by Maggie Molloy
This post is the final installment 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, Part III, Part IV, Part V, Part VI, and Part VII.
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.