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Cage and Event

May 4, 2012

While reading Kwinter’s “Architectures of Time” I am driven into thinking about Cage’s “Empty Words” as an opportunity to tie together several threads of discourse about time and language.

“Empty Words” comes mainly from readings of “Finnegan’s Wake” and the journals of Thoreau (along with studies of other writers/thinkers in the transcendentalist vein). Cage is looking at American naturalist/transcendentalist thought through the lens of Modernism. Everything about the piece is subjected to I Ching operations, the content (taken from the journals to “answer questions”), the placement of text and images on the page, the number of columns across two pages, etc.

So one must ask the question, is “Empty Words” to be approached as a Stochastic piece of music (Xenakis – “an organization of [general algebraic laws] and relations between sonic entities or between functions of sonic entities”)? And if so, are we now at a point where debates between the virtual and the real (reproduction vs invention) are able to inform how one would tackle a work like “Empty Words” which in its intention (if we can speak of intention) or impetus (if we can speak of an impetus or a beginning) is rooted in a Modernist (with a capital M) conception of the world?

Kwinter compares time to the side of a mountain, and the massive 2 1/2 hour episodes of “Empty Words” loom menacingly. How to pay tribute to one of the most influential composers of the 20th century (especially on his centennial) while dealing with the problems Cage himself was struggling with and the problematics of Cage’s work?

It is interesting to me that Cage talks about each part (each letter, each drawing) of this piece in terms of “event” a decade or two before Badiou had written “Being and Event”. Treating each “event” with the full weight of Badiou’s definition gives us another way to read through “Empty Words” which may help to create a performance that takes into account something beyond mere chance operations, randomness, a drive toward “objectivity” or an attempt to move beyond “subjectivity.”

The attempt to make language into music by separating meaning from utterance seems to me to be impossible. In the same way that time cannot be considered a straight line with points extending out through space, meaning within any kind of communication will always be striking out with sticky hands to every subjective observer, stirring up a reaction whether that reaction is “intended” or intended not to be intentional.

Kwinter – “real time is more truly an engine.”

For me “Empty Words” is an engine of meanings and communications as much as a result of various chance operations. I do not intend to narrativize the text (this is a different type of meaning/communication than the one I have in mind), nor to find some kind of truth or “answers” (as Cage puts it) in it. I would rather be open to the notion that each piece of language and drawing (taken also from Thoreau’s journals) has a connection to a feeling and that the arrangement of those feelings is a kind of engine unto itself.

Wish us luck as we tackle the craggy mountain of John Cage.

– Brian McCorkle

2 Comments leave one →
  1. May 22, 2012 8:05 am

    hi brian,
    i liked reading your text on empty words and badiou.
    are you aware of our “empty words” complete recording with sylvia alexandra as a speaker at edition wandelweiser records?
    if you like i can send you a copy.
    antoine beuger

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