Empty Words and (a)political art of John Cage
Jerzy Luty

1. “The demilitarization of language: a serious musical concern

In the 1957 essay Experimental Music John Cage writes: “And what is the purpose of writing music? One is, of course, not dealing with purposes but dealing with sounds. Or the answer must take the form of paradox: a purposeful purposelessness or a purposeless play. This play, however, is an affirmation of life–not an attempt to bring order out of chaos nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply a way of waking up to the very life we’re living, which is so excellent once one gets one’s mind and one’s desires out of its way and lets it act of its own accord.[i]

Before; however, Cage, under the influence of Zen and Eastern philosophy, art theory (especially T.D. Suzuki and A. Coomaraswamy) dispenses with modernist-romantic paradigm of art – importing its function to communicate emotional states and states of affairs, and is satisfied that the essence of musical works should be to “release notes” and make the listener face “real life” – he proceeds through a kind of spiritual transformation. The first reason for “rupture” with tradition is when, intended to convey sadness, “autobiographical” work Perilous Night – a story of misfortune and pain resulting from a failed sex life and the loneliness and terror experienced by a man in the face of the loss of bonds – induces laughter in the audience. It leads Cage to a more general reflection on the contemporary society and the communication crisis that is digesting it [ii]: “Since words, when they communicate, have no effect, it dawns on us that we need a society in which communication is not practiced, in which words become nonsense as they do between lovers, in which words become what they originally were: trees and stars and the rest of primeval environment. The demilitarization of language: a serious musical concern.”[iii]

2. Empty Words

An example of the work, in which Cage undertakes the realization of such an eccentrically formulated aesthetic idea (the demilitarization of language) is the text of Empty Words (1973-1974), created through a random conversion of excerpts from H.D. Thoreau’s Journal[iv].

The very design of the text is significant. It is constructed of four parts, and as it progresses, it becomes more and more fragmented. The first part consists of individual phrases, words, syllables and letters selected at random from the thirteen volumes of diaries written by Walden’s author, the second contains only single words, and the third is limited to random clusters of phonemes. In the fourth part we do not come across anything resembling any known form of linguistic communication, with the exception of single letters and moments of silence, which together form the vocalization of the work: clear sound.

According to Kutnik, Cage’s writing method in Empty Words is based on the fact that it uses Thoreau’s text “as the source of verbal and topographic sound material, treating it as a non-hierarchical set of items of equal worth to prioritize in a completely arbitrary (i.e. unintentional) manner, without the need to preserve the internal structural relationships and dependencies that exist in the original,” and that completely broken down are “logical and grammatical (semantic and syntactic) relationships that determine the ability of language to communicate meaning” [v]. Weiss, in turn, points out that this peculiar “trajectory of textual disintegrationrefers to the word formation strategy built on the basis of achievements, on the one hand, modern linguistics (in particular the phonetic analysis and Jakobson’s morphemic structure of language), and on the other hand modern poetry (from Zaum, Joyce’s Dadaism, through Lettrism, Fluxus and concrete poetry), adding to the aesthetics of a kind of ethical imperative, namely to release language from the domination of the syntax so as to liberate the meaning, sound and form from figures of thought imposed from above[vi].

It is plain to see the impact of Dadaism in Empty Words, the more so because Cage described himself as an heir to Tobey and Duchamp[vii]. Dada as a “state of mind” (the term from Richard Hulsenbeck’s 1918 manifesto), more than a purely artistic movement, as anti-art, stressed the importance of chaos, irrationality, chance, and absurd, seeing in them the trait of humanism, drawing attention to the falseness and danger of stagnant morals, politics, and art[viii].

