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The Best Music Books of 2012

From the neuroscience of talent to the illustrated Beatles, by way of Zen Buddhism and how creativity works.

The latest addition to this year’s best-of reading lists — spanning art, design, philosophy and psychology, picturebooks, history, graphic novels and graphic nonfiction, and food — is a look at the most noteworthy music books of 2012.

HOW MUSIC WORKS

Great times and tall deeds for David Byrne this season: First his fantastic collaborative album with St. Vincent (which made a cameo on Literary Jukebox), and now the release of How Music Works (UK; public library) — a fascinating record of his lifetime of curiosity about and active immersion in music. But rather than an autobiographical work, a prescriptive guide to how to listen, or another neuropsychological account of music, what unfolds is a blend of social science, history, anthropology, and media theory, exploring how context shapes the experience and even the nature of music. Or, as Byrne puts it, “how music might be molded before it gets to us, what determines if it gets to us at all, and what factors external to the music itself can make it resonate for us. Is there a bar near the stage? Can you put it in your pocket? Do girls like it? Is it affordable?”

Among the book’s most fascinating insights is a counterintuitive model for how creativity works, from a chapter titled “Creation in Reverse” — a kind of reformulation of McLuhan’s famous aphorism “the medium is the message” into a somewhat less pedantic but no less purposeful “the medium shapes the message”:

I had an extremely slow-dawning insight about creation. That insight is that context largely determines what is written, painted, sculpted, sung, or performed. That doesn’t sound like much of an insight, but it’s actually the opposite of conventional wisdom, which maintains that creation emerges out of some interior emotion, from an upwelling of passion or feeling, and that the creative urge will brook no accommodation, that it simply must find an outlet to be heard, read, or seen. The accepted narrative suggests that a classical composer gets a strange look in his or her eye and begins furiously scribbling a fully realized composition that couldn’t exist in any other form. Or that the rock-and-roll singer is driven by desires and demons, and out bursts this amazing, perfectly shaped song that had to be three minutes and twelve seconds — nothing more, nothing less. This is the romantic notion of how creative work comes to b, but I think the path of creation is almost 180º from this model. I believe that we unconsciously and instinctively make work to fit preexisting formats.

Of course, passion can still be present. Just because the form that one’s work will take is predetermined and opportunistic (meaning one makes something because the opportunity is there), it doesn’t mean that creation must be cold, mechanical, and heartless. Dark and emotional materials usually find a way in, and the tailoring process — form being tailored to fit a given context — is largely unconscious, instinctive. We usually don’t even notice it. Opportunity and availability are often the mother of invention. The emotional story — ‘something to get off my chest’ — still gets told, but its form is guided by prior contextual restrictions. I’m proposing that this is not entirely the bad thing one might expect it to be. Thank goodness, for example, that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time we make something.

Byrne gives a number of examples from the history of music that illustrate this contextually-driven creation and what it reveals about the nature of creativity:

It’s usually assumed that much Western medieval music was harmonically ‘simple’ (having few key changes) because composers hadn’t yet evolved the use of complex harmonies. In this context there would be no need or desire to include complex harmonies, as they would have sounded horrible in such spaces. Creatively they did exactly the right thing. Presuming that there is such a thing as ‘progress’ when it comes to music, and that music is ‘better’ now than it used to be, is typical of the high self-regard of those who live in the present. It is a myth. Creativity doesn’t ‘improve.’

He turns to nature for confirmation of this model:

The adaptive aspect of creativity isn’t limited to musicians and composers (or artists in any other media). It extends into the natural world as well. David Attenborough and others have claimed that birdcalls have evolved to fit the environment. In dense jungle foliage, a constant, repetitive, and brief signal with a narrow frequency works best — the repetition is like an error-correcting device. If the intended recipient didn’t get the first transmission, an identical one will follow.

Birds that live on the forest floor evolved lower-pitched calls, so they don’t bounce or become distorted by the ground as higher-pitched sounds might. Water birds have calls that, unsurprisingly, cut through the ambient sounds of water, and birds that live in the plains and grasslands, like the Savannah Sparrow, have buzzing calls that can traverse long distances.

[…]

So musical evolution and adaptation is an interspecies phenomenon. And presumably, as some claim, birds enjoy singing, even though they, like us, change their tunes over time. The joy of making music will find a way, regardless of the context and the form that emerges to best fit it.

Byrne brings this evolutionary lens back full circle to the emotional content of creation:

Finding examples to prove that music composition depends on its context comes naturally to me. But I have a feeling that this somewhat reversed view of creation — that it is more pragmatic and adaptive than some might think — happens a lot, and in very different areas. It’s ‘reversed’ because the venues — or the fields and woodlands, in the case of the birds — were not built to accommodate whatever egotistical or artistic urge the composers have. We and the birds adapt, and it’s fine.

What’s interesting to me is not that these practical adaptations happen (in retrospect that seems predictable and obvious), but what it means for our perception of creativity.

It seems that creativity, whether birdsong, painting, or songwriting, is as adaptive as anything else. Genius — the emergence of a truly remarkable and memorable work — seems to appear when a thing is perfectly suited to its context. When something works, it strikes us as not just being a clever adaptation, but as emotionally resonant as well. When the right thing is in the right place, we are moved.

[…]

We do express our emotions, our reactions to events, breakups and infatuations, but the way we do that — the art of it — is in putting them into prescribed forms or squeezing them into new forms that perfectly fit some emerging context. That’s part of the creative process, and we do it instinctively; we internalize it, like birds do. And it’s a joy to sing, like the birds do.

The rest of How Music Works goes on to explore such absorbing facets of music as the intricate inner workings of the music business, the secret of successful collaborations, Byrne’s own life in performance, and how the history of recording technology shaped music.

And what makes for a particularly enjoyable read is Byrne’s decidedly non-dogmatic, non-didactic tone — instead, he wraps his keen cultural insights in a sheath of self-aware subjectivity and unapologetic personal conviction, with just the right amount of conversational candor. (In a section discussing the social shifts in the early 1900s when classical audiences were suddenly forbidden from shouting, eating, and chatting during a performance, he opines with equal parts snark and cultural sensitivity: “I do wonder how much of the audience’s fun was sacrificed in the effort to redefine the social parameters of the concert hall — it sounds almost masochistic of the upper crust, curtailing their own liveliness, but I guess they had their priorities.”)

Originally featured in September.

David Byrne photograph via Wikimedia Commons

GUITAR ZERO

Are musicians born or made? What is the line between skill and talent in any domain, and can we acquire either later in life? That’s exactly what neuroscientist Gary Marcus explores in Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning (UK; public library) — a fascinating journey into the limits of human reinvention.

In an effort to reconcile his lifelong passion for music with his self-admitted chronic musical inaptitude, Marcus set out to debunk one of science’s longest-running theories about learning — that there are “critical periods” in which complex skills can be learned, and that they slam shut after adolescence.

If critical periods aren’t quite so firm as people once believed, a world of possibility emerges for the many adults who harbor secret dreams — whether to learn a language, to become a pastry chef, or to pilot a small plane. And quests like these, no matter how quixotic they may seem, and whether they succeed in the end or not, could bring unanticipated benefits, not just for their ultimate goals but of the journey itself. Exercising our brains helps maintain them, by preserving plasticity (the capacity of the nervous system to learn new things), warding off degeneration, and literally keeping the blood flowing. Beyond the potential benefits for our brains, there are benefits for our emotional well-being, too. There may be no better way to achieve lasting happiness — as opposed to mere fleeting pleasure — than pursuing a goal that helps us broaden our horizons.

