Diary: How to Read John Cage

by Maggie Molloy

This post is the first installment of a series on John Cage’s “Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse).” For future installments of the series, please visit: Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V, Part VI, and Part VII.

John Cage 1

On my first day of college, I was a bright-eyed and bushy-tailed freshman scurrying to my first real collegiate music class: music composition. Smiling from ear to ear, I sat down between two friendly and amicable singer-songwriter types and took out my staff paper, ready to write beautiful melodies and heartfelt harmonies bursting with the truth and glory of a richly-crafted Western classical music tradition.

So imagine my surprise when I was greeted not with talk of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, or even Berlioz—but with a two-hour introduction to the music and philosophical musings of a certain avant-garde iconoclast named John Cage.

There, on the first day of class, my composition professor performed Cage’s 40-minute utterly radical and unapologetically subversive “Lecture on Nothing.”

If you’ve never heard the piece, the title says it all: it is, quite literally, a lecture about nothing. The score is simply lines of words separated by seemingly arbitrary spaces, conveying vaguely Zen-like aphorisms and obsessive, repetitive observations.

And while it’s difficult to find communicative meaning amidst the tangled sentences (at least in any standard sense of the phrase “communicative meaning”), Cage did truly intend the work as a piece of music. Composed using a complex time length scheme and organized into 48 units of 12 lines and 48 measures each, Cage was deliberate and meticulous in the compositional process of this work.

And while—four years later—I still have no idea what the lecture actually means, I will never forget that performance. It made me feel a lot of things: puzzled, perplexed, vaguely annoyed—but also utterly engrossed and, surprisingly, inspired.

In retrospect, I’m sure the professor’s goal in showing us that work was to quickly and immediately dispel any preconceived notions we may have had about what is and what is not music; to jolt us out of the comfortable conviction that we, as aspiring composers, might fall back on the tried-and-true rules and forms of a historical musical tradition.

But regardless of his motives, that lecture has found its way into my subconscious, surfacing and resurfacing over the years in discussions of art, music, philosophy, and all things meta.

And it was precisely that lecture that piqued my interest in Cage’s other works—most notably, his monstrous five-hour art piece, “Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse).” The piece is a long-winded, slowly meandering poetic diary recorded by Cage himself a year before his death; a five-hour narration of fragmented thoughts, memories, quotes, convictions, and abstract philosophical insights.

Diary (Book)So this fall, I decided to embark upon the strange and unusual journey that is listening to Cage’s revolutionary ramblings for five hours—but before I could dive into this ambitious endeavor, I needed a musical score to guide me. I picked up the iconoclastic bible from Siglio Press, a trusted publisher dedicated to uncommon books that are best filed somewhere between art and literature—the books filled with knowledge and insight that transcends all possibilities of categorical book shelving.

Diary (CD)Armed with high-quality headphones and book in hand, over the course of the next eight weeks I will listen through each of the eight parts of Cage’s “Diary” and create my own personal diary tracking the experience.

So join me as I stumble through the zigzagging maze that is Cage’s musical mind—together, maybe we can make sense of it.


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