Diary: How to Read John Cage

by Maggie Molloy

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!

Introduction Part I Part II Part III Part IV Part V Part VI Part VII Part VIII

Diary: How to Read John Cage – Part VII

by Maggie MolloyCage_Diary

This post is part of a series on John Cages “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, and Part VI.

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.

Crown Point Press

Photo courtesy of Kathan Brown at Crown Point Press.

Cage did, in fact, love to cook—and he even shared some of his favorite mushroom recipes in the October 1965 issue of Vogue magazine. (I’m not joking—click here for some Morels à la John Cage.)

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.”

Cage also sought calmness and oneness with nature through his study of Zen Buddhism with Suzuki Daisetz.

“One has not understood Zen until one has forgotten it,” Cage quotes solemnly.

Suzuki and Cage in 1962

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.”

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

Diary: How to Read John Cage – Part V

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).” For earlier installments of the series, please visit: Introduction, Part I, Part II, Part III, and Part IV.

Part V Photo 2
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.

Cage_DiaryJohn 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.)

Cage with Cat

“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.

Part V Photo 1

“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.”

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

Diary: How to Read John Cage – Part III

by Maggie Molloy

This post is part of a series on John Cages 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

John Cage Part III

Imagine yourself listening to the radio.

Nothing too out of the ordinary, just you by yourself in a room, the radio dial tuned to your favorite station. Maybe you’re grooving to some jazz tunes, gettin’ down to James Brown, rocking out to the Top 40, or maybe even tuning in to talk radio (you know, if you’re into that).

Now imagine yourself listening to 12 radios. All at once—and all tuned to different channels.

Yes, that’s right. Now you are simultaneously listening to jazz and James Brown, Top 40 and weather forecasts, talk radio and even (Heaven help us) the country channel.

That was precisely the premise behind John Cage’s 1951 piece “Imaginary Landscape No. 4,” scored for 24 performers at 12 radios. It is organized chaos. Of course, the piece doesn’t describe a physical landscape but rather, a landscape of the future—a landscape exploring the possibilities of what were, at the time, new and unknown technologies.

“It’s as though you used technology to take you off the ground and go like Alice through the looking glass,” Cage said of his inspiration for the piece.

Reading through Cage’s “Diary” is a bit like falling through the looking glass, as well. His reflections can be silly and nonsensical, curious and contrary, fragmented and, at times, even frightening. There is no topic left untouched: art, music, philosophy, culture, culinary arts, and even politics.

In fact, it’s a bit like listening to 12 radios at once. It’s a random mix of the everyday along with the breaking news; a thousand stories told all at once. One moment, he’s discussing political summit meetings and the next, he’s comparing the musical philosophies of Stravinsky and Schoenberg. (Cage was, in fact, a student of the latter.)

But it is not until Part III of his eight-part diary that he actually digs into the more social and political aspects of the work—the actual “How to Improve the World” part, so to speak—and he does this in a myriad of ways.

Some remarks are just petty observations about everyday inconveniences:

“Something needs to be done about the postal services,” he says dryly. “Either that or we should stop assuming just because we mailed something it will get where we sent it.”

While others have much more serious implications:

“Bertrand Russell asks American citizens: Can you justify your government’s use in Vietnam of poison chemicals and gas, the saturation bombing of the entire country with jelly-gasoline and phosphorus?” he asks gravely. “Napalm and phosphorus burn until the victim is reduced to a bubbling mass.”

Truth be told, I was caught a bit off guard by his abrupt (and clearly weighted) mention of the war in Vietnam—I had to remind myself that as otherworldly as some of Cage’s music may be, he did not, in fact, exist in a vacuum. He was an idealist, yes, but he was also a socially- and politically-conscious artist—he was a thinker and a citizen of the world, and his art was constantly being shaped and influenced by his surroundings.

Diary Excerpt Part III “In music it was hopeless to think in terms of the old structure (tonality), to do things following old methods (counterpoint, harmony), to use the old materials (orchestral instruments),” he says. “We started from scratch: sound, silence, time, activity.”

In other words, he started from what was around him. He created music scored for 12 radios because he was growing up during the rise of radio and broadcasting, the rise of music being transmitted electronically rather than performed live, in-person.

In fact, “Imaginary Landscape No. 4” was a reaction against radio, more than anything. Cage didn’t like the radio, so he began using it in a new way—as a musical instrument itself, rather than as a transmitter of music. He wrote a number of pieces featuring radio, and by the 1980s it was one of his favorite instruments:

“Almost as favored by me as the sounds of traffic,” he said in a 1986 interview with artist Richard Kostelanetz.

For Cage, sound is music, regardless of the context or the intention.

“I love sounds, just as they are, and I have no need for them to be anything more than what they are,” he says. “I don’t want them to be psychological. I don’t want a sound to pretend that it’s a bucket, or that it’s a president, or that it’s in love with another sound. I just want it to be a sound.”

Indeterminacy was a way of creating sound without meaning—crafting unpredictable and arbitrary music that could exist only in that moment. No narrative, no love story, no tragedy, no flowing melodies, and no meaning—just the simple experience of sound.

“Sounds everywhere,” he says in his diary. “Our concerts celebrate the fact concerts’re no longer necessary.”

Our world is saturated with music and art—it exists everywhere around us if we bother to look at and listen to it. Cage’s work reminds us to stop recreating the classics of the past and to start opening ourselves up to the music of the present.

