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Empty Words: Writings '73-'78 by John Cage

Empty Words: Writings '73-'78 (edition 1981)

by John Cage

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Title:Empty Words: Writings '73-'78
Authors:John Cage
Info:Wesleyan University Press
Collections:Read but unowned
Tags:music, cage, thoreau, morris graves, joyce, finnegans wake

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Empty Words: Writings '73-'78 by John Cage



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The longest thing here is "Empty Words" itself, a four-part text derived from Thoreau's Journals. The language is minced increasingly finely through the parts, but even at the start it is non-syntactical (introduction: "Syntax: arrangement of the army (Norman Brown). Language free of syntax: demilitarization of language"). I don't know what to think about it because I don't now how to read it. I know how to listen to it: there are recordings of Cage reading it, and I have heard several of them, and I like them very much. Cage's voice is attractive (deep, quiet, calm) and you hear it as a piece of non-intentional, chance-determined music; on a number of recordings (notably one made in Milan in 1977), you also hear shouts of protest from the audience, which connects the piece to the world and makes listening to it a social and historical experience as well as a musical one. Listening to "Empty Words" is fine. Reading it is a different matter. It is alright reading other non-syntactical texts - Kurt Schwitters, say, or Bob Cobbing - because they take sounds and phonemes as the basis for a new and unfamiliar but coherent language analogous to that used in other poetry or in music. But the chance procedures that Cage has used to make his text make it difficult to get any kind of grip on it. There are no patterns. Should I read it through slowly, taking in each sound (should I read it out loud or silently?)? Or should I read it quickly, getting an impression of it and not worrying about the detail? Or should I let my eye move around each page horizontally and vertically, like a text of combined English, Arabic and Japanese? Or should I just take each page as a whole, treat it more like a work of visual art than a work of literature? Scattered through the text are drawings by Thoreau, which presumably (like the original text which Cage transforms) signifify something, but they are so pared down that shorn of their context they just look like abstract shapes; some could be letters from an undiscovered language. In some ways the text resembles scores by Cage like Winter Music or parts of the Concert for Piano and Orchestra where scraps of notation are dotted around the page; but with his scores the notation is directed towards a particular end, which is to make sound, and if you know the rules by which one is transformed into the other then you read it according to those rules, or at least bearing those rules in mind, conscious of sometimes breaking them. Here I don't know what the rules are, or if there are any rules. I don't think Cage's own readings give all the answers, I feel that (like any performance of a fixed score) they limit the text, pin it down by ruling out other possibilities. I can't remember who it was that said in Mallarmé's poetry the words react to one another not syntactically but chemically. I feel something similar might is happening hear, but on the level of the letter rather than the word. And perhaps the work that "Empty Words" most closely resembles is Un coup de dés. But that is made from sentences, and that is a big difference.

I have seen works of visual art that have surprised and confused me, but I don't remember ever seeing one that I felt I didn't know how to look at; sometimes it has later turned out that I didn't know, but that's another thing. Not knowing how to look at this piece of writing (a form where "looking" is not usually an issue at all) indicates success. The rest of the book is relatively more conventional. The other long pieces are the second Writing through Finnegans Wake and the Series re Morris Graves, which is largely anecdotal. The short piece How the Piano Came to be Prepared is an important source of Cage biography. And it is written in conventional, militarized, English. But as a whole, this is the volume where Cage comes closest to his idea of "book as music". ( )
  stilton | Dec 7, 2017 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0819560677, Paperback)

Writings through James Joyce's Finnegan's Wake, Norman O. Brown, and "The Future of Music."

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:24:11 -0400)

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