This post is part of a series on John Cage’s “Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse).” For earlier installments of the series, please visit: Introduction, Part I, Part II, and Part III.
To say that the avant-garde composer and iconoclast John Cage was a musical revolutionary would be a bit of an understatement. He was a pioneer of indeterminacy in music, a precursor to contemporary electroacoustic music, an innovator of musical instruments, and, perhaps most controversially, a philosopher of sound and silence.
He was much more than just a composer—he was a music theorist, a writer, an artist, and a thinker. He was a learned musician, and not just in the traditional Western sense. His interests extended far past the sphere of Western classical music and into music and art from around the world—particularly East and South Asian cultures.
“Revolution,” he says in Part IV of his “Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse).” Then he pauses for a moment. “Two people making same kind of music is one music too many.”
As the title of the piece might suggest, revolution is a key theme throughout his diary—and Cage is not just talking about a musical revolution. The diary addresses social and political issues from across the spectrum, ranging from technology and environmentalism to poverty and violence. And in today’s day and age, those issues ring truer than ever.
“Civilization is Hamletized,” he says gravely, “(People are dying right and left): To be or not to be. That is the question.”
All whimsical Shakespeare references aside, the truth is saddening, sobering, and impossible to ignore. The all-too-frequent mass shootings, the constant wars, the terrorism—at times it feels as if hostility and violence have taken over our world, transforming our lives into a devastating drama. But when will the curtain finally close on this tragedy?
While Cage speaks of revolution almost exclusively in metaphors, analogies, and anecdotes, his optimism is still palpable—buried though it may be beneath his philosophical musings and fragmented memories. He must ultimately have faith in the future—why else would he write a five-hour diary on how to improve the world?
“If the situation is hopeless, we have nothing to worry about,” he says softly.
In other words, we worry because there is still hope; we worry because we haven’t given up yet. We know that we can still create a healthier, happier, and more peaceful world We can do it through art: through connecting with one another and inspiring one another—through understanding our world as it is, and through working together to make it better.
“Hands aren’t possessive,” Cage says calmly. “They belong to the same body. They taught us art was self-expression. You had to have ‘something to say.’ They were wrong: you don’t have to say anything. Think of the others as artists. Art’s self-alteration.”
Art is not solely in expressing oneself but in changing oneself—in growing, learning, collaborating with others, and gaining new perspectives. Art exists in creating community.
My former oil painting instructor used to tell me: “Once you finish your painting and you release it out into the world, it’s not yours anymore—it belongs to those who look at it.”
Art is not restricted to the hands that create it but rather, art changes and evolves as it continues to inspire new ideas and interpretations from its audiences. Each viewer will gain something different from a single work of art—and in that regard, the artwork itself opens a wealth of possibilities for the community that views, listens to, and engages with it.
“Spent several hours searching through a book trying to find the idea I’d gotten out of it,” Cage says blandly into my left ear. “I couldn’t find it. I still have the idea.”
When we engage with a piece of art, music, or literature, it sparks new ideas within us—and often even revisiting the same artwork multiple times will create an entirely new constellation of thoughts and emotions. And with advancements in technology, we now have infinite sources of art, knowledge, and inspiration at our fingertips at any given moment. Nowadays, it’s easier than ever to share our creations, collaborate with others, and make music and art accessible for all.
“Computers’re bringing about a situation that’s like the invention of harmony,” Cage says. “Sub-routines are like chords. No one would think of keeping a chord to himself. You’d give’t to anybody who wanted it. You’d welcome alterations of it. Sub-routines are altered by a single punch. We’re getting music made by man himself: not just one man.”
All of this technology, all of this music, and all of this art is in our grasp—and we can use it to start a revolution. We can use it as a catalyst for action, and we can use it as a catalyst for positive change.
“The mind, like a computer, produces a print-out,” Cage says. “It’s on the palms of our hands.”
Go to the next installment: Diary: How to Read John Cage – Part V