Cage’s relationships with Dadaism may not be so obvious, were it not for his longtime acquaintance with Duchamp, which turned into a close intimacy at the end of life of Fountain’s author. When after the death of Fountain’s author’s in 1968, Cage was asked to create a work dedicated to his friend’s memory, he created a series of lithographs and a set of eight Plexiglas plates covered with words, fragments of words and single letters selected at random from the dictionary. The piece, entitled Not Wanting to Say Anything About Marcel,does not convey any intended content and cannot be considered as referring to any other text. Kutnik writes: “Verbal material is used here only as an element of visual space, although the lack of a clearly identified reference dimension, paradoxically, makes the work much more eloquent, than would a conventional eulogy or elegy” [ix] This “eloquent” silence, apart from the overt repetition of “dada gesture,” points to something that will become Cage’s trademark: a new author’s attitude in relation to works and a new concept of reception. According to it work of art is understood as a place “to merge horizons” of the creator and the recipient and reaches its final shape as a result of recipient’s meaning creating inventiveness. This assumption also fits the more general aesthetic strategy, allowing the sounds and letters to obtain full autonomy and identity by loosening their links (or by a complete break) with imposed systems, theories, and “Beethovens.” And all of this to release contents previously unspoken by the receiver (as a result of binding by numerous “corsets”), often quite “eloquent.”

Let’s return for a moment to Empty Words. Cage’s instructions for the work’s performer sound quite succinctly: “A new breath for each new event… Making music by reading out loud. To read. To breathe. IV: equation between letters and silence. Making language saying nothing at all.”[x] The most important seems to be the original strategy of “filling time”, reminiscent of Buddhist meditation (based on control of breathing and the free movement of air)[xi] and a turn towards a new “musical” quality of language, reminiscent of the Heideggerian “language of being”, and establishing the function of the language to be the generation of sound and creation of a pseudo melodic line.

3. Perceiving the sound of meaning

The creative linguistic strategy proposed by Cage, based on the renunciation of semantic context, is in opposition to these concepts of language, which reduce it to structure and content. These concepts are not aware; however, of an obvious dimension of language experience, namely, its pitch. It is an irrefutable fact that both the tone and mood to a large extent determine the significance of what is spoken. People react in the first place to the pitch addressed to them, and then try to capture the content of speech. Not everything can be said with a raised voice, just as some things can only be whispered, while others require a calm voice. Moving along the same path, M. Heidegger argued that the term “speech”, similarly to the equally fundamental to his philosophy Dasein[xii], is somewhat blurred. ”This, what is Dasein, depends on how it is, that is, how it exists.[xiii]” “Speech” also, and it has always been Dasein’s speech – serves Heidegger to describe linguistic behaviors, which only slightly differ from the very existence of the speaker. Man exists in a “pronounced” manner, and human behavior is “pronounced”. The conventional meaning of “existence” and “speaking” is blurred here. Continuing the idea further, Heidegger says that talking is tantamount to hearing. A psychological interpretation of this observation is given by one of the commentators of the author of Being and Time, and it is very much in Cage’s spirit: “The speech of Dasein (…) consists of not only what I say, but also what I hear. The sounds that reach me (a dog barking in the backyard, a mass on the radio that my next-door neighbor is listening to), articulate the world: my place of being. Listening to these sounds I hear in the end my own existence: I am someone who lives in this backyard, in a country where the old women on Sunday listen to a Catholic Mass on the radio”[xiv] Cage undoubtedly would agree with the author of this statement, who repeats after Heidegger: “The man inherently knows how to listen, and this ability denotes our primal openness ” to Being of beings; however, as to how to listen, there is no consent. Rymkiewicz: “This example allows us to say the following: contrary to the claims of physiology and acoustics, we hear the meaning, rather than individual sounds. Barking of the dog is immediately the barking of the dog, and only secondarily may be treated as a sound wave striking the drums of my ear. That’s why, when listening to music [to be accurate: reflective music, for example, the song Ebony from Sartre’s Nausea – editor. JL], we hear a melody at once – that is a sensible whole that arranges the sounds – rather than individual tones, which we then assemble into the whole. The sum of all of these audible wholes and the significance of all these audible meanings – this is my Dasein: the always audible presence.”[xv]. Only on the surface Cage argues for the exact opposite. Although his position is activistic and contingent, as a matter of fact it remains metaphysical. He believes that although hearing is a disposition inherent to our being in the world; disposition, which should be formed (through training and meditation), he also claims that it is shaped by the environment without the participation of consciousness. Cage rejects the situation of conventional melody (“Beethoven”), in which Dasein hearing is directed towards the meanings, because this situation is somewhat forced, designed, modeled, and because of this detached from life – the proverbial “ivory tower”. In his opinion, only through contact with the sounds devoid of designates (such as urban audiosphere) or such, which designates we are not able to grasp, although objectively they exist – Dasein experiences the true nature of reality, while also being shaped by it (Phono-formed). This experience is the supreme value in Cage’s ethical and aesthetic system.

