For a composer who once created an entire piece out of silence, John Cage certainly had a lot to say. So much, in fact, that he recorded a five-hour diary in the years leading up to his death.
Titled “Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse),” the piece is written in eight parts, traversing vast musical and philosophical territory—often within the span of just a few sentence fragments. Cage’s writing extends far beyond the music 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—and all with an idiosyncratic dose of humor and wit.
Inspired by his fearless exploration into the art of sound, I made it my mission to read through his entire diary and create my own personal diary tracking the experience. Click on the icons below to read each installment!
If John Cage composed music for exploded keyboards, silent stages, tape recordings, traffic, temple gongs, and toy pianos during his waking life, just imagine what the music of his dreams must have sounded like.
“Dreamt I’d composed a piece all notes of which were to be prepared and eaten,” he says gently in Part VIII of his “Diary.” “Lemon’n’oil, salt’n’pepper. Some raw.”
I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. We already know Cage was a fabulous cook, plus his penchant for unprepared dissonances was basically unmatched. And even in his dreams, Cage attacked the cherished beliefs of the Western classical music tradition—the very notion of a “prepared dissonance” is just as silly as a note being prepared for dinner.
But dreaming or not, Cage was an avant-garde iconoclast in all aspects of his life. Throughout his music, writings, and artwork, he took a profound interest in reform—and not just musical reform, but social, political, and cultural reforms as well. I mean, the man titled his diary “Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse),” for goodness’ sake.
The final chapter of his diary, Part VIII, takes particular interest in the events of the Nixon administration, the Watergate scandal, Western medicine, Puerto Rican politics, and public transportation. Cage also spends a fair percentage of the closing chapter discussing the innumerable ways in which to explore the music of conch shells—go figure.
And although there are no clear connections between any of these topics—except for Nixon and Watergate, of course—there is one distinct similarity between all the mangled memories and musings that make up Cage’s 165-page diary: each entry is in some way a reflection of the world he was living in at the time, whether it be related to the arts, culture, politics, or social issues of that specific period.
And of course, the diary just wouldn’t be Cage if it wasn’t aleatoric: the number of words in each diary entry is chance-determined.
“The result is a mosaic of remarks, the juxtapositions of which are free of intention,” he writes in a short introduction to Part VIII.
While many people have considered Cage a slave to his chance operations, in truth he felt they actually freed him of his likes and dislikes.
“TV interview: if you were asked to describe yourself in three words, wha’d you say?” he asks earnestly. “An open cage.”
After all, there’s an entire world of music just waiting for you when you step outside the confines of the Western classical music tradition.
“Satie was right,” Cage continues. “Experience is a form of paralysis.”
Ah yes, Erik Satie—one of history’s most beloved classical music iconoclasts. His extensive writings are ripe with wit, whimsy, satire, and parody. Plus Cage took a special interest in his notion furniture music—that is, music played in the background while listeners engaged in other activities.
Another influential and unapologetically avant-garde composer in Cage’s life was Arnold Schoenberg. Cage’s strict adherence to the principle of chance led many critics to associate his music with that of Schoenberg, who was famous for developing the stern and stringent twelve-tone technique in the 1920s. Schoenberg was, in fact, one of Cage’s most radical and influential composition instructors, working with him for two years free of charge, so long as Cage promised to devote his life to music.
“Schoenberg stood in front of the class,” Cage recalls expressionlessly. “He asked those who intended to become professional musicians to raise their hands. I didn’t put mine up.”
Of course, Cage was never much of a musician in the traditional sense, but he was every bit an artist and an innovator—a true pioneer of the avant-garde and one of the most influential composers of the 20th century. In fact, the notoriously harsh Schoenberg famously described Cage not as a composer, but as “an inventor of genius.”
Not only was Cage instrumental (no pun intended) in the development of modern music, but he was also quite influential in the evolution of modern dance. His contributions to the world of contemporary dance came primarily through his collaborations with choreographer Merce Cunningham, who was his artistic and romantic partner for much of their lives.
Cage and Cunningham in 1965. Photo courtesy of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company.
Together, Cage and Cunningham pioneered a new framework for performance: their methodology allowed music and dance to coexist as separate entities, neither dependent upon the other. The two worked within a series of abstract rhythmic structure points which enabled the music and dance to exist together in the same space and time while still being entirely independent of one another.
The two discussed their artistic process in depth during a 1981interview at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Cage and Cunningham kept the two art forms so separate that in many cases, the dancers did not even hear the music until the public did—during the performance. How’s that for avant-garde? The two collaborated for nearly half a century, turning the world of music and dance upside-down until Cage’s death in 1992—though his influence on Cunningham’s art continued far past his death.
