Diary: How to Read John Cage – Part VI

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, Part III, Part IV, and Part V.

John Cage

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.

Prepared PIano

“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.”

Cage_Diary.jpgMaybe 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.”

I left Paris enlightened.

“The outside walls of buildings in Paris are used for transmitting ideas,” Cage says. “Rue de Vaugirard, I read: La culture est l’inversion de l’humanité.”

Anechoic Chamber

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

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 IV

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, and Part III.

JC Part IV Photo 2
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.

Siglio Press Diary“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.

JC Part IV Photo 1

Image courtesy of the Vogue Archives

“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

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

Diary: How to Read John Cage – Part I

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).” To read the introduction to the series, click here

john cage, paris 1981

john cage, paris 1981

Listening to John Cage’s “Diary” feels vaguely like taking a hearing test at the doctor’s office. Sometimes he’s speaking into your left ear, sometimes your right. Sometimes his voice is distant, sometimes it’s right up behind you like that little moral conscience you just can’t get out of your head.

It’s not until six minutes in that he acknowledges this compositional decision—and even then only vaguely, indirectly, perhaps not even at all.

“We see symmetrically: canoe on northern Canadian lake, stars in midnight sky repeated in water, forested shores precisely mirrored,” he says calmly, slowly. “Our hearing’s asymmetrical: noticed sounds surprise us, echoes of shouts we make transform our voices, straight line of sound from us to shore’s followed by echo’s slithering around the lake’s perimeter.”

I suppose I’d never thought of hearing as asymmetrical—that is, until I found myself listening through Part One of John Cage’s eight-part “Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse),” leaning sideways slightly in my chair as I listened to his voice meander through my right headphone, the left headphone oddly empty, quiet.

Don’t you hate that feeling? When some crucial wire in your headphones breaks and they begin to only play music out of one ear? But these headphones are not broken; the sporadic shifting of Cage’s voice from one ear to the other, to both, to neither, is all part of the composition. Cage achieved this aural effect by changing the position of the microphone and the recording volume throughout the recording process. Not surprisingly, the visual counterpart for this piece is similarly warped.

In fact, reading the manuscript for Cage’s “Diary” is sort of like reading a scrapbook—each phrase in a different color, font, size, style. Each sentence just a short fragment depicting a distant memory or a larger poetic truth.


My trusted copy of the diary comes from Siglio Press, an independent publisher dedicated to uncommon books that live somewhere in the mystical realm between art and literature. The beautiful new edition from Siglio, published on Oct. 27, collects all eight parts of the diary for the first time, rendering the entire text in color.Diary (Book)

One of Cage’s most personal and prophetic works, “Diary” was composed over the course of 16 years and recorded in Switzerland a little over a year before his death in 1992. Cage had intended for the diary to have ten parts, though only eight were completed by the time he died.

He originally typed the score on an IBM Selectric typewriter, using chance operations to determine the word count, the application of various typefaces, the number of letters per line, and even the patterns of indentation. For this particular Siglio publication, co-editors Richard Kraft and Joe Biel also used chance operations to render the entire text in various combinations of the original red and blue colors, as well as to apply a single set of 18 fonts to the entire work.

For Cage, these chance operations, aural alterations, and visual variations are all part of the composition. After all, Cage was a pioneer of indeterminacy in music, with many of his most daring compositions leaving crucial musical choices to the whim of the performer, the environment, or even the audience—most famously, the score for his 1952 piece, “4’33”,” instructs the performer(s) not to play their instrument(s) at all during the entire duration of the piece, insisting that the sounds of the surrounding concert environment are in fact the music itself.

A common theme throughout Cage’s wide-ranging works is this notion of inclusion—the idea that the entire world is music and the performer, the audience, you, me, and everything around us are all involved in the composition.

“He wanted me to agree that the piano tuner and the piano maker have nothing to do with it (the composition),” Cage states in the diary, not specifying who “he” is. “The younger ones had said: Whoever makes the stretcher isn’t separate from the painting. (It doesn’t stop there either.)”

But where does it stop? For Cage, I suppose it never stops; the line between art and everyday life simply does not exist.

“Art’s obscured the difference between art and life,” he says. “Now let life obscure the difference between life and art.”

His diary’s discussion of art extends far past artwork 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—all with an idiosyncratic dose of humor and wit.

“City planning’s obsolete,” he says slowly. “What’s needed is global planning so Earth may stop stepping like octopus on its own feet.”

And despite Cage’s deadpan delivery, I couldn’t help but smile. It’s Cage’s vivid imagination, sincere curiosity, and subtle charm that makes his diary a true work of art.

“They ask what the purpose of art is,” he says gently. “Is that how things are? Say there were a thousand artists and one purpose, would one artist be having it and all the nine hundred and ninety-nine others be missing the point?”

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