When I started chronicling every item in my record collection for Music Arcades 64 months ago, there were a few albums that I especially feared, in that they might come up any day and embarrass me because I'd have to admit I hadn't listened all the way through, and I wouldn't have time to make up that lack in a day or two. John Cage's Diary was a particular case in point: in several attempts, I'd never made it even to the end of the first CD, and there are eight of them, running over a five and a half hours in total.
With each year that I dodged this fate it became more likely. Or so I thought. Sometime last year, thanking my lucky stars that the day had not arrived, I checked the database of my collection and found How to Improve the World had never been entered. I added it straight away, but also ripped all eight CDs onto iTunes and thence to my phone. Starting last November, I got the habit of listening to these spoken word recordings two or three mornings a week, as I walked back from dropping the Boy at his nursery in Peckham. I listen to music on the train or bus, because I'm usually reading and can't read while listening to speech, but speech is fine when walking because the linguistic part of my brain has nothing else to distract it. I walk the same route each time: across Warwick Gardens, Holly Grove, Bellenden Road, Oglander Road, Grove Vale and Lordship Lane. Cage's voice in my ear all the time, sometimes the left, sometimes right; loud then soft. It takes 15 minutes if walking at full pelt, 20 at a stroll — I average just over 16. On that basis, I ought to be able to get through each Part (the CDs are all one track each) in just over a week. In practice, it takes a lot longer because I never remember how far I've got, so, to be on the safe side, I restart the track at the earliest possible point that I could have reached before. Often this means I repeat the last five or ten minutes of my previous listening session. And this is invariably enlightening: I find there are short segments that I remember almost verbatim, others that seem completely new. As though these mini-narratives were raking over the leaves in my mind, catching some of them first time, but always leaving a few behind for the next sweep… before the wind comes and blows them around again.
I'm being unhelpful by having given only the vaguest inkling of whatDiary sounds like. While it isn't "music", Cage sought to remind us to experience the world as music, and his voice has a beautiful cadence and softness, punctuated occasionally by his saliva-sluicing pauses (Cage was in his late seventies when recording this reading). The texts of his diaries were written between 1965 and 1982. They are not (of course) diaries. Cage also calls them a "mosaic of ideas".
I have toyed, for just an occasional moment, with writing down some of my favourite excerpts, but there are way too many, and the magic of listening this way is the experience of flow. I don't mean flow in the hip modern Csíkszentmihályi sense, but more the flow of the river where a pattern or reflection has passed and transformed itself before your eye has fully caught up with it, and you'd be foolish to try and chase it downstream because there's another, equally supple and subtle, one chasing along in its slipstream.
Anyway, the diaries already exist as published texts. Here's the opening of Part 1 (the different fonts, sizes and cases of the text you see there are rendered through stereo position and volume in the audio). I've added Cage's M: Writings, 1967-72, which includes longer passages of the Diary, to my wishlist.
For I have fallen in love with these recordings. As soon as I finished all eight parts (it took me until January this year), I started again at the beginning and listened to them all again. I'm giving them a rest now, but plan to do another run through in a month or two.
What are they "about"? Well the title is as good a summary as you'll get in under 15 words. There are many mentions of Buckminster Fuller and Marshall McLuhan (Cage is quoted in the sleeve notes, "I still think that Fuller and McLuhan had a sense of the future that is very helpful for those who want to make it"), and also of Marcel Duchamp, Cage's eccentric aunt and Ivan Illich. With reflections how to short-circuit the dysfunctional contradictions of society, Cage mixes in anecdotes of lost wallets, stopping smoking and loving bankers. He has a fascination with international collaboration, not at the level of UN peacekeeping forces or diplomacy, but in standardisation of telecoms, postage, electricity sockets and (maybe) railway gauges. The spirit of the piece is similar to the response James Lovelock gave at the Longplayer conversation, which I attended on Monday, when asked "What should we do [about climate change and the situation we find ours]?" "Nothing," he replied, "I think we're not very clever at all as a species, yet. We promise. Almost anything we try to do goes awry, and defeats the intentions that inspired it… We're not only somewhat stupid, we have an awful lot of hubris, so just doing something is likely to lead to worse results than doing nothing."
Changing my mind, I shall permit myself one quotation (from Part 5, around 29 min):
Statement by Stillman, manufacturer, distributor of lumber products, founder, president, of the World Institute: "The question before us is whether we will so organise the processes for gathering and applying knowledge that the creative powers of all men can be catalysed for growth toward wholeness, or whether we will persist in our egocentric, ethnocentric, fact-accumulating, thing-oriented, power-amassing ways that are leading us to destruction.")
I've tried in vain to find on the web more about who this Stillman was. Any further information gratefully received.
MusicBrainz entry for this album
Wikipedia entry for this album
Rate Your Music entry for this album
Some metadata about disc 1 at Last.fm