4. Opening to the sound

Cage’s aesthetic strategy is striving to ensure that listening, this original “openness of being”, does not realize itself through the establishment of meanings, but is based on a primal human disposition that is “listening skills”. Cage’s turn towards audiosphere is revealed in the majority of his compositions from the period of interpretative aleatorism (Concerto, Atlas, Empty Words), primarily in tape works – sound collages, created from pieces of tapes put together, which lengths are determined by random operations. Among the sounds recorded on tape can be found: the sounds of the city, sounds of the countryside, electronic sounds, the sounds produced by hand (manually-produced sounds), including instrumental music, sounds generated on the basis of breath (wind-produced sounds), including singing and so called small sounds, so quiet and subtle, that to hear them, they should be given a microphone and amplification. An example of “works on tape” are, among others, Williams Mix (1952-1953), Fontana Mix (1958), Song books (1970), Etcetera (1973), Roaratorio, an Irish circus on Finnegans Wake (1979). In these works, Cage seeks to gradually deprive audible sounds of their signification designates and, consequently, to deprive them of meaning. This is accompanied with encouragement to focus on “sounds alone.”

The experience offered to his listeners by Cage is of an intuitive and affective character. Dick Higgins calls it “eroticism of fusion” – its result should be a “merging of horizons”, a variant of flow, in which the artist and the recipient reach a state of anarchic harmony, creating (unintentionally) a type of an anarchist society in miniature[xvi]. Cage through the creation of his acousmatic compositions desires that in the face of something that only requires acceptance, the “always audible presence” directed towards the “wholeness of audible meanings” was pushed out of balance, deprived of confidence and stable ground. Cage refers here to Suzuki, who claims that the Man of the West must say something, he must theorize or intellectualize about his specific experience, must originates from the sphere of feeling toward a series of analysis[xvii]
In accordance with Cage’s instructions, Empty Words reading time should be measured out (the calculations including half-hour breaks between each part), so that the last part begins with the advent of dawn. Then all the doors and windows are to be opened, allowing the sounds of the morning to sneak into the room. Or rather, for our ears to penetrate to the outside. James Pritchett, author of The Music of John Cage, listening to a song performed live by Cage on the radio, following the author’s instructions, experiences a kind of mystical revelation and notes: ” When Cage performed such a reading over the radio in 1981, I did as he suggested in my own apartment. The bird songs mingled with his own vocalizations — inside and out, everyone was singing together.”[xviii] When Christopher Fox’s voice read the fourth part of Empty Words in an almost completely deserted St. Paul’s Hall, beginning to mix with the refreshing breeze of dawn on Saturday February 4, 2006 in Huddersfield in York County, similar (though not equivalent) experience accompanies the author of this dissertation.

5. Empty Words – live

The best known, presented by Cage and recorded on tape, performance of Empty Words was held in December 1977 at the Teatro Lirico in Milan.[xix] Over a four-hour long recording, in which Cage reads the third and fourth part of the work, is full of surprising effects.