“We have everything we used to have,” he says in his typical deadpan manner. “The Mona Lisa’s still with us for instance. On top of which we have the Mona Lisa with a mustache. We have, so to speak, more than we need.”

I’m pretty sure I can hear him smiling as he says it, but he doesn’t betray even a hint of laughter. He’s right—we do have more than we need. We have plenty of masterpieces from throughout the centuries, but if we simply continue regurgitating the same ideas over and over, then we are just making a mockery of the originals.

Perhaps the real art is in shifting our understanding of art itself, abandoning our expectations, and opening our minds, hearts, eyes, and ears to the present. Perhaps the real art is in listening to 12 radios at once and hearing the beauty of the sounds themselves—no meaning, just music.

“Art instead of being an object made by one person is a process set in motion by a group of people,” he says. “Art’s socialized. It isn’t someone saying something, but people doing things, giving everyone (including those involved) the opportunity to have experiences they would not otherwise have had.”

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

Diary: How to Read John Cage – Part II

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).” For earlier installments of the series, please visit: Introduction & Part I

John Cage Writing

“There’s a temptation to do nothing simply because there’s so much to do that one doesn’t know where to begin,” John Cage whispers into my ear blandly. “Begin anywhere.”

After nearly 30 minutes of staring off into space wondering how in the world to process Part II of his massive, eight-part sound art masterpiece “Diary,” I figured that was pretty sound advice. After all, each section of John Cage’s “Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse)” begins anywhere, ends anywhere, and travels to any number of places in between.

“We’re getting rid of the habit we had of explaining everything,” he says—which I suppose explains why the entire “Diary” is so fragmented. Cage drastically changes topic nearly every sentence, leaving the listener (and in this case, the reader) to create their own contexts and connections within or between the jumbled phrases.

And trust me, the jumbled phrases truly span the gamut: from politics to philosophy, environmentalism to electronics. His writings discuss music, art, love, war, chess, and surprisingly frequently, mushrooms. (Cage was, in fact, an avid amateur mycologist and took great interest in the study of fungi). But what interested me most as I flipped through the bold, red-orange edition published last month by Siglio Press, were Cage’s musings on the state of contemporary art.

Diary Excerpt Part II

“To know whether or not art is contemporary, we no longer use aesthetic criteria (if it’s destroyed by shadows, spoiled by ambient sounds); (assuming these) we use social criteria: can include action on the part of others,” Cage says in his typical matter-of-fact manner. “We’ll take the mad ones with us, and we know where we’re going. Even now, he told me, they sit at the crossroads in African villages regenerating society. Mental hospitals: localization of a resource we’ve yet to exploit.”

While Cage is certainly not the first composer to take an interest in the social criteria of music (Ives was influenced by American popular and church music traditions, Bartók was inspired by Eastern European folk music, and so on), he’s certainly among the first to give so much creative control to his performers and to his audience. As for the mental hospitals: madness is really just unpredictability—and for Cage, so is music. Chance operations and indeterminacy allowed his pieces to be living, breathing works.

“My favorite music is the music I haven’t yet heard,” Cage wrote in his 1990 autobiographical statement. “I don’t hear the music I write. I write in order to hear the music I haven’t yet heard.”

Which would perhaps explain Cage’s keen interest in percussion. After all, percussion is really just the sounds you hear between stretches of silence—whether you are in the concert hall, on the street, in the countryside, or by the sea. Percussion is the simplest, most primordial, and likewise most universal music.

“I remember clams from the Sound exhibited years ago in a Seattle aquarium (near the Farmer’s Market, admission ten cents): their movement, their timing of it,” Cage recalls in his diary. “They were a bed, immobile, one on top of the other, two feet deep in a tank of water, sand on the bottom of the tank. We were told to wait.”

In other words: silence.

Cage all but changes the subject entirely before returning to this anecdote later on in his diary entry. He talks about the weather, the rain, education, devotion, and a game of chess before he meanders back to his Seattle aquarium story:

“Suddenly a clam rose to the surface directly, remained there a moment, then descended slowly, leaf-like, tipping one way, then the other, arriving at the bottom to produce a disturbance, such that clam after clam did likewise, sometimes several, sometimes many, sometimes not one at all, producing a dance that completely involved us.”

Cage does not describe the actual sound of this dance, but he is clearly describing the music of it. The sporadic rhythm of movement, the dancing, the descent—what else could it be? Perhaps the anecdote is meant to illustrate the universality of music, its existence all around us, and the ways in which we might experience music without necessarily hearing it.

After all, it was in 1952 that Cage created the first “happening”: a bold and unusual performance art event that took audiences out of the concert hall and into, well, the outside world. Like many of Cage’s works, his happenings are difficult to describe; by nature each is a completely unique performance event occurring in the present, enabling the audience to forget the past and future and instead become fully immersed in the music of the present—the music of the world around them.

Much of the specifics of these happenings were left entirely up to chance. Depending on the piece, the actual orchestration of his happenings range from television sets to toy pianos, “any number of people performing any actions” to no music or recordings at all. In fact, several of these wide-ranging happenings were part of an eight-part series he cheekily titled “Variations.”

Toy Piano

As for duration of the happenings, that was typically left up to chance, too. Although according to Cage’s philosophy, the music continues infinitely all around us, even once the specific piece has ended.

“(Music’s made it perfectly clear: we have all the time in the world,” he says dryly. “What used timidly to take eight minutes to play we now extend to an hour. People thinking we’re not occupied converse with us while we’re performing.)”

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