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.

Diary

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 VIII

Cage_Diaryby 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.

BasketCage

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.

Cage with Cigarette

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.

Clock

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 Sitting - 1986

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 Smiling

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

Photo courtesy of Kathan Brown at Crown Point Press.

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.

ENINKA30

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 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 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