Initially, Cage’s rhythmic and steady voice, chanting fragmented words, single letter and letter clusters created at random, is accompanied with a mood of silence and concentration within the audience. However, in time, in response to the incomprehensible message coming from the scene, sounds of impatience, shouts of disapproval, ostentatious coughing as well as loud attempts to quiet the “intruders” move to the foreground. After more or less half an hour of shouting turns into a continuous, uninterrupted, cacophonous clamor from which you can pick out the sounds of laughter, shouts, jeers, whistles, curses, insults, demonstrations of indignation, the buzz of conversations, arguments, yawning, humming, steps, and loud demonstrations of political views, choral singing, the sounds of bickering, and from time to time, rhythmic clapping and stomping. Thoughtful, precise and devoid of expression Cage’s voice reading the text is barely audible, to some extent drowned in the somewhat primitive expression of spontaneously responding audience. Our attention is diverted from John Cage, author and performer, and instead our ears are directed towards the accompanying environment. Over the next three and a half hours of recording, the leading role of the performance (lecture? concert?) is played by the gathered in the theater audience. The audience is in the centre of the stage, and the most we learn from the recording is about them. We are privy to the prevailing atmosphere of admirers of Italian experimental art in the second half of the 70s (it can be to some degree of probability assumed that such a crowd was in the audience), what people are arguing about, what political views they held, what was fashionable; we recognize different kinds of temperaments and learn what then antagonized the audience, as well as made them laugh, uncomfortable, angry. What we hear is the result of Cage’s fully intended procedure. “However, chance operations are not mysterious sources of ››the right answers‹‹. They are a means of (…) freeing the ego from its taste and memory, its concern for profit and power, of silencing the ego so that the rest of the world has a chance to enter into the ego’s own experience.”[xx]

“Demilitarization of language” – the release of language from the imprisonment of syntax and meaning-creating duty, in Cage’s thought is united with the ideals of individual freedom, “the silencing of the ego,” conflict-free interpretation of reality (Buddhism) and the attitude of renunciation of force and nonviolence. The compulsion to create meaningful linguistic communication is transferred from the artist to the audience, who completely surprised by this turn of events, reacts with fear, disgust, and finally violence. Some viewers (listeners) stubbornly demand a refund of money for the tickets – curses and threats are uttered – because they do not accept a situation in which they are turned into the main character. After all, they didn’t pay for someone leaving them to themselves, but for someone to be “occupied” by them, someone to “occupy” them, someone to show them the way, give meaning to their “being in the theatre”. They do not accept a situation in which the value of traditional language communication is removed and instead of content they receive a free space to fill and how they would do this depends only on their own inventiveness. This situation causes impatience in them, a kind of panic, similar to the one experienced by Willy in Beckett’s Happy days:
“The fear so great, Certain days, of finding oneself … left, with hours still to run, before the bell for sleep, and nothing more to say, and nothing more to do”[xxi] (Beckett, 1976:27)

Surprisingly, however, after some time, a part of the audience relaxes. A new situation begins to produce positive emotions. People full of joyous creativity seem willing to take advantage of the opportunities given and simply manifest their presence. Perhaps the places where they ordinarily reside do not give them such opportunities. School, work, home, street, impose upon them the obligation of standardization, rationalization and authority and exercise boundless control over them. Perhaps their being in the theater, “being-in-the-world”, leads to a decision to treat it as an opportunity and a blessing. Suddenly, they cease to be frightened by the time spent singing, shouting ceases and generating a variety of strange sounds that do not resemble any known form of rational communication, but are a satire of traditional communication and aesthetic convention. In fact, they are much more than satire – they are an encouragement to creatively rethink the human life and the spontaneous rejection of the rules guiding it. In the name of free space-time continuum, anarchistic fun, purposeless play and meaningless phrases.

6. Formulas of anarchism

I’m an anarchist, same as you when you’re telephoning, turning on/off the lights, drinking water

J. Cage, “A Year from Monday”, p. 53

According to Kostelanetz[xxii], Cage’s art is characterized by fuzzy, non-hierarchical and non-linear structures, and his works are mostly built of elements with no beginning or end, none of which, additionally, dominate over the others. The political originality of the author of Anarchy, in the opinion of this author, depends on the fact that his radical ideas are not enclosed in the content but in the forms of his works. For example, characteristic of all his works for the orchestra is that they do not allow for the presence of the conductor. Thus, this work implies that both in music and outside it, it is possible to create social mechanisms, which will also function without the participation of “conductors”, without leaders or “bosses”. In other words, the form of his art, the form of presentation is the picture of ideal social order. In the case of Number Pieces – dozens of compositions written by Cage during the last six years of life – a utopian community is formed by the members of the band performing the piece, the audience present at the performance, and the very sounds that make up the work – they are not driven by any overarching idea, their movements are not directed by a conductor, and the path that they are travelling imposes a minimum number of restrictions. “Insert quote: That they [performers] would have no common idea, they would be following no common law. The one thing that they would be in agreement about would be something that everyone is in agreement about, even the masses (…) And that is, what time it is. They would agree that the clock is correct.[xxiii]” It produces something that is actually a kind of microcosm of an anarchist society – adds the author of Four.

