Praise for Where the Heart Beats


A kind of love story about overcoming the need for love… a solid heroic narrative… fascinating.

—Ben Ratliff, New York Times

Inspirational… Larson is an exuberant writer about Buddhism and the art world… insightful.

—Mark Swed, Los Angeles Times

STRANGE AND WONDERFUL…A gloriously rich reading experience, studded with layers upon layers of deeply inspiring and endlessly fascinating paths. One of the best books of the year in any category.


Absorbing… a deepening literary echo strikingly true to the impression of generous and unforced affability that [Cage] made in person… no future commentator on Cage’s work or influence will be able to ignore Larson’s contribution… her extensive treatment of the famous “silent” piece “4′ 33″ ” (1952) and its lesser-known successor “0′ 00″ ” (1962) stand comparison with the finest commentary on Cage’s work, thanks to her deep grasp of the Zen sources of his thinking… a milestone in contemporary cultural criticism.

—Kenneth Baker, San Francisco Chronicle

[R]evelatory… I just started writing Wow in the book’s margins. The whole strange mesh of it was speaking to me… It sounds like a parody of a Buddhistically deep koan to suggest that the book about Cage most likely to entrance newcomers is the same one that will most startle the class of so-called experts on the subject—but that’s the trick Larson has managed here. Where the Heart Beats may not just be the best book written yet about John Cage; it’s probably also one of the most substantive-yet-readable entryways into the nexus of 20th-century American art and the immortal qualities of Eastern thought… one of the most profound, not to mention unexpected, gifts imaginable during John Cage’s centenary year.

—Seth Colter Walls, Slate

[R]emarkable… 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… 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.

—Maria Popova, Brain Pickings

[A]mbitious and far-reaching… [The] writing is rich and the relationships dance on the pages. The characters are seductive in their passion for their work and for each other… a tantalizing magic with the interconnections of Cage to the growing avant-garde movement. . . . a luscious taste of a time that was creatively wild and which graced us with wise sages who came down from the mountains.

—Genju, 108 Zen Books

Where the Heart Beats is far more than a biography in the classical sense… [it is] a long, richly detailed, yet highly selective account of the composer-poet-artist’s development… [done with] a freshness and tonal accuracy, an aliveness in the writing, that amounts to a discriminating embrace of her subject’s process of realization.

—George Quasha, PAJ (Performing Arts Journal)

[An] encyclopedic view of Cage’s times as well as his life… Larson has done us a great service in creating what will likely become the definitive account of John Cage and Zen. She has shown how his “sound of no sound” may be the perfect embodiment of Buddhist emptiness in musical form.

—Dan Zigmond, Tricycle

Many books have already attempted to explain Cage, one of the 20th century’s most controversial composers, but Larson is the first one to concentrate on how Zen Buddhism empowered him to create his music, liberate his divided mind, reconstruct his character, remove personal crises, and thus allow him to transform the entire narrative of 20th-century art… she presents Cage’s life as he experienced it, along with all the questions he asked, and presents his story as a classic spiritual path of suffering, realization and release from suffering.

—Gary Singh, MetroActive

Drawing from a vast collection of resources, [Larson] intersperses passages from Cage’s words from letters, interviews, and lectures, while explaining the influence of Buddhism and his immense circle of artist friends on his life. Where the Heart Beats is equal parts a biography of Cage, a history of Buddhism, and a snapshot of U.S. and European artists and movements of the 20th century… ultimately this method prompts readers to discover their own connections.

—Elivi Varga, Philadelphia Inquirer

In her wonderful first book, Kay Larson delights in letting readers hear the moments when a sudden, clear understanding is “rung in the mind like a temple bell.”… Concepts taken for granted today, such as erasing the boundary between art and life, owe much to Cage… What a service Larson has provided, giving Cage his due, this year, the centennial of his birth.

—Jo Gibson, Cleveland Plain Dealer

With rich source material and inspired hunches, [Larson] brings [Cage’s] interior process and karmic progress to the fore. Larson succeeds in her mission, convincing us that Cage—who, incidentally, never meditated—was not just a Buddhist, but a profound and playful light.

—Marx Dorrity, Chronogram

What might appear a meandering approach to history, moving back and forth across time and geography, actually renders Larson’s narrative and analysis refreshing and illuminating, validating the significance of the connection between scattered phenomena. And nothing essential to her subject’s biography gets lost in the process… In a masterful act of journalistic juggling (and this is her first book!), Larson manages to balance Cage’s deep personal conflicts with his drive towards personal expression, within much larger issues of the restless evolution of music, dance, and art, and homophobia in the wider society.

—Jeff Kaliss, San Francisco Classical Voice

Even though I have no background in experimental composition—I’m an old-school metalhead—I absolutely fell in love with Kay Larson’s book. It is brilliantly written; her prose is beautiful and her research impeccable… My favorite part is when Cage, inspired by a sudden burst of creativity, experiments with a piano. He stuffs any object he can find… inside the piano to create a one-of-a-kind sound… The effect, like life itself, is completely un-reproducible… Cage’s work is a celebration of impermanence and all that it means to be human… The book honors Cage in the best way any book can—by being a work of art itself.

—Andre Doshim Halaw, Original Mind

This excellent book takes its place among the several monographs on John Cage written in the run-up to the centenary of the American composer’s birth in 1912… a thoroughly researched and wittily written guide to Cage and the Zen mind. There are delightful surprises and revelatory anecdotes on nearly every page.

Library Journal

“[I]nventive and contemplative… Weaving threads of the teachings of Zen Buddhist writer D.T. Suzuki and Alan Watts, along with Cage’s own reflections and writings on art, music, dance, and life, Larson patches together a brilliant quilt that covers Cage’s growing understanding of the nature of noise and silence and the roles that each plays in music… Larson’s thoughtful meditation on Cage offers a glimpse at the evolution of an artist who abandoned many of the musical structures of the past and opened new doors for several generations of musicians and artists.”

—Publishers Weekly

Unconventional… Larson structures the book as a kind of call and response between Cage and his associates, alternating paragraphs of conventional biography with extended, often gnomic, quotations from Cage. The strategy is most effective when it shows the effect his uncanny calm had on others: Composers like Morton Feldman and Yoko Ono and painters like Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns were all influenced by Cage’s thinking… a well-researched and thoughtfully framed study of an often misunderstood artist.


From the book jacket

Kay Larson’s groundbreaking work makes for spellbinding reading. Her understanding of John Cage is profound and her capacity to make Cage’s own voice come alive is an enormous achievement. Cage, for whom Buddhism was a central catalyst, made music his meditation. Where the Heart Beats opens up Cage’s creative process and connects us to Cage’s most wonderful heart and mind. This book is a deep well of inspiration that will be treasured forever.

—Mark Epstein, MD, author of Thoughts without a Thinker

In her thoughtful and eloquent writing, Kay Larson beautifully conveys John Cage’s playful elegance, his love of contradiction and the originality of his thinking. She describes his method as a balance between rigor and freedom, a synchronization of body and mind. Cage’s arduous yet ultimately joyful path of discovery influenced generations of artists. The multi-faceted, layered form of the book reflects his process and elucidates the profound Buddhist and aesthetic principles that informed his life and art. Where the Heart Beats is a stunning achievement.

—Meredith Monk, composer/director/performer

This book is beautiful. It takes my breath away.

—Pat Steir, artist

Photo courtesy of the John Cage Trust.