To his astonishment, however, Marcus found a dearth of scientific literature and research on music learning in people of his age. The problem, it turned out, wasn’t lack of scientific interest but, rather, a lack of subjects — studying the outcomes of adults who put in 10,000 hours of practice proved difficult since most people of that age have life responsibilities that prevent them from putting in that time in the first place. So, Marcus decided to turn himself into the guinea pig.

For a glimmer of hope, he looked to a number of well-known musicians who arrived at their particular musical talent late in life — Patti Smith didn’t consider becoming a professional singer until she was in her mid-twenties, iconic jazz guitarist Pat Martino relearned to play after a brain aneurysm at the age of 35, and New Orleans keyboard legend Dr. John switched from guitar to piano when he was 21 after an injury, then won the first of his five Grammys at the age of 48. Having no such aspirations of grandeur, Marcus, aged 38 and with a documented lack of rhythm, still found himself desperately longing to learn to play the guitar. As he puts it, “Perhaps few people had less talent for music than I did, but few people wanted more badly to be able to play.” So he confronted the fundamental question:

Could persistence and a lifelong love of music overcome age and a lack of talent? And, for that matter, how did anyone of any age become musical?

Curiously, one of the most influential experiments on critical periods comes from barn owls who, like bats, rely heavily on sound to navigate; but, unlike bats, they see better than bats do, and one of the first things they do after hatching is calibrating their ears with their eyes, attuning what they hear to what they see. But because this navigational mapping of auditory information depends on the exact distance between their eyes and ears, which changes as the owl grows, it can’t be hardwired at birth.

To study how the owls calibrate their visual and auditory worlds, Stanford biologist Eric Knudsen devised a clever experiment, in which he raised owls in a kind of virtual reality world where prisms shifted everything by 23 degrees, forcing the owl to adjust its internal map of the world. Knudsen found that young owls learned to compensate for the distortion easily, and older owls could not — at least not in one go. But as soon as the 23 degrees were broken down in chunks — a few weeks at 6 degrees, another few at 11, and so forth — the adult owls were able to make the adjustment.

Using this insight, Marcus turned to David Mead’s Crash Course: Acoustic Guitar, which broke guitar playing into the kind of bite-sized morsels fit for the human equivalent of adult owls. It gave Marcus the basics, and thus the first step in rewiring his own brain.

This book is about how I began to distinguish my musical derriere from my musical elbow, but it’s not just about me: it’s also about the psychology and brain science of how anybody, of any age — toddler, teenager, or adult — can learn something as complicated as a musical instrument.

Wilder Penfield’s cortical homunculus, a pictorial representation of the neural tissue in the primary motor cortex assigned to different body parts, illustrates that the exact amount of ‘cortical real estate’ varies between body parts, with the more sensitive ones getting more real estate. Marcus suggests a try-this-at-home test:
‘You can confirm this with the aid of a pin and a trusted friend. Close your eyes as the friend gently pokes you with the pin. In areas with heavy cortical representation, you will be able to easily discriminate closely spaced pinpricks; in areas with light cortical representation, you will sometimes be unable to distinguish two pinpricks that are close together but not identical.’

Along the way, Marcus explores the basic elements of music and how it evolved culturally and biologically. He dives deep into the popular “ten thousand hours” theory of mastery, developed by cognitive psychologist Anders Ericsson, “the world’s leading expert on expertise,” and examines Ericsson’s second, lesser-known prerequisite for expertise — the notion of “deliberate practice,” which describes the constant sense of self-evaluation and a consistent focus on one’s weaknesses rather than playing on one’s strengths. In fact, the practice of targeting specific weaknesses is known as the “zone of proximal development” and offers a framework for everything from education to videogames:

[The ‘zone of proximal development’ is] the idea that learning works best when the student tackles something that is just beyond his or her current reach, neither too hard nor too easy. In classroom situations, for example, one team of researchers estimated that its’ best to arrange things so that children succeed roughly 80 percent of the time; more than that, and kids tend to get bored; less, and they tend to get frustrated. The same is surely true of adults, too, which is why video game manufacturers have been known to invest millions in play testing to make sure that the level of challenge always lies in that sweet spot of neither too easy nor too hard.

But what makes Guitar Zero exceptional isn’t simply that it simultaneously calls into question the myth of the music instinct and confronts the idea that talent is merely a myth — at its heart is a much bigger question about the boundaries of our capacity for transformation and, ultimately, the mechanics of fulfillment and purpose.

Originally featured in February.

WHERE THE HEART BEATS

“Good music can act as a guide to good living,” John Cage famously said. But what, exactly, is good music, or good living, or, for that matter, goodness itself?

In Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists (UK; public library), also one of the best psychology and philosophy books of 2012, longtime art critic and practicing Buddhist Kay Larson constructs a remarkable intellectual, creative, and spiritual biography of Cage — one of the most influential composers in modern history, whose impact reaches beyond the realm of music and into art, literature, cinema, and just about every other aesthetic and conceptual expression of curiosity about the world, yet also one of history’s most misunderstood artists. Fifteen years in the making, it is without a doubt the richest, most stimulating,most absorbing book I’ve read in ages — superbly researched, exquisitely written, weaving together a great many threads of cultural history into a holistic understanding of both Cage as an artist and Zen as a lens on existence.

From his early life in California, defined by his investigations into the joy of sound, to his pivotal introduction to Zen Buddhism in Japanese Zen master D. T. Suzuki’s Columbia University class, to his blossoming into a force of the mid-century avant-garde, Larson traces Cage’s own journey as an artist and a soul, as well as his intermeshing with the journeys of other celebrated artists, including Marcel Duchamp, Jasper Johns, Yoko Ono, Robert Rauschenberg, Jackson Pollock, and, most importantly, Merce Cunningham.

The book itself has a beautiful compositional structure, conceived as a conversation with Cage and modeled after Cage’s imagined conversations with Erik Satie, one of his mentors, long after Satie’s death. Interspersed in Larson’s immersive narrative are italicized excerpts of Cage’s own writing, in his own voice.

Where to begin? Perhaps at the core — the core of what Cage has come to be known for, that expansive negative space isn’t nihilistic, isn’t an absence, but, rather, it’s life-affirming, a presence. Cage himself reflects:

Our intention is to affirm this life, not to bring order out of chaos, nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply to wake up to the very life we’re living, which is so excellent once one gets one’s mind and desires out of its way and lets it act of its own accord.

Xenia Kashevaroff
Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

In his early life, however, Cage was rather unable to get his “mind and desires out of the way,” leading himself into a spiral of inner turmoil. While engaged in a relationship with a man named Don Sample, he met artist Xenia Kashevaroff, the Alaskan-born daughter of a Russian priest, and quickly fell in love. The two got married and, for a while, Cage was able to appease his dissonance about his affair with Sample. But rather than gaining deeper self-knowledge, he seemed to steer further away from himself. Perhaps that’s what prompted him, sixty years later, to admonish:

I’m entirely opposed to emotions….I really am. I think of love as an opportunity to become blind and blind in a bad way….I think that seeing and hearing are extremely important; in my view they are what life is; love makes us blind to seeing and hearing.

By the 1940s, Cage’s relationship with Xenia had begun to unravel. When the two eventually divorced in 1945, Cage’s identity was thrown into turbulence. His work followed faithfully, as he set out to compose Ophelia (1946), a “two-tone poem to madness” based on Shakespeare. Larson writes:

Margaret Leng Tan asked Cage why his portrait of Ophelia is so much harsher than Shakespeare’s. She recorded his reply that ‘all madness is inherently violent, even when it is not directed towards others, for it invariably ravages the sufferer internally.’