The political nature of Cage’s creative decisions, according to Kostelanetz, is also reflected in his denunciation of power and domination under any guise. First-of-all, his scores are structured in such a way as to encourage within the performers a greater than usual freedom of interpretation. There are no “the only correct ways” of their execution, and the musicians should be guided only by the comments contained in the instructions accompanying the scores (or being scores)[xxiv]. Secondly, when Cage writes music for bands, he never makes any of the performers stand out, even if he is a member of the group, thus opposing the conventional forms of hierarchy, such as a “soloist with the accompaniment of the group.” Thirdly, Cage extends the principle of equality to the materials that he uses also. Not only are all the notes equal, but so are all the instruments, regardless of their rank in the musical tradition (e.g. piano and radio). Fourthly, Cage exhibits his music both in the gymnasiums and in opera houses, assuming that each location is equally good and reasonable.

Perceiving Cage as a spokesman for political anarchism and social change seems to be reasonable in relation to his views from the 80s, or from the period just before his death, when he was writing Overpopulation and the arts. Many critics are willing to take this aspect of his work, seeing in it the values of art transferred onto the values of life. This way of seeing may lead to certain simplifications, in which the real sense of Cage’s anarchistic adventure may disappear. In the previously cited essay, Kostelanetz points out that Cage’s anarchistic project is more fundamental than political anarchism, differentiating it from radical Beck’s and Malina’s Paradise Now Living Theatre, or from politically engaged works of Frederic Rzewski (created using the techniques of repetition and series), who’s Hallelujah Chorus and the Attaca Cage once described as “just as intrusive as government is sometimes intrusive”[xxv]. Eldered[xxvi] also sees in Cage an anarchist that is more “fundamental” and less involved, whose work does not easily translate into policy and social change, because politics is primarily a question of “dealing with social problems, i.e, a preoccupation with that which exists in respect to business” An-archism interpreted as anti-governmentalism is inevitably dependent on the government. This, which applies to political struggle, is assumed at the same time to be endowed with will and striving for something entity that is entangled in a conflict of interest. So, it is more than doubtful that Cage’s possible political anarchism, resigning from intentionality in the creative act, fits with his more fundamental and radical anarchism that is based on the surrender of the techne art (artistic craftsmanship). In this context, every political view should be considered as secondary. The anarchism in the sense of “letting sounds be sounds”, and things be what they are, is not directed against art, but it is a renunciation of anticipation in art. As the surrender and renunciation of control it is a step backwards from a politics based on business. It is, therefore, likely a renunciation of politics, leaving it to its own fate.
An interesting voice is articulated by S. Morawski as to the form of Cage’s anarchism. In the text written in the mid-70s[xxvii], long before such manifestations of Cage’s anarchist attitude as works from Number Pieces cycle from the 80s[xxviii], and in particular Overpopulation and Art and Anarchy, the Polish philosopher places Cage’s anarchism near Artaud’s worldview. His opinion is supported by magical-esoteric sources of Cage’s ideas (Suzuki’s influence, Meister Eckhart) and the abandonment of the socio-political considerations and the belief in the mythology of cosmic rhythms, particularly as a result of drug experimentation (Cage’s interest in mycology). As the differences in both attitudes Morawski lists: Buddhist-Appolonian assumption of maximal adapt to the natural cosmic rhythms and enlightenment through contemplation (Cage) versus Dionysian tragedy of existence in Heliogabalus’ author. Polish aesthetician notices the mystical affinity of Cage’s anarchism (and the “rather verbal his spirit of his revolt”), but it does not bother him to define his position as: antidoctrinism, antisystematism, anti-intellectualism and anti-idealism, and to place Cage together with Read and Dubuffet[xxix], and in another text, to include him within the most mature (and the least frequently represented) stage of development of anarcho-artisitc attitude: within the para-anarchists[xxx] (among them: Beuys, Beck, Brook). According to Morawski, the maturity of Cage’s anarchism can be seen most clearly in the symbiosis of anarchist credo with the idea of abandonment of art. “The concept of >art <in Cage’s notes functions exclusively as a synonym for creative experiences in the continuum of reality, where the roles of artists and audiences, the status of the work, the separateness of special materials and techniques, and material world and daily activities – is constantly blurred. (…) Cage does not perceive himself in any way as an artist, as someone special.”[xxxi] It is no secret that in Overcrowding and art Cage finally gives up the concept of “art” in favor of “life forms”.

