Diary: How to Read John Cage – Part I

by Maggie Molloy

This post is part of a series on John Cage’s “Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse).” To read the introduction to the series, click here

john cage, paris 1981

john cage, paris 1981

Listening to John Cage’s “Diary” feels vaguely like taking a hearing test at the doctor’s office. Sometimes he’s speaking into your left ear, sometimes your right. Sometimes his voice is distant, sometimes it’s right up behind you like that little moral conscience you just can’t get out of your head.

It’s not until six minutes in that he acknowledges this compositional decision—and even then only vaguely, indirectly, perhaps not even at all.

“We see symmetrically: canoe on northern Canadian lake, stars in midnight sky repeated in water, forested shores precisely mirrored,” he says calmly, slowly. “Our hearing’s asymmetrical: noticed sounds surprise us, echoes of shouts we make transform our voices, straight line of sound from us to shore’s followed by echo’s slithering around the lake’s perimeter.”

I suppose I’d never thought of hearing as asymmetrical—that is, until I found myself listening through Part One of John Cage’s eight-part “Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse),” leaning sideways slightly in my chair as I listened to his voice meander through my right headphone, the left headphone oddly empty, quiet.

Don’t you hate that feeling? When some crucial wire in your headphones breaks and they begin to only play music out of one ear? But these headphones are not broken; the sporadic shifting of Cage’s voice from one ear to the other, to both, to neither, is all part of the composition. Cage achieved this aural effect by changing the position of the microphone and the recording volume throughout the recording process. Not surprisingly, the visual counterpart for this piece is similarly warped.

In fact, reading the manuscript for Cage’s “Diary” is sort of like reading a scrapbook—each phrase in a different color, font, size, style. Each sentence just a short fragment depicting a distant memory or a larger poetic truth.


My trusted copy of the diary comes from Siglio Press, an independent publisher dedicated to uncommon books that live somewhere in the mystical realm between art and literature. The beautiful new edition from Siglio, published on Oct. 27, collects all eight parts of the diary for the first time, rendering the entire text in color.Diary (Book)

One of Cage’s most personal and prophetic works, “Diary” was composed over the course of 16 years and recorded in Switzerland a little over a year before his death in 1992. Cage had intended for the diary to have ten parts, though only eight were completed by the time he died.

He originally typed the score on an IBM Selectric typewriter, using chance operations to determine the word count, the application of various typefaces, the number of letters per line, and even the patterns of indentation. For this particular Siglio publication, co-editors Richard Kraft and Joe Biel also used chance operations to render the entire text in various combinations of the original red and blue colors, as well as to apply a single set of 18 fonts to the entire work.

For Cage, these chance operations, aural alterations, and visual variations are all part of the composition. After all, Cage was a pioneer of indeterminacy in music, with many of his most daring compositions leaving crucial musical choices to the whim of the performer, the environment, or even the audience—most famously, the score for his 1952 piece, “4’33”,” instructs the performer(s) not to play their instrument(s) at all during the entire duration of the piece, insisting that the sounds of the surrounding concert environment are in fact the music itself.

A common theme throughout Cage’s wide-ranging works is this notion of inclusion—the idea that the entire world is music and the performer, the audience, you, me, and everything around us are all involved in the composition.

“He wanted me to agree that the piano tuner and the piano maker have nothing to do with it (the composition),” Cage states in the diary, not specifying who “he” is. “The younger ones had said: Whoever makes the stretcher isn’t separate from the painting. (It doesn’t stop there either.)”

But where does it stop? For Cage, I suppose it never stops; the line between art and everyday life simply does not exist.

“Art’s obscured the difference between art and life,” he says. “Now let life obscure the difference between life and art.”

His diary’s discussion of art extends far past artwork itself, all the way into the trivial details of everyday life and back out into the vast expanse of history, global politics, philosophy, science, and society—all with an idiosyncratic dose of humor and wit.

“City planning’s obsolete,” he says slowly. “What’s needed is global planning so Earth may stop stepping like octopus on its own feet.”

And despite Cage’s deadpan delivery, I couldn’t help but smile. It’s Cage’s vivid imagination, sincere curiosity, and subtle charm that makes his diary a true work of art.

“They ask what the purpose of art is,” he says gently. “Is that how things are? Say there were a thousand artists and one purpose, would one artist be having it and all the nine hundred and ninety-nine others be missing the point?”

Go to the next installment: Diary: How to Read John Cage – Part II

2 thoughts on “Diary: How to Read John Cage – Part I

  1. Pingback: Diary: How to Read John Cage | SECOND INVERSION

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