Cage and Cunningham in 1986. Photo courtesy of the Peter Hujar Archive.
To this day, Cage’s works are an affirmation of life—a celebration of the unpredictable and ever-changing world of everyday living. Decades after his death, his influence and his legacy continue to shape the world of music and art.
“I’m gradually learning how to take care of myself,” Cage says softly. “It has taken a long time. It seems to me that when I die I’ll be in perfect condition.”
Cage originally intended for his diary to have 10 parts: one for each month of the original Roman calendar year. He was working on the ninth when he died, leaving the piece with a sense of open-endedness and wondrous possibility similar to that which is present in all of his indeterminate works.
It seems oddly serendipitous that this series should come to a close as we enter into the end of December, the final month of the Roman calendar. And while we are left to wonder at what was left unsaid—what insights into world improvement that might have been hidden in those final two unfinished chapters—there is comfort in knowing that Cage’s music is still alive and existing all around us, if only we open our eyes and ears to it.
“People ask what the avant-garde is and whether it’s finished,” Cage says with slow sincerity. “It isn’t. There will always be one. The avant-garde is flexibility of mind and it follows like day the night from not falling prey to government and education. Without avant-garde nothing would get invented.”
Photo courtesy of Kathan Brown at Crown Point Press.
If I had to come up with a visual for how I imagine John Cage writing his “Diary,” it would probably be Cage standing over a kitchen counter and placing all of his thoughts, memories, musings, and musical philosophies in a high-speed blender—probably along with some mushrooms from his latest mycology expedition.
Photo courtesy of Kathan Brown at Crown Point Press.
Much like his cooking, Cage’s diary is a heterogeneous mixture of many different things. And although Cage used chance operations to determine the word count, colors, typefaces, letters per line, and patterns of indentation, the actual content of the diary is actually surprisingly organic.
“Imitation of nature in her manner of operation, traditionally the artist’s function, is now what everyone has to do,” Cage says in his typical deadpan delivery. “Complicate your garden so it’s surprising like uncultivated land.”
Cage’s chance operations allowed him to imitate nature in an unexpected way—it allowed him to make music and art that existed outside of the mind’s operations. In nature, any number of things may happen or not happen; in the grand scheme of things, we as humans actually have very little control over its course of events. Nature operates in meaningless ways and likewise, Cage made music out of meaningless chance operations.
Rather than trying to control nature (or in this case, rather than trying to control the music), Cage opened himself up to the possibilities and found beauty in the surprises—simple pleasures in the uncultivated land.
“National Wildlife Refuges: museumization of wilderness,” Cage says. “Controlled folly.”
Cage’s interest in nature extended into his writing and his visual art as well—particularly in the etchings and fire prints he created at Crown Point Press during the last 15 years of his life.
John Cage | EninKa No. 30, 1986. | Number 30 from a series of 50 smoked paper monotypes with branding on gampi paper chine-collé | Image Size: 24½x18½” | Publisher: Crown Point Press Printer: Marcia Bartholme
“It seemed to me that to be able to engrave required a certain calmness,” Cage said during one of his first visits to the studio. “And it’s that calmness that I’ve been, one way or another, approaching in my music, my writing, and so forth.”
“One has not understood Zen until one has forgotten it,” Cage quotes solemnly.
John Cage with D.T. Suzuki in 1962.
Cage was also inspired by a number of other influential 20th century thinkers. In fact, while reading his diary it becomes quite clear what other writers Cage was reading at the time he wrote each of the eight parts. In Part VII, he favors the ever-Marxist military leader Mao Tse-tung, the maverick social critic Ivan Illich, and, as always, the famous futurist and philosopher Buckminster Fuller (who Cage affectionately refers to as “Bucky”).
“Just as, in Buddhism, denial of cause and effect arose from the realization that everything’s caused by everything else, so Illich’s society without school isn’t different from Fuller’s society with nothing but school,” Cage says distantly. “Illich and Fuller: All there is to do is live and learn.”
Like most great visionaries of this day and age, Cage had a less-than-traditional academic path. He took his education into his own hands, and he never stopped learning.
“Left college end of sophomore year,” he says monotonously into my right ear. “Refused honorary degrees. Reinforcement, positive or negative, is besides the point.”
The point is to learn, and to stretch oneself intellectually, artistically, and creatively. For Cage, institutionalized learning simply didn’t facilitate that sort of self-exploration.
“It would be better to have no school at all than the schools we now have,” he says with surprising conviction. “Encouraged, instead of frightened, children could learn several languages before reaching age of four, at that age engaging in the invention of their own languages. Play’d be play instead of being, as now, release of repressed anger.”
After all, somewhere in this creativity—somewhere in these secret languages—lies the key to improving the world.