Apart from some discrepancies in interpretations of Cage’s anarchism, one can venture to say that the work of the American composer from the late 40s is a constant striving to overcome prejudices and habits (aesthetic, mental) that hinder the recipient of art in direct, unfettered experience of reality. Cage desires that the world appears as it is accidentally placed down by sound phenomena, interpenetrating “life forms” and not as art forms filtered through the dualistic categories of the human mind. This certainty is accompanied, on the one hand, by the idea of depersonalization of the creative process, carried out successfully by the introduction of random operations to the process of composition (creation based on the “judgments” of the early Chinese book I Ching), and the almost complete automation of this process and decoupling it from the subjective preferences and tastes of the author, and on the other hand, zen-like asceticism, based on silencing and disciplining of inner “me.”

Difficulty in understanding Cage’s artistic intentions, for example, by serialists (Boulez, Stockhausen, Nono), rely on the fundamental for the creators of this trend – based on the idea of rationality, the audible, “logic” of the consequences and the organization of the route – opposition to the deprivation of the creative act of the ground rules based on the rationalist tradition of the West. Disagreement is accompanied by an almost total inability to accept such a concept of art, which waives the artist’s privileged position in society, and artistry and complexity have no effect on the value of the work and do not provide a reason for glory and applause to an artist. Activity aimed at strengthening one’s position in the “art world” and the absolute lack of preparation for its eventual abandonment, for example, in the name of life or the idea of “purposeless play”, is what fundamentally distinguishes the European composers from Cage.

The radical selflessness of Cage’s intentions, his total renunciation of his quasi-divine mania, is what which, combined with the concept of indetermination of the composition annoys serialists the most.

7. Becoming Oneself

In an interesting essay titled Becoming oneself, the German philosopher Wolfgang Welsch recalls Pliny the Elder’s anecdote about an ancient painter named Protegenes[xxxii]. This artist wanted to paint a panting dog with froth coming from the mouth. Despite numerous attempts to paint the foam, the image remained unsatisfactory. Desperate and frustrated the painter angrily grabbed a sponge (which served him so far for erasing the failed fragments) and threw it at the picture. To his great surprise, the sponge left behind the best picture of foam he could have imagined. Pure coincidence? Not for Welsch, who in the creative lacking intention act sees a hidden law: Due to contingent events – and perhaps after you have lost all hope of ever achieving your goal – you may wonderously achieve what you were after for such a long time. Perhaps it was not your project that was wrong, but the intentional, the direct way in which you tried to realize it[xxxiii]“. Using intentionless measures as an antidote to artistic impotence is a strategy which, according to Welsch, can be attributed to many artists (aside from Cage: Leonardo da Vinciemu, Max Ernst). Writing about the work of the author Lecture on Nothing, who he calls “the most well-known supporter of artistic and personal contingency”, Welsch states: “Insert quote: In such cases contingency is a strategy to achieve what one couldn’t achieve by intentional means alone. One has to shift to non-intentional ones. This may – via and alongside artistic creation – also imply a recommendation for becoming oneself. (…)Once you are no longer exclusively focused on your goal, but open to contingent events and elements too, then you may get, through just this sidestepping approach, what you were unable to achieve before[xxxiv]“.