Cage and Cunningham, circa 1948, as Cage’s confusion and despair began to lift. In this classic image, taken at Black Mountain College, the perfection of their partnering seems a force of nature. Why did Cage struggle at first?
Image courtesy of John Cage Trust / Penguin

Soon, Cage began the decades-long romance with the love of his life, dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham, which would last until the end of Cage’s life and bequeath some of the most magical collaborations in the history of 20th-century art. Around the same time, Cage began the other essential relationship of his life — that with Zen Buddhism.

Hardly anywhere does Larson’s gift for prose and grasp of the human condition shine more beautifully than in this passage articulating the profound, uncomfortable transformation that love sets in motion:

Caught in the roar of his emotions, Cage was forced to confront a question totally new to him: What is the ‘self’ that is being expressed? The self that hurts so badly it nearly kills you? The self that isn’t seen until it aches?

When Cage and Cunningham met, perhaps they felt a tremor of gravitational shift. It might have been small at first, or the shiver might have been so insistent it rattled them. Whatever the case, something evidently stirred between the two men before they came to New York. But maybe nothing was spoken.

So it is with the places preparing to teach us. It’s only when the heart begins to beat wildly and without pattern — when it begins to realize its boundlessness — that its newly adamant pulse bangs on the walls of its cage and is bruised by its enclosure.

To feel the heart pound is only the beginning. Next is to feel the hurt — the tearing of the psyche — the prelude of entry into the place one has always feared. One fears that place because of being drawn to it, loving it, and wanting to be taught by it. Without the need to be taught, who would feel the psyche rip?…. Without the bruise, who would know where the walls are?

Tying it back to Cage himself, Larson writes:

Bruised and bloodied by throwing himself against the four walls of his enclosure, and deeply shaken by his shrieking emotions, Cage stopped pacing his confinement and realized that his container had no roof. Looking up, he could see the sky. Fascinated, he set out to explore this new dimension.

What he found was a language of silence and immanence.

In 1964, John Cage was fifty-two years old and had been partnering with Merce Cunningham for two decades. The two men’s bright confidence in 1948 has shifted to something calmer: the settled assurance of the bond between them — one of the great redeeming love affairs in the history of the American arts — which would endure until their deaths.
Image courtesy of John Cage Trust / Penguin

This Cageian inquisitiveness was indeed fundamental to both this personal life and his approach to music — an ethos reminiscent of Rilke’s counsel to live the questions. Cage:

What can be analyzed in my work, or criticized, are the questions.

One remarkable aspect of Cage’s music, derived from his close study of Indian traditions, was the notion of “disinterestedness” — which is not to be confused with “indifference.” Larson distinguishes:

From the standpoint of spiritual practice, the two words have nothing in common. Indifference borders on nihilism. It has a quality of ‘not caring.’ It is ‘apathetic.’ It expresses corrosive cynicism. Ultimately, it is poisonous, both to the practitioner and to the culture as a whole.

Disinterestedness, on the contrary, ‘is unbiased by personal interest or advantage; not influenced by selfish motives,’ according to the Random House Dictionary (1971). Disinterestedness is the natural outcome of meditation on the self and recognition of its lack of substance — then what can trouble you? freeing one’s mind from the grip of the self leads to spiritual ease — being at home in your own skin, free of self-attachment, cured of likes and dislikes, afloat in rasa. It’s how you open your ears to the music of the world.

Cage defined disinterestedness and equated it with ‘love’ in 1948:

‘If one makes music, as the Orient would say, disinterestedly, that is, without concern for money or fame but simply for the love of making it, it is an integrating activity and one will find moments in his life that an complete and fulfilled.’

(This sentiment regarding purpose and doing what you love would come to be articulated by many other creators over the decades to come.)

Echoing something Jackson Pollock’s dad once wrote to his son in one of history’s finest letters, Cage advises:

Look at everything. Don’t close your eyes to the world around you. Look and become curious and interested in what there is to see.

Cage has become ‘the man of the great smile, the outgoing laugh,’ his friend Peter Yates remembered. ‘Around him everyone laughs.’

Larson concludes with a beautiful metaphor for both Zen Buddhism and Cage’s legacy, reflecting on artist Bruce Nauman’s show Mapping the Studio I (Fat Chance John Cage), which was spurred by Nauman’s discovery that he had mice in his studio:

In the studio, things happen by chance. A mouse runs by. A moth flitters through space. These ‘chance events’ are random and filled with non-intention — the buzz of small creatures, caught on film, in the midst of their busy eventful lives. As far as a mouse is concerned, its life is the center of the universe. By watching through the neutral eye of the camera, we are able to see what we might not glimpse otherwise: that a ‘silent’ space is an invisible game of billiards played by beings, each at its own center, each responding to all other beings. The mice, dashing here and there, are playing out their expectations about the cat. Life fills the gaps.

There are absolutely no metaphors, just observations.

[…]

The artist maps reality. That’s the cat-and-mouse game between the artist and the world. And it’s not just the artist who plays it. Each of us is in a cat-and-mouse game with our perceptual life. Do we really see ourselves? Or do we see only what obtrudes in daylight? Do we crash through our nightlife, scattering the subtle things that abide there? Or do we simply watch without judgment, in the expectation of learning something?

Originally featured at length in July.

THE CARTER FAMILY

The Carter Family: Don’t Forget This Song (UK; public library) by writer Frank Young and illustrator David Lasky, also among the best graphic nonfiction of 2012, tells the colorful story of the first true country music superband, among whose hundreds of recordings were such classics as “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and “Wildwood Flower.” More than a mere chronicle of the family’s rise to success, this beautifully illustrated graphic and tenderly told story explores everything from the nature of creativity to civil rights to the frictions between poverty and wealth — and, above all, the boundless power of love, music, and the love of music. The book comes with a CD of original Carter Family music.

BONUS: Complement with this fantastic Carter Family tribute album, featuring such icons as Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, Sheryl Crow, and Willie Nelson.

THE BEATLES IN COMICS

The Beatles were only together for a decade, yet they remain the most massive and enduring phenomenon in music culture some four decades after their breakup. Shortly after the recent discovery of the Fab Four’s final photo shoot comes Beatles in Comic Strips (UK; public library), edited by journalist and music critic Enzo Gentile and also among the best graphic nonfiction of 2012 — a grown-up Beatle geek’s counterpart to the lovely vintage children’s book We Love You Beatles, collecting more than 200 rare cartoon strips dedicated to John, Paul, George, and Ringo to mark the fiftieth anniversary of their first single, “Love Me Do.”

‘Beatles Story No. 4’ (1974)
Image: Marvel Comics Group
‘Beatles Story No. 26’ (1974)
Image: Artima Color Marvel
‘Beatles Story No. 30’ (1974)
Image: Artima Color Marvel
‘Girls’ Romances’ (1965)
Image: DC Comics
‘Beatles Story No. 1’ (1974)
Image: Artima Color Marvel
‘The Invisibles No. 1’ (1994)
Image: DC Comics
‘Beatles Story No. 36’ (1974)
Image: Artima Color Marvel

Originally featured in August.

