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

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