Thus, the true meaning of creation is, according to Cage, the exploration and the acceptance of everyday experience through the contemplation of the sphere of everyday life, with the simultaneous depersonalization of this experience; happiness arisen as a result of an awareness of depersonified participation in the sublime mystery of everyday life (flow), here affirmation takes on a specific form of ” purposeful purposelessness[xxxv]; desire to” be yourself “and crossing the barriers of one’s own body, one’s own perception, so to speak, in spite of ubiquitous, overpowering flow of information (at a rate that is not conductive to deep reflection, but, for example, mindless consumption), and finally attempts at disrupting this flow through the deconstruction of official cultural messages, their “demilitarization”, and finally giving them unexpected, paradoxical meanings. Cage finally emerges as a radical pragmatist (Reatleck)[xxxvi].

Cage’s concept Chance & Indeterminacy period – based on the introduction of indeterminacy to the compositions, both in structural and executive terms – is aimed in the opposite direction to the effort of the modernist artist. Cage wants to remove the artist’s personality from the creative process, so that his ego, the whole “artistic” reservoir that may indicate the subjectivist nature of the resulting work, had no effect on its final shape. “New music: new listening. Not an attempt to understand something that is being said, for, if something were being said, the sounds would be given the shapes of words. Just an attention to the activity of sounds [xxxvii]” – writes Cage in the Experimental Music (1957), announcing, as it were, the direction of his future accomplishments. The target of his musical creativity is revealed this way, and it is: striving for the elimination of the intentional element of the creative process and to show the fullness of sound as the natural phenomena of material reality, without assigning to it anything that would go beyond the quality of sound. ” I think one of the things that has happened is that it’s become clear that we can be — not just with our minds but with our whole being — responsive to sound, and that that sound doesn’t have to be the communication of some deep thought. It can be just a sound.[xxxviii]“.

Perhaps the most important aesthetic element of the author of 4’33” is the postulate of “the denunciation from communication”. Cage, an artist and active member of the New York bohemia, does not mind that the songs he writes are not in fact his, that they do not offer to the listener the evidence of his artistic craftsmanship and do not exude the remarkable personality of their author (sound arrangements are created either on the basis of random configuration of points, which are the result of dice throws, such as Music of Changes, or a compilation of recordings of randomly selected locations and types of phono-sphere such as Raoratorio, or random radio airwaves in Imaginary Landscape no. 4). He is not trying to convince the listener that his reservoir of cultural habits (music education), of quasi-political decisions (ideology, worldview), or other subjective choices (taste, connoisseurship), would have given the composition more value, just because it would have been of intentional character. Cage did not believe the high rank of the achievements of “brilliant artist” or “inspired demiurge” to be a compelling reason to aesthetic categorization of world glittering with infinite treasures (in particular the world of sound), with its diversity and randomness (as opposed to harmony and uniformity). He is aware at the same time of the fact that turning to these treasures can bring much more benefit than focusing on one’s emotions: “free space” of freedom of movement (flow), learning acceptance, which will result in change of a-technic, an-archic, post-cognitive attitude, in relation to the problems faced by the world, based on inequality, with no synergy, due to a crowded world. Whereas it seems that only such a voice of Cage is to some degree political.


[i] J. Cage, Experimental Music, in: Silence. Lectures and Writings, Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, CT, 1961, p. 12.

[ii] The time period when most of Cage’s creative activity took place includes the early phase of the Cold War in the 1950s, then the war in Vietnam and the student revolts of the 60’s.

[iii] J. Cage, The Future of Music, in: Empty Words, Middletown, 1979, p. 184.

[iv] H. D. Thoreau is an author that appears in the context of a few other of Cage’s works, for example Song Books (1970), Mureau [Music of Thoreau] (1970), Essay (1988).

[v] J. Kutnik, John Cage. Przypadek paradoksalny, Lublin, 1993, s. 86.

[vi] Cf. Allen S. Weiss, Introduction to Empty Words (Parte III), CD.

[vii]Musicage. Cage Muses on Words, Art., Music, Retallack J. (review), University Press Of New England, Hanover, NH and London 1996, p. 101-103.

[viii] Cf. S. Morawski, Anarchizm, dada, Artaud, “Dialog” 1976:7.