SONG READER

In the 1930s, as recorded sound was beginning to replace live musicians who played sheet music in movie theaters to score films, the American Federation of Musicians formed an organization called the Music Defense League and proceeded to take out a series of newspaper ads admonishing against “making musical mince meat” and the “menace” of recorded sound. But in the eight decades since, besides the loss of sound quality with digitization and the demise of music notation as art, could we have lost something else, some part of the romance of music? That’s arguably what Beck has set out to capture, on the heels of reimagining Philip Glass’s lifetime of music, in Song Reader (UK; public library) — a remarkable sort-of-album containing 26 never-before-released or recorded songs that only exist as pieces of sheet music. The songs come with original full-color illustrations by celebrated contemporary artists, illustrators and designers like Jessica Hische and The Rumpus’s Ian Huebert, inspired by the aesthetic of the golden age of home-play.

Beck writes in the preface:

After releasing an album in the mid-1990s, I was sent a copy of the sheet-music version by a publisher who had commissioned piano transcriptions and guitar-chord charts of everything on the original recording. Seeing the record’s sonic ideas distilled down to notation made it obvious that most of the songs weren’t intended to work that way. Reversing the process and putting together a collection of songs in book form seemed more natural — it would be an album that could only be heard by playing the songs.

A few years later, I came across a story about a song called ‘Sweet Leilani,’ which Bing Crosby had released in 1937. Apparently, it was so popular that, by some estimates, the sheet music sold fifty-four million copies. Home-played music had been so widespread that nearly half the country had bought the sheet music for a single song, and had presumably gone through the trouble of learning to play it. It was one of those statistics that offers a clue to something fundamental about our past.

‘Do We? We Do’ illustrated by Sergio Membrillas

So when Beck met with McSweeney’s founder Dave Eggers in 2004 to discuss a songbook project based on music notation, they quickly became obsessed with the broader world of old songs and began collecting vintage sheet music, artwork, ads, and other ephemera that went along with the art of sound. Beck writes:

I wondered if there was a way to explore that world that would be more than an exercise in nostalgia—a way to represent how people felt about music back then, and to speak to what was left, in our nature, of that instinct to play popular music ourselves.

‘Why’
‘Old Shanghai’ illustrated by Kelsey Dake

In a meditation on the humanity of sheet music and why the project is more than a gimmick, Beck reflects my own concerns about the presentism bias of the digital age and observes poignantly:

I thought a lot about the risks of the inherent old-timeyness of a songbook. I know I have friends who will dismiss it as a stylistic indulgence, a gimmick. There’s a way of miniaturizing and neutralizing the past, encasing it in a quaint, retro irrelevancy and designating it as something only fit for curiosity-seekers or revivalists. But although the present moment can exclude the past from relevance, it can’t erase its influence entirely. Each era finds something new to return to; things that seemed out of date have a way of coming back in new forms, and revealing aspects of themselves we might not have noticed before.

‘We All Wear Cloaks’ illustrated by Kyle Pellet

In the introduction, Jody Rosen calls the project “a trip back to pop’s primordial past” and offers a primer on the visual legacy of sheet music, tracing how — just like the evolution of natural history — the aesthetic of sheet music was shaped by the concurrent evolution of imaging technology:

Song sheets are strange, seductive art objects. In the first half of the nineteenth century, sheet music art was mostly text-based: titles splashed across covers in ornate fonts. After the Civil War, advances in lithography brought alluring black-and-white illustrations to sheet music. By the turn of the century, new photographic printing techniques and the development of offset presses made color illustration ubiquitous. Songs arrived on store shelves in a riot of colors and graphics — graceful art nouveau design motifs, proto-Deco typefaces, illustrations that ranged from cartoonish to classicist to sleekly moderne.

‘Don’t Act Like Your Heart Isn’t Hard’ illustrated by Josh Cochran

Beck concludes:

Fifty-four million homes singing ‘Sweet Leilani’ in 1937 would have felt like some weird convergence. That time is long gone, but the idea of it makes one wonder where that impulse went. As for these songs, they’re here to be brought to life—or at least to remind us that, not so long ago, a song was only a piece of paper until it was played by someone. Anyone. Even you.

Here are just a few of the wonderful performances based on the sheet music in Song Reader already out there, by both “professional” musicians like Steve Mason and Leila Moss, and “amateurs” (where’s the line anymore?):

Originally featured last week.

BONUS: WAYS OF LISTENING

Music has a powerful grip on our emotional brain. It can breathe new life into seemingly lifeless minds. But if there is indeed no music instinct, music — not just its creation, but also its consumption — must be an acquired skill. How, then, do we “learn” music beyond merely understanding how it works? How do we “learn” to “listen” to music, something that seems so fundamental we take it for granted?

Though published exactly thirty years ago, Music: Ways of Listening by composer Elliott Schwartz was one of my favorite vintage discoveries this year. Schwartz outlines the seven essential skills of perceptive listening, arguing that they’ve been “dulled by our built-in twentieth-century habit of tuning out” and thus need to be actively developed. Perhaps most interestingly, you can substitute “reading” for “listening” and “writing” for “music,” and the list would be just as valuable and insightful, and just as needed an antidote to the dulling of our modern modes of information consumption.

  1. Develop your sensitivity to music. Try to respond esthetically to all sounds, from the hum of the refrigerator motor or the paddling of oars on a lake, to the tones of a cello or muted trumpet. When we really hear sounds, we may find them all quite expressive, magical and even ‘beautiful.’ On a more complex level, try to relate sounds to each other in patterns: the successive notes in a melody, or the interrelationships between an ice cream truck jingle and nearby children’s games.
  2. Time is a crucial component of the musical experience. Develop a sense of time as it passes: duration, motion, and the placement of events within a time frame. How long is thirty seconds, for example? A given duration of clock-time will feel very different if contexts of activity and motion are changed.
  3. Develop a musical memory. While listening to a piece, try to recall familiar patterns, relating new events to past ones and placing them all within a durational frame. This facility may take a while to grow, but it eventually will. And once you discover that you can use your memory in this way, just as people discover that they really can swim or ski or ride a bicycle, life will never be the same.
  4. If we want to read, write or talk about music, we must acquire a working vocabulary. Music is basically a nonverbal art, and its unique events and effects are often too elusive for everyday words; we need special words to describe them, however inadequately.
  5. Try to develop musical concentration, especially when listening to lengthy pieces. Composers and performers learn how to fill different time-frames in appropriate ways, using certain gestures and patterns for long works and others for brief ones. The listener must also learn to adjust to varying durations. It may be easy to concentrate on a selection lasting a few minutes, but virtually impossible to maintain attention when confronted with a half-hour Beethoven symphony or a three-hour Verdi opera.

    Composers are well aware of this problem. They provide so many musical landmarks and guidelines during the course of a long piece that, even if listening ‘focus’ wanders, you can tell where you are.

    […]

  6. Try to listen objectively and dispassionately. Concentrate upon ‘what’s there,’ and not what you hope or wish would be there. At the early stages of directed listening, when a working vocabulary for music is being introduced, it is important that you respond using that vocabulary as often as possible. In this way you can relate and compare pieces that present different styles, cultures and centuries. Try to focus upon ‘what’s there,’ in an objective sense, and don’t be dismayed if a limited vocabulary restricts your earliest responses.

    […]

  7. Bring experience and knowledge to the listening situation. That includes not only your concentration and growing vocabulary, but information about the music itself: its composer, history and social context. Such knowledge makes the experience of listening that much more enjoyable.


