BooksWeekend

Taking His Chance: John Cage’s Diary

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One of the minor ironies of the postwar avant-garde is that an artist so resolutely against personal expression and the myth of the inspired genius should become the focus of a cult of personality. But that’s exactly what happened with John Cage before, and especially after, his death.

It turns out, however, that Cage worked assiduously in that most conventional form of personal expression — the diary — and did so for almost thirty years (although the published sections span seventeen). The eight parts of Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse) appeared in various books and small magazines during Cage’s lifetime, although they’ve only now been collected in a single volume by Siglio, with that publisher’s customary attention to detail and gorgeous production values.

In typical Cagean fashion, the diary has undergone various chance-generated procedures, both while Cage composed it and by the book’s editors, Joe Biel and Richard Kraft. These have in turn affected the content, as Cage created rules for the amount of words he could expend on an entry or a detail within it. They’ve also dictated the form: indentation, line breaks, variation in typeface, and the application of color. Inspired by Cage’s own method (and a section published by Dick Higgins and Allison Knowles’s Something Else Press), Biel and Kraft have created an enhanced version by generating a set of questions — “Is the entry a single typeface?” “Is the entry a single color?” etc. — that they then ran through an I Ching-inspired computer program to generate entries that are frequently filled with multiple fonts and colors.

The result is a work in which the visual dimension has become as multifaceted as the textual one, making Cage the posthumous collaborator on an artist’ book, which seems appropriate, since for Buddhists the results of one’s actions continue long after death. Nevertheless, even chance has its structural limits, and readers of Cage texts such as Silence: Lectures and Writings (1961) or his experiments with poetry will find the look and shape of Diary familiar: a somewhat centered text composed of fragments snaking down the page. Here’s section 170 from part 6, laid out in brown, darker brown, gray, blue and lighter blue, and in a variety of fonts:

Excerpt from Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse) by John Cage, edited by Richard Kraft and Joe Biel, Siglio, 2015 (courtesy of Siglio and the John Cage Trust)

The form is particularly effective in enabling the various layers of personal and social history to interact in a generally non-narrative way: artist friends and the Vietnam War; Buckminster Fuller and Chairman Mao; lunch with Merce Cunningham and his mother; David Tudor and Detroit; edible mushrooms and police violence; a lost wallet and the abolition of private property; airplane travel and communes . . . and “on / and on.” As with certain avant-garde work, the constraints Cage placed upon his diary’s expressive qualities potentially open it to a wider range of material than a more traditional narrative mode might have allowed.

In a process note to the final part, one that can readily be applied to the whole project, Cage writes: “The result is a mosaic of remarks, the juxtapositions of which are free of intention.” Reading Diary, I’m struck by how specific a life Cage led, one in fact dependent upon an enormous amount of personal agency and plain old-fashioned willpower. Chance generation, whether applied to life or art, offered a way out of this fastidiously fashioned — at times dogmatic and doctrinaire — world. Cage was unusually free from the determinations of all sorts — from the familial to the economic — in which most people are happily or unhappily ensnared. I’m not entirely convinced aleatory techniques are the primary tools that got him to that point, but this doesn’t diminish their value or the inspirational quality of his “diary.”

Diary: How to Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse) (2015) is published by Siglio Press and is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

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