[22. Pi / Grace, Nine in the First Place, Nine in the Third Place, Six in the Fourth Place. Changing To: 35. Chin / Progress.]
Today I’ve moved on to Cage’s penultimate collection of essays from Wesleyan University Press, Empty Words, and I am reading through the essay of the same name. This just happened to coincide with two wonderful recent performances of the lecture (which lasts approximately 11 hours and 30 minutes); the first organized by Laura Kuhn and the John Cage Trust at Bard College, and the second this last weekend in Brooklyn by the Varispeed Collective. Information can be found HERE and HERE.
Both performances followed Cage’s instructional format, which, much like his influential staging of Satie’s Vexations in 1963, spans an entire evening, ending at sunrise with the final movement. “Empty Words” is a continuation of the ideas Cage explored in “Mureau,” where he subjected portions of the collected journals of Henry David Thoreau to chance procedures, creating a constant flow of unrelated observations on sound and silence in the pastoral setting of Concord, Massachusetts. However, as Chris Shultis mentions, “Empty Words” does away with complete sentences, eliminating some of the flowing sentence structure. I mentioned in my reading of “Mureau” how pleasant I felt the text read, like a gentle perusal of favorite passages from Thoreau’s Journal, and I agree that “Empty Words” is much more disjunctive, but I don’t think that necessarily matters.
“Empty Words” represents the next step in Cage’s effort to slowly dissolve grammar and syntax through chance operations, focusing instead on the sounds of syllabic structures and combinations themselves, thus making music out of poetic recitation. He does so in phases with “Empty Words.” The first movement uses phrases, syllables, words and letters, the second only words, letters, and syllables, the third syllables and letters, and the fourth only uses letters drawn randomly from the journal. The idea Cage was stressing here was a progression from familiar to unknown through an evening of meditative immersion. Audience members sat through these long recitations, slowly ignoring sentence structure in favor of the actual sounds of the words, and then, as words dissolved away, focusing only on the sounds themselves: Cage’s ultimate reductionist goal of the thing-in-itself, or "sounds as sounds."
Mode records has a wonderful new release from their vaults of Cage performing “Empty Words” in conjunction with “Music for Piano,” recorded in 1991, and the juxtaposition of the two pieces exemplifies the musicality of written text Cage was exploring:
The title “Empty Words” was inspired by a conversation Cage had with Oriental scholar William McNaughton, who described the classification of classical Chinese language according to two categories. The first, a “full” word has a specific referential meaning, while the second category of “empty” words included conjunctions and pronouns; items that refer only to other terms. Thus Cage culled two meanings from this concept; words can have no “meaning” simply because they are reduced to a form beyond syntax, and instead of having a meaning they are merely a sound, a phoneme uttered by the human voice.
The next question then is how these performative texts relate to any sense of musicality in general. As with several other texts in this project, this “reading through” was more a reading aloud through, (although not all of it according to the original time span, I do have other work to do on Mondays…) and thus I set out, on a hot Monday in my cramped apartment in Echo Park, fans ablaze, with the remnants of a summer cold (which helped to reverberate the sounds of the words no less) and read aloud some portions of “Empty Words” to an audience of the landlord’s dog and myself.
Out of all the performative texts I’ve read through so far, this one feels, perhaps next to the “Song Books” excerpt in M, the most musical in an abstract sense. The first section has remnants of “Mureau,” in that I occasionally caught moments of introspective reminiscences of Thoreau’s landscapes, but as I progressed, it took all of my effort just to follow the syllables and consonants of the text rather than think about any specific associations these words and syllables might engender. The experience was identical to sight reading music, a skill that requires one to let go to a certain extent and let muscle memory and intuition guide you through.
Granted, recitation is one step removed from intoning or incanting, which, stemming back to the earliest meditative practices and on to the liturgical recitations of the modern Catholic liturgy, create a natural rhythmic rise and fall. I have found that most recordings of Cage’s poetry follow a sort of performance practice that generally aligns with the high recitation style of classical American literature, rising and following at punctuation marks when possible, but often thwarted by the dissolved grammar as the piece progresses.
The final movement, meant to be recited at sunrise, completes the transition from language to music, as Cage describes it, creating a landscape of empty words, syllables, and ideas. The thought behind this structure was, once one has remained within the immersive environment long enough, the sounds of the sunrise would naturally envelop the piece itself, and the end would climax by dissolving into nature itself, leaving off where Cage started, toward something else.
Languages becoming musics, musics becoming theatres; performances; metamorphoses (stills from what are actually movies). At first face to face; finally sitting with one’s back to the audience (sitting with the audience), everyone facing the same vision. Sideways, sideways.