John Cage Diary: “Questions more lucrative than their solution.”

News Section, Reviews

November 2nd, 2015


(Review) Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse) by John Cage


Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse)


Originally published October 5, 2015


John Cage’s musical compositions are known for requiring a high level of interpretation on the part of the musician: they are more of a collaboration with the composer than a direct translation of written notes into auditory musical form. In her biography of Cage, art historian Kay Larson notes that his early scores “resemble drawings; ordinary notes, for instance, might be replaced with elegant sliding marks that look more like calligraphy,” thus requiring a level of interpretation and choice on the part of the performer. A newly collected edition of Cage’s eight diaries (1965 – 92), published by Siglio Press and edited by Joe Biel and Richard Kraft, is no exception to this collaborative process. Uniting all eight volumes of Cage’s writing for the first time, Biel and Kraft have decided not to reproduce the volumes in their original form. Instead, they revive Cage’s interest in chance methods and in effect reperform the journals, treating them as a score to interpret and collaborate with anew.

Originally, each journal section was published separately, over the course of thirty years in literary journals or small booklets. Cage wrote his journals in twelve typefaces; the line breaks, numbers of characters per line, spaces between sections, and margins were all determined by chance. Each journal was printed in black-and-white except for Part III (1967), which was screen printed using a color scheme (developed with Dick Higgins, printer and founder of Something Else Press) that mixed different variations of red and blue to create a range of colors, again determined by chance operations. Biel and Kraft elected to extend this the color scheme and variety of fonts used in Part III to all eight volumes.

Cage’s interest in chance was heavily influenced by Zen philosophy, particularly the Chinese I Ching. In their reperformance Cage’s original text, Biel and Kraft emphasize this particular interest. For the book’s design, they conceived of a set of five questions regarding the layout, font and color scheme of each entry. The answers to those questions where each assigned a number that Biel and Kraft plugged into an I Chinggenerator developed by Cage and his fellow composer Andrew Culver. The generator then produced another number, which, corresponding to a color, typeface, or spacing, became the form the entry took in the book. The process generated twenty-eight color variations, which are written in eighteen typefaces. As the editors explain, the combinations give the text a “physicality” that is “both musical and sculptural.” It requires us to “hear the words as well as see them.”

Reading the book, the text appears to wiggle and jump around the page, and certain colors and fonts assert themselves louder than others. Yet, despite this unorthodox presentation, the form is appropriate for the content. Cage’s topics range from music to technology, from philosophy to the relationship between art and life, and he switches dramatically between them. In entry LVIII Cage moves, without transition, from discussing Zen philosophy to composing music:

Suzuki’s lecture on Yu, / the principle of not-knowing, a not-knowing never to become a knowing. / Toward the end he laughed gently, / without expressing any accomplishment, and said, ‘Isn’t it funny? I come all the / way from Japan to explain something to you / which of its nature is not to be / explained?’ Composer, who no longer / arranges sounds in a piece, simply / facilitates an enterprise. Using a telephone, he locates materials, / services, raises money to pay for / them.

The discussion of Zen philosopher D.T. Suzuki’s lecture spans nine lines, and is written in three typesets and two colors, while the discussion of music remains in one font and is only written in two colors on six lines. Just as the colors and fonts change midway through sentences, Cage’s ideas flow at random. As Cage explains in his preface, the dairies are a “mosaic of ideas, statements, words, and stories.”

But these texts do have an ebb and flow: motifs, ideas, and even characters reemerge throughout and unite all eight volumes. One such theme is the evolving place of technology in daily life. “The / fact that their parents have separated doesn’t / disturb the children. They go on / looking at television.” Cage writes in section XXXVII of his 1966 diary. Television emerges as a theme throughout. A few sections later in LII, Cage muses, “Television up-to-date, / things televised aren’t. / Receiving / set, appliances up-to-date, home / isn’t.” These comments read more like detached observations as opposed to idealist hopes for the future, recalling the collection’s extended title How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse). But behind each mosaic is Cage’s talent for observation, a sense that he is keenly aware of the shifting values of his historical moment, television serving as a perfect example of a new technology that drastically changed the fabric of society in Cage’s lifetime.

Cage’s observational mode again traces back to his passion for Zen thinking, which emphasizes observation and constant questioning. In particular, his phrasing demonstrates the influence of the Zen storytelling form kōan. In her biography, Larsen explains, “Cage appreciated the koan’s cryptic storytelling, which allowed him to say amusing things. Each kōan-like story was a fragment, self-contained, gleaming like a jewel in its setting.” Cage presents short dry, often cynical observations that use humor and brevity to interrogate the state of the world and the place of art and technology within it, similar to the way Zen teachers would use the kōan format to raise doubting questions in order to understand the complexity of culture and society. “Heaven’s no / longer paved with gold (changes in church architecture)” writes Cage in XXII. “Heaven’s a motel. / She changed part of the loft: wall-to-wall carpeting, mobile TV.” These brief and satirical observations offer no solutions to the alterations in culture that he describes. Cage questions cleverly, but is also wisely aware of his lack of answers—believing that the framing of questions is more lucrative than their solution.

With their reperformance of Cage’s writing, the editors have crafted a unified homage to Cage’s artistic thinking. That being said, it doesn’t present a single answer to the problems he discerns. As Cage asks in entry X, “They ask what / the purpose of art is. 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?” Cage wasn’t searching for a single solution to making art, or even to how to better society. Instead, in keeping with his Zen beliefs, he continued to question. “For all of Cage’s optimism and hope that the world could be improved,” the editors write in their conclusion, “he also (as the title reveals) seemed to accept the paradox inherent in such an attempt.” In offering a unified collection of Cage’s thinking, the editors revel in this paradox, seeing it as a productive inspiration for future collaboration with Cage.

Read the original at THE BROOKLYN RAIL