of his affiliation with MIT, he has been an important presence during the years I have lived in Boston as well.

This posting is from NPR. Go to the link to listen as well.

In honor of Reich’s career, here’s a look at another of his most celebrated works.

Sometimes, we only know a revolution has succeeded when the ideals it fought for have become so mainstream that it’s impossible to imagine it was ever revolutionary in the first place.

The surprising appearance of the style called minimalism in the late 1960s and early ’70s has had an enormous influence on the music written since then, not only in concert halls and opera houses, but even in film scores, TV shows and commercials.

Minimalism was a different sound from the music classical composers were writing in the 1940s and ’50s — music that was criticized for its academic chilliness and atonality. Following that, the deceptive simplicity of minimalism seemed to spring from nowhere.

At its essence, minimalism is about repetition. But commentator Rob Kapilow, in conversation with Performance Today host Fred Child, says that beneath the surface of the music, there’s a lot going on.

“This music was composed out of a profound rejection of all that complexity that came before it,” Kapilow says. “It’s an attempt to recapture the value of a single chord, a single addition to a melody, a single change of texture, and also the pure vitality and drive of rhythm.”

Kapilow takes Steve Reich’s Music for Mallet Instruments, Voices and Organ (from 1973), opens up the hood and shows just how the engine of minimalism runs.

“This music has a motor,” Kapilow says. “And once the motor starts, it doesn’t stop. Every single measure has this pulse, and the motor is provided by three mallet instruments — marimbas and glockenspiel — and each one plays a different one-measure idea over and over. And while that is happening, another marimba is gradually developing a six-note pattern that duplicates the others but is out of phase, adding one note at a time.”

The organ part in Reich’s piece provides an important layer. It rolls out slowly, while everything else whizzes by. And, it couldn’t be simpler to play.

“This is an amazing rejection of the music of the first 50 years of the century,” Kapilow says. “All it is is two chords for three and a half minutes. It’s the kind of thing would make a young guitar student ecstatic. In fact, the piece — over 17 minutes long — only has four chord pairs in the entire thing, each one lasting three or four minutes.”

Minimalism is often thought of as a dreamy, hypnotic haze of repeated notes. That description couldn’t be further from the truth for Kapilow.

“It’s not trance music,” Kapilow says. “It’s edge-of-your-seat listening music — to hear each tiny change happen, as it happens. And they are all happening simultaneously. This is music that’s about making us alive to the differences that are everywhere beneath the surface, if we only listen closely enough.”