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.
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.