“If we could change our language, that’s to say the way we think,” Cage whispers into my left ear, “We’d probably be able to swing the revolution.”
If we could just change the way we think, we could free ourselves from the confines and complications of a broken and weary world.
“A newspaperman wrote asking me to send’im my philosophy in a nutshell,” Cage says dryly. “Get out of whatever cage you happen to be in.”
Since its invention in the early 18th century, the piano has been the cornerstone of the Western classical music tradition. It has been the conduit for the musical masterpieces of Bach, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt, Rachmaninoff, and countless other composers. It has been the staple instrument in all studies of Western music theory, the standard instrument for accompanying soloists, and the shimmering star of recital stages around the globe.
The depth and breadth of classical piano repertoire is astounding. As an instrument, it has garnered a reputation as one of the most beautiful and most perfect modes of human expression—and John Cage threw a wrench in it. Literally.
In 1940 Cage invented the prepared piano: a grand piano that has had its sound altered by placing everyday objects such as screws, bolts, and pieces of rubber on or between the strings.
His creation shocked and intrigued audiences around the world. To place everyday objects inside a grand piano seemed almost sacrilegious—or at the very least, iconoclastic.
But what he created was a new type of beauty. What he created was an entire percussion orchestra from just a single instrument.
“There are two kinds of music that interest me now,” Cage says in Part VI of his “Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse).” “One is music I can perform alone. Other’s music that everyone (audience too) performs together.”
And while the notion of a prepared piano may seem unconventional, eccentric, or even extravagant to the Cage critics among us, he actually created this musical contraption in response to a very genuine need: while working as a composer and accompanist at Seattle’s own Cornish College of the Arts, he was commissioned to write music for a dance by Syvilla Fort. Presented with the challenge of writing dance music for a small stage with no room for a percussion group, he simply—well, improvised.
Cage wrote extensively for percussion because, as he himself admitted: “I certainly had no feeling for harmony.” And in a way, I guess he didn’t have much feeling for melody either.
“When I was in the sixth grade, I signed up for the Glee Club,” he says drearily into my left headphone. “They said they’d test my voice. After doing that, they told me I didn’t have one.” His voice meanders over into my right headphone: “Now there’re more and more of us, we find one another more’n’more interesting. We’re amazed, when there’re so many of us, that each one of us is unique, different from all the others.”
Perhaps Cage wasn’t a very good musician in the traditional sense—but that’s precisely what enabled him to explore music in new and nontraditional ways. It’s what allowed him to push the boundaries and open new doors to what music could be and how everyone, not just the classically-trained professionals, could be a part of it.
“To raise language’s temperature we not only remove syntax,” he says slowly, “We give each letter undivided attention, setting it in unique face and size; to read becomes the verb to sing.”
Maybe that’s what inspired the colorful collage of different typefaces that constitute the entire diary. The language takes on a physical as well as an aural presence—conveying the music of the words through the visual variances between them.
“Ancient Chinese was free of syntax,” Cage says blandly. “Words floated in no-mind space. With the passing of centuries, fixed relations between words became increasingly established. The history of Chinese language resembles that of a human body that, aging, becomes arthritic.”
When you stop and think about it, music and syntax are really quite similar: both are about arranging sounds to create pleasant, balanced, or meaningful statements. But these guidelines and rules limit us; they hinder our creativity, make us stiff and boring. After all, it was the infinite possibilities of the unpleasant, the imbalanced, and the unintentional that most inspired Cage.
“As we were walking along, she smiled and said, ‘You’re never bored, are you,’” Cage recalls softly. “(Boredom dropped when we dropped our interest in climaxes. Traffic’s never twice the same. We stay awake and listen or we go to sleep and dream.)”
At times, it’s difficult to tell when Cage is awake and when he’s dreaming. Throughout his diary he’ll shift quite abruptly from a serious discussion of technoanarchism to a whimsical analysis of racial politics, then drop off the edge of reality altogether with a humorous story or a surrealist musing.
“When can we get together?” Cage asks plainly. “‘It’s hard to say: I’m going out of town tomorrow and I’ll be back sometime today.’”
The notion of time as a social construct is yet another interesting notion throughout Cage’s music and philosophical meanderings.
Last summer I studied music composition at the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique in Paris, and on my first day our guide took us on a tour of the entire institute. The most fascinating room was the anechoic chamber: a room designed to absorb all reflections of sound, allowing for complete and total silence. They’d only let us stay inside a few minutes at a time, since the silence gets to people.
“John Cage used to spend hours in here,” the guide told me in a charming French accent. “But that’s not really legal.”