    There may appear to be a conflict between this suggestion and the previous one, in which listeners were urged to focus just on ‘what’s there.’ Ideally, it would be fascinating to hear a new piece of music with fresh expectations and truly innocent ears, as though we were Martians. But such objectivity doesn’t exist. All listeners approach a new piece with ears that have been ‘trained’ by prejudices, personal experiences and memories. Some of these may get in the way of listening to music. Try to replace these with other items that might help focus upon the work, rather than individual feelings. Of course, the ‘work’ is much more than the sounds heard at any one sitting in a concert hall; it also consists of previous performances, recorded performances, the written notes on manuscript paper, and all the memories, reviews and critiques of these written notes and performances, ad infinitum. In acquiring information about any of these factors, we are simply broadening our total awareness of the work itself.

Music: Ways of Listening is to listening what Mortimer Adler’s How to Read a Book is to reading — a timeless, yet remarkably timely meditation of a skill-intensive art we all too frequently mistake for a talent or, worse yet, a static pre-wired capacity.

BP

Hello Goodbye Hello: Rudyard Kipling Meets Mark Twain Meets Helen Keller

“His voice seemed to say like the river, ‘Why hurry? Eternity is long; the ocean can wait.'”

Given my Circles of Influence collaboration and my fascination with first-hand accounts of famous encounters, it’s of little surprise I find myself mesmerized by Hello Goodbye Hello: A Circle of 101 Remarkable Meetings (public library) — an enchanting daisy chain of true encounters spanning more than a century of cultural heroes (and some villains) — from Freud to Tchaikovsky to Hitchcock to Hitchens — spanning science, literature, art, music, film, politics, and more, culled by British writer Craig Brown from diaries, personal correspondence, and various other historical ephemera. Martha Graham strikes fear and awe in a young Madonna. Marilyn Monroe asks Frank Lloyd Wright to design “an elaborate house with which to impress the world.” Walt Disney edits Igor Stravinsky and sparks his creative indignation.

But my favorite intersections revolve around the inimitable Mark Twain.

In 1889, a 23-year-old Rudyard Kipling sets out to meet and interview his hero, Mark Twain. Determined, he dashes from Buffalo to Toronto to Boston on a wild-goose chase that eventually takes him Elmira, where he is told by a local policeman that Twain or “someone who looks like him” (a surprisingly unhelpful description at the time) lives nearby, at East Hill. Brown writes of the encounter:

He is led into a big, dark drawing room. There, in a huge chair, he finds the fifty-three-year-old author of Tom Sawyer with ’a mane of grizzled hair, a brown mustache covering a mouth as delicate as a woman’s, a strong, square hand shaking mine and the slowest, calmest, levellest voice in all the world … I was shaking his hand. I was smoking his cigar, and I was hearing him talk — this man I had learned to love and admire 14,000 miles away.’

Kipling is transfixed. ’That was a moment to be remembered; the landing of a twelve-pound salmon was nothing to it. I had hooked Mark Twain, and he was treating me as though under certain circumstances I might be an equal.’

The two men discuss the difficulties of copyright before moving on to Twain’s work. ’Growing bold, and feeling that I had a few hundred thousand folk at my back, I demanded whether Tom Sawyer married Judge Thatcher’s daughter and whether we were ever going to hear of Tom Sawyer as a man.’

Twain gets up, fills his pipe, and paces the room in his bedroom slippers. ’I haven’t decided. I have a notion of writing the sequel to Tom Sawyer in two ways. In one I would make him rise to great honor and go to Congress, and in the other I should hang him. Then the friends and enemies of the book could take their choice.’

Kipling raises a voice of protest: to him, Tom Sawyer is real.

We now know that Tom Sawyer was real, in the most literal sense, but Twain’s response bespeaks, metaphorically, the magic of suspending disbelief:

’Oh, he is real. He’s all the boys that I have known or recollect; but that would be a good way of ending the book, because, when you come to think of it, neither religion, training, nor education avails anything against the force of circumstances that drive a man. Suppose we took the next four and twenty years of Tom Sawyer’s life, and gave a little joggle to the circumstances that controlled him. He would, logically and according to the joggle, turn out a rip or an angel.’

’Do you believe that, then?’

’I think so; isn’t it what you call kismet?’

’Yes; but don’t give him two joggles and show the result, because he isn’t your property any more. He belongs to us.’

And yet, Twain shares his own fascination with fact over fiction:

Twain talks of the books he likes to read. ’I never cared for fiction or story-books. What I like to read about are facts and statistics of any kind. If they are only facts about the raising of radishes, they interest me. Just now for instance, before you came in, I was reading an article about mathematics. Perfectly pure mathematics. My own knowledge of mathematics stops at “twelve times twelve” but I enjoyed that article immensely. I didn’t understand a word of it; but facts, or what a man believes to be facts, are always delightful.’

After two hours, the interview comes to an end. The great man, who never minds talking, assures his disciple that he has not interrupted him in the least.

But the most magical part of all, as is the case with many of the encounters in the book, is the way in which influence and admiration come full-circle:

Seventeen years on, Rudyard Kipling is world famous. Twain grows nostalgic for the time he spent in his company. ’I believe that he knew more than any person I had met before, and he knew I knew less than any person he had met before … When he was gone, Mr Langdon wanted to know about my visitor. I said, “He is a stranger to me but is a most remarkable man — and I am the other one. Between us, we cover all knowledge; he knows all that can be known, and I know the rest.”’

Twain, now aged seventy, is addicted to Kipling’s works. He rereads Kim every year, ’and in this way I go back to India without fatigue … I am not acquainted with my own books but I know Kipling’s books. They never grow pale to me; they keep their colour; they are always fresh.’

The worshipped has become the worshipper.

A decade later, in 1909, Twain gets a visit from Helen Keller, whom he has befriended fifteen years earlier and with whom he has forged a unique relationship of intellectual and creative camaraderie. Brown writes:

For his part, Twain is in awe. ’She is fellow to Caesar, Alexander, Napoleon, Homer, Shakespeare and the rest of the immortals. She will be as famous a thousand years from now as she is today.’ Shortly after their first meeting, Twain formed a circle to fund her education at Radcliffe College, which led to her publishing an autobiography at the age of twenty-two, which in turn led her to become almost as celebrated as Twain himself.

But the intervening years have struck Twain some heavy blows. One of his daughters has died of meningitis, 7 another of an epileptic fit in a bathtub, and his wife Livy has died of heart disease. Throughout Helen’s stay he acts his familiar bluff, entertaining old self, but she senses the deep sadness within.

’There was about him the air of one who had suffered greatly. Whenever I touched his face, his expression was sad, even when he was telling a funny story. He smiled, not with the mouth but with his mind — a gesture of the soul rather than of the face.’

In a vignette perfectly prototypical of his character, Keller recounts seeing card on the mantelpiece instructing burglars where the valuables of the house were located. There had recently been a burglary and, Twain’s rationale went, the note would prevent future burglars from bothering him once they break in.

Keller, like Kipling, is transfixed by Twain’s billowing voice:

’He seemed to have absorbed all America into himself. The great Mississippi River seemed forever flowing, flowing through his speech, through the shadowless white sands of thought. His voice seemed to say like the river, “Why hurry? Eternity is long; the ocean can wait.”’

The closing scene of that encounter gives you the kind of chills that grip you, often by surprise, frequently throughout the rest of Hello Goodbye Hello:

As she says goodbye, Helen wonders if they will ever meet again. Once more, her intuition proves right. Twain dies the following year. Some time later, Helen returns to where the old house once stood; it has burnt down, with only a charred chimney still standing. She turns her unseeing eyes to the view he once described to her, and at that moment feels someone coming towards her. ’I reached out, and a red geranium blossom met my touch. The leaves of the plant were covered with ashes, and even the sturdy stalk had been partly broken off by a chip of falling plaster. But there was the bright flower smiling at me out of the ashes. I thought it said to me, “Please don’t grieve.”’

