Criticism — From the January 2016 issue

There are Other Forces at Work

John Cage comes to Halberstadt

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On August 9, 1974, Richard Nixon became the first American president to resign from office. I was playing in the street in San Luis Obispo when I heard. I had been raised to dislike Nixon and to consider him a buffoon, but I was a child: all I really knew was that the bad guy had lost. Still, my friends and I somehow got the news, and we jumped up and down shouting giddily — seven years old and caught up in the zeitgeist.

Illustration by Luke Best

Illustration by Luke Best

On the day Nixon delivered his resignation speech, John Cage gave the first public reading, in Boulder, Colorado, of the fourth part of “Empty Words,” a piece for unaccompanied voice. “Empty Words” draws its text from Thoreau’s journals and subjects the source to chance operation: over the course of its four movements, comprehensible phrases are reduced first to words, then to syllables, and eventually to single letters. The silences between sounds grow longer and longer as the piece progresses; by the fourth movement, the audience is watching a person sitting motionless on a stage, intoning lone consonants or vowels very slowly and deliberately, pausing between utterances for as long as twelve minutes while drawings by Thoreau are projected onto a screen behind him.

Fifteen hundred people showed up to watch Cage at the Naropa Institute in Boulder. A radio interview given just before the performance found the composer in a playful mood, predicting that people might walk out. On the spur of the moment, he decided to perform with his back to the audience — he’d “recalled that the Bodhidharma sat facing a wall in China for ten years.” The Naropa Institute had been founded by a Tibetan monk in exile; Cage saw a connection to make.

Later, he described the crowd’s reaction:

I had an astonishing experience recently with the “Empty Words” . . . after twenty minutes, an uproar began in the audience, and it was so intense, and violent, that the thought entered my mind that the whole activity was not only useless, but that it was destructive. I was destroying something for them, and they were destroying something for me. The social situation was really miserable; however, it divided the audience, and at one point a group of people came to protect me. Things were thrown, people came up on stage to perform, and it was generally an upsetting situation.

I want to attribute that violent response to the tenor of the times: everything was up in the air, nothing felt certain, the people needed release. But Cage would perform “Empty Words” again, in Milan three years later, to even greater tumult; the audience rioted for the duration of the performance, some two and a half hours. “One person came up and took my glasses off to keep me from reading, and also the light that I was reading by was smashed,” Cage said. “I didn’t see how it could be termed successful in terms of my work, since it was impossible for anyone to hear what I was doing; but it was a kind of social occasion.”

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’s novel, Wolf in White Van, was published in 2014 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. He sings and plays guitar in the Mountain Goats.

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April 2019

Works of Mercy

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