In the competitive world of classical music, aspiring musicians are often pigeonholed into a single identity. Either you’re a violinist or a composer, a tenor or a pianist or maybe even a contrabassoonist—but whatever your specific musical interest or talent is, you have to commit yourself wholly to it if you’re ever going to make a name for yourself.
John Cage disagreed with that unspoken axiom. He did not believe musicianship was confined to an instrument or a voice or even to the five lines and four spaces of a musical staff. He believed in creativity and thoughtfulness, humor and awareness, indeterminacy and experimentation. He believed in ideas—BIG ideas, the scope of which I could not possibly tackle in one week, or even in the course of a two-month long series on his “Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse).”
“Don’t just ‘do your thing,’” Cage murmurs into my ear as I listen through Part V. “Do so many things that no one will know what you are going to do next.”
And let me assure you, Cage did not just talk the talk—he actually walked the walk. Here’s a clip of his 1960 television performance of his piece “Water Walk.”
You can tell from the audience’s laughter and surprise that they took Cage to be a bit of a madman. I mean, what kind of music is scored for water pitcher, wine bottle, whistle, electric mixer, ice cubes, cymbals, quail call, mechanical fish, tape recorder, seltzer siphon, radios, bathtub, and a grand piano? (The other stuff I can understand, but a grand piano? Really?)
Honestly, Cage was equal parts madman and musical genius, radical and revolutionary—he was extraordinarily eccentric, yet his work embraced the ordinary and the everyday. He was surprisingly relatable, and he even had a bit of a crazy cat-lover streak. (For what it’s worth, the cats loved Cage, too.)
“Clothes I wear for mushroom hunting are rarely sent to the cleaner,” he says softly. “They constitute a collection of odors I produce and gather while rambling in the woods. I notice not only dogs (cats, too) are delighted (they love to smell me).”
Cage was not just a musician and a mycologist but also an intellectual. He was extremely well-read, and not just in terms of history or literature, but also in terms of politics, religion, science, and art.
“College: two hundred people reading same book,” he says blandly. “An obvious mistake. Two hundred people can read two hundred books.”
Cage’s own reading interests certainly spanned the gamut: his diary is sprinkled with quotes, theories, maxims, and mystical musings from the likes of Marshall McLuhan, Buckminster Fuller, Marcel Duchamp, Sri Ramakrishna, and even Mahatma Gandhi.
“We talked of current disturbance of ecology, agreed man’s works no matter how great are pygmy compared with those of nature,” Cage says. “Nature, pressed, will respond with grand and shocking adjustment of creation.”
His thoughts on art and nature reminded me of a famous quote from Debussy: “Surely you know that a genuine appreciation of beauty can only result in silence? Tell me, when you see the daily wonder of the sunset have you ever thought of applauding?”
I suppose that the greatest art is that which does not pretend to be one thing or another, but just simply exists as it is, without worry or pretention.
“He’d have preferred silence to applause at the end,” Cage says vaguely, “(Art instead of slap in the face.)”
The difference between art and entertainment is that art is not always beautiful or funny, charming or pleasant—art does not always have an immediate appeal or warrant an applause. Art is about making people think critically; it’s about challenging perceptions, fueling curiosity, provoking discomfort, and capturing imagination.
Cage incorporates all these elements into his diary, and that’s what makes it a fascinating work of art. His writing is thoughtful, humorous, whimsical, and at times even prophetic. Did I mention that somewhere amidst the tangled poesy and poetry of his diary, Cage actually predicted the Internet?
“Add video screen to telephone,” he says blankly. “Give each subscriber a thousand sheets of recordable erasable material so anytime, anywhere, anyone’d have access to a thousand sheets of something (drawings, books, music, whatever). You’d just dial. If you dialed the wrong number, instead of uselessly disturbing another subscriber, you’d just get surprising information, something unexpected.”
In other words: social media. (Of course, even Cage couldn’t have predicted the onslaught of cat memes and kitty videos that has since taken over the World Wide Web.) And not only was he a prophet of sorts but he was an everyday poet.
“London publisher sent blank (‘Fill out.’) so I’d be included in survey of contemporary poets of the English language,” Cage says. “Threw it out. Week later urgent request plus duplicate blank arrived. ‘Please return with a glossy photo.’ Complied.”
But as challenging and as massive in scope as Cage’s musical ideas were, his compositions typically employ very modest means. He never composed grand operas or bombastic symphonic climaxes, was not interested in excessive displays of talent or in following in the footsteps of past composers. Cage took his inspiration from the ordinary and the uninspiring—but it was his uncanny ability to see the humor and the sparkle in the everyday mundane that makes his work truly exceptional.
“July, August, September,” Cage continues. “Publisher then sent letter saying it’d been decided I’m not significant poet after all: if I were, everyone else’d be one too.”