She plants the geranium in a sunny corner of her garden. ’It always seems to say the same thing to me, “Please don’t grieve.” But I grieve, nevertheless.’

BP

10 Rules for Students, Teachers, and Life by John Cage and Sister Corita Kent

“Nothing is a mistake. There’s no win and no fail, there’s only make.”

Buried in various corners of the web is a beautiful and poignant list titled Some Rules for Students and Teachers, attributed to John Cage, who passed away twenty years ago this week. The list, however, originates from celebrated artist and educator Sister Corita Kent and was created as part of a project for a class she taught in 1967-1968. It was subsequently appropriated as the official art department rules at the college of LA’s Immaculate Heart Convent, her alma mater, but was commonly popularized by Cage, whom the tenth rule cites directly. Legendary choreographer Merce Cunningham, Cage’s longtime partner and the love of his life, kept a copy of it in the studio where his company rehearsed until his death. It appears in Stewart Brand’s cult-classic Essential Whole Earth Catalog, published in 1986, the year Kent passed away.

The list, which can be found in Sister Corita’s Learning by Heart: Teachings to Free the Creative Spirit (public library), touches on a number of previously discussed themes and materials, including Bertrand Russell’s 10 commandments of teaching, the importance of embracing uncertainty, the pivotal role of work ethic, the intricate osmosis between intuition and intellect, and the crucial habit of being fully awake to everything.

RULE ONE: Find a place you trust, and then try trusting it for awhile.

RULE TWO: General duties of a student — pull everything out of your teacher; pull everything out of your fellow students.

RULE THREE: General duties of a teacher — pull everything out of your students.

RULE FOUR: Consider everything an experiment.

RULE FIVE: Be self-disciplined — this means finding someone wise or smart and choosing to follow them. To be disciplined is to follow in a good way. To be self-disciplined is to follow in a better way.

RULE SIX: Nothing is a mistake. There’s no win and no fail, there’s only make.

RULE SEVEN: The only rule is work. If you work it will lead to something. It’s the people who do all of the work all of the time who eventually catch on to things.

RULE EIGHT: Don’t try to create and analyze at the same time. They’re different processes.

RULE NINE: Be happy whenever you can manage it. Enjoy yourself. It’s lighter than you think.

RULE TEN: “We’re breaking all the rules. Even our own rules. And how do we do that? By leaving plenty of room for X quantities.” (John Cage)

HINTS: Always be around. Come or go to everything. Always go to classes. Read anything you can get your hands on. Look at movies carefully, often. Save everything — it might come in handy later.

For more of Cage’s singular lens on life and art, see the sublime recent biography Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists , without a doubt one of my favorite books of all time.

BP

Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists

On love, liberty, and the pursuit of silence.

“Good music can act as a guide to good living,” John Cage (September 5, 1912–August 12, 1992) once remarked. But what, exactly, is good music, or good living, or, for that matter, goodness itself?

Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists (public library) is a remarkable new intellectual, creative, and spiritual biography of Cage — one of the most influential composers in modern history, whose impact reaches beyond the realm of music and into art, literature, cinema, and just about every other aesthetic and conceptual expression of curiosity about the world, yet also one of history’s most misunderstood artists — by longtime art critic and practicing Buddhist Kay Larson. Fifteen years in the making, it is without a doubt the richest, most stimulating,most absorbing book I’ve read in the past year, if not decade — remarkably researched, exquisitely written, weaving together a great many threads of cultural history into a holistic understanding of both Cage as an artist and Zen as a lens on existence.

From his early life in California, defined by his investigations into the joy of sound, to his pivotal introduction to Zen Buddhism in Japanese Zen scholar D. T. Suzuki’s Columbia University class, to his blossoming into a force of the mid-century avant-garde, Larson traces Cage’s own journey as an artist and a soul, as well as his intermeshing with the journeys of other celebrated artists, including Marcel Duchamp, Jasper Johns, Yoko Ono, Robert Rauschenberg, Jackson Pollock, and, most importantly, Merce Cunningham.

The book itself has a beautiful compositional structure, conceived as a conversation with Cage and modeled after Cage’s imagined conversations with Erik Satie, one of his mentors, long after Satie’s death. Interspersed in Larson’s immersive narrative are italicized excerpts of Cage’s own writing, in his own voice.

Where to begin? Perhaps at the core — the core of what Cage has come to be known for, that expansive negative space, isn’t nihilistic, isn’t an absence, but, rather, it’s life-affirming, a presence. Cage himself reflects:

Our intention is to affirm this life, not to bring order out of chaos, nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply to wake up to the very life we’re living, which is so excellent once one gets one’s mind and desires out of its way and lets it act of its own accord.

Xenia Kashevaroff (Image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

In his early life, however, Cage was rather unable to get his “mind and desires out of the way,” leading himself into a spiral of inner turmoil. While engaged in a relationship with a man named Don Sample, he met artist Xenia Kashevaroff, the Alaskan-born daughter of a Russian priest, and quickly fell in love. The two got married and, for a while, Cage was able to appease his dissonance about his affair with Sample. But rather than gaining deeper self-knowledge, he seemed to steer further away from himself. Perhaps that’s what prompted him, sixty years later, to admonish:

I’m entirely opposed to emotions….I really am. I think of love as an opportunity to become blind and blind in a bad way….I think that seeing and hearing are extremely important; in my view they are what life is; love makes us blind to seeing and hearing.

By the 1940s, Cage’s relationship with Xenia had begun to unravel. When the two eventually divorced in 1945, Cage’s identity was thrown into turbulence. His work followed faithfully, as he set out to compose Ophelia (1946), a “two-tone poem to madness” based on Shakespeare. Larson writes:

Margaret Leng Tan asked Cage why his portrait of Ophelia is so much harsher than Shakespeare’s. She recorded his reply that ‘all madness is inherently violent, even when it is not directed towards others, for it invariably ravages the sufferer internally.’

Cage and Cunningham, circa 1948, as Cage’s confusion and despair began to lift. In this classic image, taken at Black Mountain College, the perfection of their partnering seems a force of nature. Why did Cage struggle at first? (Image courtesy of John Cage Trust / Penguin)

Soon, Cage began the decades-long romance with the love of his life, dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham, which would last until the end of Cage’s life and bequeath some of the most magical collaborations in the history of 20th-century art. Around the same time, Cage began the other essential relationship of his life — that with Zen Buddhism.

Hardly anywhere does Larson’s gift for prose and grasp of the human condition shine more beautifully than in this passage articulating the profound, uncomfortable transformation that love sets in motion:

Caught in the roar of his emotions, Cage was forced to confront a question totally new to him: What is the ‘self’ that is being expressed? The self that hurts so badly it nearly kills you? The self that isn’t seen until it aches?

When Cage and Cunningham met, perhaps they felt a tremor of gravitational shift. It might have been small at first, or the shiver might have been so insistent it rattled them. Whatever the case, something evidently stirred between the two men before they came to New York. But maybe nothing was spoken.

So it is with the places preparing to teach us. It’s only when the heart begins to beat wildly and without pattern — when it begins to realize its boundlessness — that its newly adamant pulse bangs on the walls of its cage and is bruised by its enclosure.

