Listen to John Cage’s 5 Hour Art Piece: Diary: How To Improve The World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse)


John Cage was born in 1915 and died in 1992. Dur­ing that inter­ven­ing time, he changed the face of avant-garde music and art.

An ear­ly dis­ci­ple of Arnold Schoen­berg, Cage made his biggest cre­ative break­through by study­ing the I Ching, Zen Bud­dhism and the art of Mar­cel Duchamp. The com­pos­er decid­ed to let ele­ments of chance into his work. He start­ed to write pieces for a “pre­pared piano” where things like thumb­tacks, nails and forks were placed into the instrument’s strings to alter its sound in unex­pect­ed ways.

Cage’s most famous work, 4’33”, took con­cep­tu­al music about as far as it could go. A musi­cian walks out onto the stage, sits in front of a piano and does absolute­ly noth­ing for four min­utes and thir­ty sec­onds. The sounds of the audi­ence rustling, the traf­fic out­side and any oth­er ambi­ent noise that might hap­pen dur­ing that time peri­od become a part of the piece. Watch a per­for­mance here.

The folks over at have placed online anoth­er one of Cage’s work, Diary: How To Improve The World (You Will Only Make Mat­ters Worse) (1991). Clock­ing in at over 5 hours total, the piece is some­thing of a Mount Ever­est of sound art.

Record­ed in Switzer­land a lit­tle over a year before his death, Diary fea­tures thoughts, obser­va­tions and insights along with quotes from the likes of Buck­min­ster Fuller, Hen­ry David Thore­au and Mao Zedong. You can lis­ten to Part 1 below, and click these links to lis­ten to the remain­ing parts: Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7Part 8.

Cage’s diaries appeared pre­vi­ous­ly in print as M: Writ­ings, 1967–72. On the page, the text ran­dom­ly changed both font and let­ter size. You can see what this looks like here. Cage and com­pa­ny repro­duced this effect in the audio ver­sion by chang­ing the posi­tion of the micro­phone and the record­ing vol­ume. If you lis­ten to Diary on head­phones (which I rec­om­mend), you’ll hear Cage’s silken voice first behind your left ear, then in front of you and then, dis­con­cert­ing­ly, inside your head.

Much of the time, Cage’s words will feel obscure and poet­ic. And then, as you’re lulled by the rhythm of his voice, he’ll hit you with some­thing as pro­found as a Zen koan. (“The goal is not to have a goal.”) Just sit back and let the words flow over you.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear Joey Ramone Sing a Piece by John Cage Adapt­ed from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake

Watch a Sur­pris­ing­ly Mov­ing Per­for­mance of John Cage’s 1948 “Suite for Toy Piano”

Woody Guthrie’s Fan Let­ter To John Cage and Alan Hov­haness (1947)

Jonathan Crow is a Los Ange­les-based writer and film­mak­er whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hol­ly­wood Reporter, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. You can fol­low him at @jonccrow.


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