John Cage’s ‘Empty Words’ October 20, 1975

Surprisingly little is written about John Cage these days. My general impression is that people assume that they already know what his work is about, feel that the more publicized Dada-like works which made him a famous renegade really do represent his work, and have concluded that he’s really just an outdated radical anyway. For me, all are misconceptions.

To claim that Cage’s own writings, and the few existing critical essays about him really explain his work is to greatly oversimplify an extremely complex artist. And to continue to characterize him largely by the famous silent piece, a few raucous electronic pieces, and a couple of theatrical ideas is to ignore the bulk of his output. It is to ignore the ‘Song Books,’ the Variations, ‘Winter Music,’ ‘Atlas Ecliptalis,’ ‘Etudes Australis,’ ‘Cheap Imitation,’ ‘Lecture on Nothing,’ ‘Williams Mix,’ ‘Rozart Mix,’ the String Quartet in Four Parts, ‘Speech,’ the Concert for Piano and Orchestra, the ‘Imaginary Landscapes,’ ‘Amores,’ ‘26 Minutes 1.1499 Seconds for a String Player,’ the ‘Suite for Toy Piano,’ and ‘Mureau,’ to mention only works which I am familiar with.

No one really denies anymore that Cage has influenced the course of music more than any other living composer. But few seem willing to admit the obvious fact that the quantity and quality of the works themselves are quite comparable with those of anyone writing music today.

One particularly neglected genre is the compositions Cage makes out of words. He has been particularly active in this area in recent years, though the roots of this concern go back to works like ‘Radio Music’ (1956), ‘Solo for Voice I’ (1958), and the piece for four simultaneous speaking voices called ‘Where Are We Going and What Are We Doing?’ (1960). Working from the premise that all sounds are viable, Cage could not avoid dealing with verbal sounds too, so words kept creeping into his music, as well as his lectures, anecdotes, and articles. But I don’t think it was until the ‘Song Books’ in the late ’60s that he really began dealing directly with verbal material as a compositional means.

Meanwhile, Cage was rediscovering Thoreau, whose sound imagery, political ideas, and love of nature he finds particularly appealing, and began reconstructing Thoreau’s sound imagery into a jumbled text called ‘Mureau.’ The title, of course, is a combination of ‘Music’ and ‘Thoreau,’ and the non-syntactical text really does bring the two very close together, particularly the way Cage himself reads it.

Quite recently the 63-year-old composer completed another reworking of Thoreau’s Journal, a long text in four parts, which he calls ‘Empty Words.’ The work progresses from Part I, which consists of complete words and phrases, though without normal syntax, to Part IV, where literal meaning breaks down completely into unrelated phonemes. Interspersed in all of this are some of Thoreau’s drawings, also taken out of context, so that it is no longer clear what Thoreau intended them to illustrate.

At this point ‘Empty Words’ is still difficult to find, as the parts have been published separately in little magazines. In fact, Part II, published in Big Deal, is the only part I have managed to acquire myself. Even from this limited exposure, however, it is easy to see that, while the words may be empty of the usual kind of syntactical significance, the work itself is quite significant. Not that one would be likely to want to sit down and read it straight through. Like ‘Finnegan’s Wake’ or ‘The Waves’ or ‘The Making of Americans,’ ‘Empty Words’ is not something most people would care to experience from beginning to end. But it is certainly an object to be reckoned with.

At least for me, ‘Empty Words’ is serious browsing material, closer perhaps to the experience of looking at a painting than to that of reading a text. For a while I looked for Thoreau images and mused over accidental word patterns. Later I became more interested in the sound possibilities of the material and tried pronouncing and listening to some of it. Then, as I began to realize how much could be found in only a few lines, I became overwhelmed by the fact that there were 12 pages in all, and that this was only one of the four parts, and that the whole thing had obviously been worked out with great meticulousness and consistency.

A work like this represents a tremendous amount of labor, and I think that is an important point. By now, everyone knows that Cage constructs his works by chance operations, via the I Ching, but I think there is insufficient appreciation for the countless hours of tedious calculations which this method requires. In this case, for example, every single element, sometimes only a single letter, was carefully selected from the Thoreau text by means of random numbers from 1 to 64, and then written down in neat columns in stenographer’s notebooks. Further chance operations were used to determine punctuation, spacing, and other formal elements. By the time one puts together a page or two of text by this method, many hundreds of chance operations are required. And considering that Cage put together four long sections in this way, it is not surprising that the project took him 13 months to complete.

I find it a little hard to imagine a man as inventive as Cage sitting at his desk day after day doing routine work of this sort. But on the other hand, it is also difficult to imagine anyone producing big highly coherent pieces without a great deal of sheer labor and self-discipline. In any case, many of his pieces are the result of a tremendous amount of very tedious work.

There are a few exceptions, perhaps the most remarkable being the 90 different short scores of Cage’s ‘Song Books,’ which contain as much page-to-page invention as anything I can think of. These two volumes abound in original texts, theatrical ideas, curious notations, ordinary composed melodies, and dozens of whimsical inventions of one sort or another, and they were written in only six weeks.

The absence of this kind of invention in most of his works is of course quite purposeful. Cage’s whole philosophy revolves around his desire to deny aesthetic choices of the usual sort and to remain open to all possibilities. So getting his own ego out of the way, and allowing the decisions to flow freely out of a chance system, is quite natural for him. But it is also a tremendously disciplined way of working. And I suspect that much of the strength and value of Cage’s work is a by-product of this discipline.

There are many personal objections one might have to ‘Empty Words,’ for example. One might protest that it is not nice to distort Thoreau’s prose. Another might not like the idea of celebrating an American hero who was an anarchist and who advocated civil disobedience. Another might conclude that since non-syntactical language is meaningless, it is also useless. Another might complain that the sounds of English phonemes are not sufficiently attractive and musical. Others would no doubt find other complaints. But no reasonable person could deny the integrity of the work. No one could find inconsistencies or flaws in the way it was worked out. And I don’t think that anyone could seriously deny that working with Thoreau in this way is a substantial idea with all sorts of musical and literary implications—not to mention political innuendos.