To feel the heart pound is only the beginning. Next is to feel the hurt — the tearing of the psyche — the prelude of entry into the place one has always feared. One fears that place because of being drawn to it, loving it, and wanting to be taught by it. Without the need to be taught, who would feel the psyche rip?…. Without the bruise, who would know where the walls are?

Tying it back to Cage himself, Larson writes:

Bruised and bloodied by throwing himself against the four walls of his enclosure, and deeply shaken by his shrieking emotions, Cage stopped pacing his confinement and realized that his container had no roof. Looking up, he could see the sky. Fascinated, he set out to explore this new dimension.

What he found was a language of silence and immanence.

In 1964, John Cage was fifty-two years old and had been partnering with Merce Cunningham for two decades. The two men’s bright confidence in 1948 has shifted to something calmer: the settled assurance of the bond between them — one of the great redeeming love affairs in the history of the American arts — which would endure until their deaths. (Image courtesy of John Cage Trust / Penguin)

This Cageian inquisitiveness was indeed fundamental to both this personal life and his approach to music — an ethos reminiscent of Rilke’s counsel to live the questions. Cage:

What can be analyzed in my work, or criticized, are the questions.

Further:

My composition arises out of asking questions. I am reminded of a story early on about a class with Schoenberg. He had us go to the blackboard to solve a particular problem in counterpoint (though it was a class in harmony). He said, ‘When you have a solution, turn around and let me see it.’ I did that. He then said: ‘Now another solution, please.’ I gave another and another until finally, having made seven or eight, I reflected a moment and then said with some certainty: ‘There aren’t any more solutions.’ He said: ‘OK. What is the principle underlying all of these solutions?’ I couldn’t answer his question; but I had always worshipped the man, and at that point I did even more. He ascended, so to speak. I spent the rest of my life, until recently, hearing him ask that question over and over. And then it occurred to me through the direction that my work has taken, which is renunciation of choices and the substitution of asking questions, that the principle underlying all of the solutions that I had given him was the question that he had asked, because they certainly didn’t come from any other point. He would have accepted the answer, I think. The answers have the questions in common. Therefore the question underlies the answers.

This profound pursuit of questions, coupled with disinterest in criticism, came to define Cage’s aesthetic. Larson writes:

One of the relentless consequences of the choices modernists made was uproar: the convulsions of fear and loathing that arose whenever a new aesthetic proposition appeared on the horizon. Cage’s own life — hardly immune from controversy even now — offers an object lesson. He learned very early to ignore criticism, since he knew perfectly well his work was not ridiculous. Criticism was of no interest. Nor was praise, which seemed to require that he repeat himself. ‘At every point society acts to keep you from doing what you have to do,’ he said in 1973. From the outset, he set off to find his own answers, and he looked to experimentalists for precedents.

One remarkable aspect of Cage’s music, derived from his close study of Indian traditions, was the notion of “disinterestedness” — which is not to be confused with “indifference.” Larson distinguishes:

From the standpoint of spiritual practice, the two words have nothing in common. Indifference borders on nihilism. It has a quality of ‘not caring.’ It is ‘apathetic.’ It expresses corrosive cynicism. Ultimately, it is poisonous, both to the practitioner and to the culture as a whole.

Disinterestedness, on the contrary, ‘is unbiased by personal interest or advantage; not influenced by selfish motives,’ according to the Random House Dictionary (1971). Disinterestedness is the natural outcome of meditation on the self and recognition of its lack of substance — then what can trouble you? freeing one’s mind from the grip of the self leads to spiritual ease — being at home in your own skin, free of self-attachment, cured of likes and dislikes, afloat in rasa. It’s how you open your ears to the music of the world.

Cage defined disinterestedness and equated it with “love” in 1948:

‘If one makes music, as the Orient would say, disinterestedly, that is, without concern for money or fame but simply for the love of making it, it is an integrating activity and one will find moments in his life that an complete and fulfilled.’

(This sentiment regarding purpose and doing what you love would come to be articulated by many other creators over the decades to come.)

Echoing something Jackson Pollock’s dad once wrote to his son in one of history’s finest letters, Cage advises:

Look at everything. Don’t close your eyes to the world around you. Look and become curious and interested in what there is to see.

For Cage, this was tied to bridging the dangerous divide between the conscious and unconscious mind:

There are two principal parts of each personality: the conscious mind and the unconscious, and these are split and dispersed, in most of us, in countless ways and directions. The function of music, like that of any other healthy occupation, is to help to bring those separate parts back together again. Music does this by providing a moment when, awareness of time and space being lost, the multiplicity of elements which make up an individual become integrated and he is one.

In Japan for the first time, on a trip organized by Toshi Ichiyanagi and Yoko Ono in 1962, Cage immediately set off to D. T. Suzuki’s house. Ten years after the debut of 4’33”, Cage honored his ninety-two-year-old teacher and the teachings that had shown him the heart of silence. (Image courtesy of John Cage Trust / Penguin)

By the 1950s, however, Cage had started to drift away from the Indian spiritual traditions as he became more deeply immersed in the work of D. T. Suzuki and, in particular, his Essays in Zen Buddhism. Larson writes:

Cage’s mind is breaking its shell. It’s not that he has walked away from the Indians altogether, Cage rarely abandoned anyone or anything that affected him deeply. Rather, a new thought (or a series of thoughts) is in the process of emerging. Cage has set out to solve the problems caused by love — his love for Merce, his love for music, and a love that perhaps he can’t name, that arises as a mysterious upheaval of the heart, a spiritual fire that is causing an urgent search for solutions.

Suzuki, in fact, taught Cage something essential about breaking the bounds of Western culture’s most destructive paradigm — its toxic ultra-individualism and attachment to ego:

Suffering builds character and impels you to penetrate life’s secrets. It’s the path of great artists, great religious leaders, great social reformers. The problem is not suffering per se, but rather our identification with our own ego: our divided, dualistic, cramped view of things. ‘We are too ego-centered,’ Suzuki tells Cage.’ The ego-shell in which we live is the hardest thing to outgrow. We seem to carry it all the time from childhood up to the time we finally pass away.’

This notion of renouncing the ego was comfortably aligned with Cage’s own dismissal of the emotions, so he embraced it:

[Q:] Since your ego and your likes and dislikes have been taken out of your compositions, do you still view them as your compositions, in the sense that you created them?

[Cage:] Emotions, like all tastes and memory, are too closely linked to the self, to the ego. The emotions show that we are touched within ourselves, and tastes evidence our way of being touched on the outside. We have made the ego into a wall and the wall doesn’t even have a door through which the interior and exterior could communicate! Suzuki taught me to destroy that wall. What is important is to insert the individual into the current, the flux of everything that happens. And to do that, the wall has to be demolished; tastes, memory, and emotions have to be weakened; all the ramparts have to be razed. You can feel an emotion; just don’t think that it’s so important….Take it in a way that you can then let it drop! Don’t belabor it! It’s just like the chicken I ordered in the restaurant: it concerns me, but it’s not important….And if we keep emotions and reinforce them, they can produce a critical situation in the world. Precisely that situation in which all of society is now entrapped!

To liberate himself from the burdens of ego, Cage turned to his now-legendary chance operations — specifically, using the ancient Chinese I Ching (Book of Changes) as a key decision-making tool in his compositions. It helped him, as Larson puts, “ask questions of the most fundamental sort.”

Instead of representing my control, they represent questions I’ve asked and the answers that have been given by means of chance operations. I’ve merely changed my responsibility from making choices to asking questions. It’s not easy to ask questions.

Further:

I became free by means of the I Ching from the notion of 2 (relationship). Or you could say I saw that all things are related. We don’t have to bring about relationships.

Larson adds:

Chance operations offered Cage a chance to change his own mind without intellectualizing but, rather, by immersing himself in experiences without judgment and letting them teach him. Indeed, chance and change went hand-in-hand for him:

People frequently ask me if I’m faithful to the answers, or if I change them because I want to. I don’t change them because I want to. When I find myself at that point, in the position of someone who would change something — at that point I don’t change it, I change myself. It’s for that reason that I have said that instead of self-expression, I’m involved in self-alteration.

Cage brought this ethos to his music. Towards the end of 1950, he composed the third movement of Concerto for Prepared Piano and Orchestra by asking questions, tossing coins, and turing to the I Ching for answers. He built a chart of 32 moves that would generate sounds (or silences) as the I Ching told him which number to pick. The remaining 32 of the book’s 64 hexagrams were to produce pauses of various durations. Larson sums up the teaching embedded in Cage’s experience with the I Ching:

It was a moral and spiritual teaching: Use your head. Set up your structure as carefully as you can, then surrender to the experience. Accept all of it willingly and gratefully. Be present for whatever comes. Open the heart to chance and change.

Cage himself put it thusly:

I do accept, I have always accepted everything the I Ching has revealed to me….

I never thought of not accepting it! That is precisely the first thing the I Ching teaches us: acceptance. It essentially advances this lesson: if we want to use chance operations, then we must accept the results. We have no right to use it if we are determined to criticize the results and to seek a better answer. In fact, the I Ching promises a completely sad lot to anyone who insists on getting a good answer. If I am unhappy after a chance operation, if the result does not satisfy me, by accepting it I at least have the chance to modify myself, to change myself. But if I insist on changing the I Ching, then it changes rather than I, and I have gained nothing, accomplished nothing!

This relinquishing of the self in the hands of pure awareness is something Cage also found in another of his great spiritual heroes, Henry David Thoreau:

Thoreau got up each morning and walked to the woods as though he had never been where he was going to, so that whatever was there came to him like liquid into an empty glass. Many people taking such a walk would have their heads so full of other ideas that it would be a long time before they were capable of hearing or seeing. Most people are blinded by themselves.

But, for Cage, it wasn’t enough to remove that self-blinding from his spiritual life — he had to remove it from his creative life as well, from his music:

The value judgment when it is made doesn’t exist outside the mind but exists within the mind that makes it. When it says this is good and that is not good, it’s a decision to eliminate from experience certain things. Suzuki said Zen wants us to diminish that kind of activity of the ego and to increase the activity that accepts the rest of creation. And rather than taking the path that is prescribed in the formal practice of Zen Buddhism itself, namely, sitting cross-legged and breathing and such things, I decided that my proper discipline was the one to which I was already committed, namely, the making of music. And that I would do it with a means that was as strict as sitting cross-legged, namely, the use of chance operations, and the shifting of my responsibility from the making of choices to that of asking questions.

This ethos also shaped Cage’s understanding of the arts in general, as in this fine addition to history’s greatest meditations on art:

I think the history of art is simply a history of getting rid of the ugly by entering into it, and using it. After all, the notion of something outside of us being ugly is not outside of us but inside of us. And that’s why I keep reiterating that we’re working with our minds. What we’re trying to do is to get them open so that we don’t see things as being ugly, or beautiful, but as we see them just as they are.

But the practice of pure presence was very much a discipline for Cage:

True discipline is not learned in order to give it up, but rather in order to give oneself up. Now, most people never even learn what discipline is…. It means give up the things closest to you. It means give yourself up, everything, and do what it is you are going to do. At that point, what have you given up? Your likes, your dislikes, etc.

The notion of discipline stands at the odd intersection of structure and nothingness, which permeated much of Cage’s thinking. In November 1951, he gave his famous “Lecture on Nothing,” a follow-up to his “Lecture on Something,” which articulates the osmosis between “something” and “nothing”:

We really do need structure, so we can see we are nowhere.

The lecture concludes:

Everybody has a song which is no song at all: it is a process of singing, and when you sing, you are where you are. All I know about method is that when I am not working I sometimes think I know something, but when I am working, it is quite clear that I know nothing.

Perhaps it was this fascination with method and nothingness that led Cage to his obsession with silence, most famously manifest in his 1952 composition 4’33”, and led him to remark:

Silence is not acoustic. It is a change of mind, a turning around.

Implicit to this is, once again, the notion of total surrender to what is. Cage:

There is no rest of life. Life is one. Without beginning, without middle, without ending. The concept: beginning middle and meaning comes from a sense of self which separates itself from what it considers to be the rest of life. But this attitude is untenable unless one insists on stopping life and bringing it to an end. That thought is in itself an attempt to stop life, for life goes on, indifferent to the deaths that are part of its no beginning, no middle, no meaning. How much better to simply get behind and push!

At the same time, Cage observed the dynamic rather than static quality of life itself — the fundamental role of change, once again:

You say: the real, the world as it is. But it is not, it becomes! It moves, it changes! It doesn’t wait for us to change…. It is more mobile than you can imagine. You are getting closer to this reality when you say it ‘presents itself’; that means that it is not there, existing as an object.

The world, the real is not an object. It is a process.

Embedded in this process-ness of life is Cage’s heartening relationship with boredom:

In Zen they say: If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, try it for eight, sixteen, thirty-two, and so on. Eventually one discovers that it’s not boring at all but very interesting.

In the end, however, Cage’s life — and death — presents us with the grandest challenge to fully embodying his philosophy. In discussing a 2010 exhibition honoring Cage, and the language of its brochure, Larson laments:

The only difficulty with ‘ephemeral and transitory poetics’ is their transitoriness. Exhibitions of Cage’s work seem to be lacking a central core, a cohesion. That unifying voice, of course, was supplied by Cage himself, and he has passed on. We celebrate change and yet we also feel its sting. Zen teachers say, though, just look around you. Where has he gone? He’s still speaking to us.

Cage has become ‘the man of the great smile, the outgoing laugh,’ his friend Peter Yates remembered. ‘Around him everyone laughs.’

Larson concludes with a beautiful metaphor for both Zen Buddhism and Cage’s legacy, reflecting on artist Bruce Nauman’s show Mapping the Studio I (Fat Chance John Cage), which was spurred by Nauman’s discovery that he had mice in his studio:

In the studio, things happen by chance. A mouse runs by. A moth flitters through space. These ‘chance events’ are random and filled with non-intention — the buzz of small creatures, caught on film, in the midst of their busy eventful lives. As far as a mouse is concerned, its life is the center of the universe. By watching through the neutral eye of the camera, we are able to see what we might not glimpse otherwise: that a ‘silent’ space is an invisible game of billiards played by beings, each at its own center, each responding to all other beings. The mice, dashing here and there, are playing out their expectations about the cat. Life fills the gaps.

There are absolutely no metaphors, just observations.

[ … ]

The artist maps reality. That’s the cat-and-mouse game between the artist and the world. And it’s not just the artist who plays it. Each of us is in a cat-and-mouse game with our perceptual life. Do we really see ourselves? Or do we see only what obtrudes in daylight? Do we crash through our nightlife, scattering the subtle things that abide there? Or do we simply watch without judgment, in the expectation of learning something?

Not unlike Cage’s music, Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists is impossible to distill, to synthesize, to relay. Rather, its goodness is best experienced in full, with complete surrender.

BP

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