[ix] J. Kutnik, John Cage. Przypadek paradoksalny, Lublin 1993, p. 84-85.

[x] J. Cage, from: Allen S. Weiss, Introduction to Empty Words (Parte III), CD, p. 9.

As in Cage’s famous koan: “If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, try it for eights, sixteen, thirty-two, and so on. Eventually one discovers that it’s not boring at all, but very interesting”, [J. Cage, Silence, op. cit., p.93]

[xii] Dasein – being, human being

[xiii] M. Heidegger, from: W. Rymkiewicz, Ktoś i Nikt. Wprowadzenie do lektury Heideggera [Someone and No one. An Introduction to Heidegger], Wrocław 2002, p. 77-78.

[xiv] W. Rymkiewicz, Ktoś i Nikt. Wprowadzenie do lektury Heideggera [Someone and No one. Introduction to Heidegger], Wrocław 2002, p. 134.

[xv] Ibidem, p. 134-135.

[xvi] Por. R. Haskins, Anarchism and the Everyday: Cage’s Number Pieces, robhaskins.com.

[xvii] D. T. Suzuki, Zen Buddhism: Selected Writings of D.T. Suzuki, Doubleday, New York: 1956; pol. Wykłady o buddyzmie zen, trans. M. Macko, Poznań 2000, p. 14.

[xviii] Za: J. Pritchett, Something like a hidden glimmering, www.princeston.edu/pritchett/html, p. 2

[xix] John Cage, Empty Words (Parte III), ampere6, 2CD.

[xx] J. Cage, Empty Words, Middletown, 1979, p. 5.

[xi] S. Beckett, Happy Days, London, Faber and Faber, 1976.

[xxii] R. Kostelanetz, The anarchist art of John Cage, http://www.sterneck.net/john-cage/kostelanetz/index.php (25.01.2012).

[xxiii] Musicage: Cage Muses on Words, Art, Music. John Cage in Conversation with Joan Retallack, ed. Joan Retallack, Middletown, 1996, p. 50-51.

[xxiv]The diversity in musical score notation is of itself an independent subject in terms of Cage’s works. In addition to traditional scores he used the so-called. graphical notations, and, for example, loosely written comments on the implementation of the work, notes made to order by specific artists, and even letters to critics and friends, or quotations from the works of favorite writers were considered a musical score..

[xxv] R. Kostelanetz, The anarchist art of John Cage.

[xxvi] M. Eldered, Heidegger’s Hölderlin and John Cage, www.webcom.com/artefact/heicagen.html.

[xxvii] Morawski S., Dubuffet, Cage, Beck: Światopoglądy, „Dialog” 1977:4.

[xxviii] Cf. R. Haskins, Anarchism and the Everyday: Cage’s Number Pieces, www.robhaskins.com.

[xxix] S. Morawski, Dubuffet, Cage, Beck, p. 110-111.

[xxx] S. Morawski, Nurt główny aktualnych postaw anarchoartystycznych, „Rocznik Historii Sztuki”, v. XII, Ossolineum 1981.

[xxxi] S. Morawski, Dubuffet, Cage, Beck, p. 111.

[xxxii] W. Welsch, Becoming oneself, in Subject – Author – Experience: The Subject in the Expanse of Art, Bratislava: Soros Center for Contemporary Arts, 1999, 11-33.

[xxxiii] Ibidem.

[xxxiv] Ibidem, p. 20.

[xxxv] Purposeful, because arising as a result of random procedures planned with maximum accuracy; purposelessness, because the configurations of sounds resulting from these procedures are always random.

[xxxvi] Por. J. Retallack, Poethics of a Complex Realism, in M. Perloff, Ch. Junkerman, Composed in America, University Of Chicago Press, 1994, p. 242-274.

[xxxvii] J. Cage, Silence, op. cit., p. 10.

[xxxviii] John Cage in conversation with Morton Feldman, from: J. Pritchett, “Something like a hidden glimmering”. John Cage and recorded sound, Princeston, 1994, http://www.rosewhitemusic.com/cage/texts/glimmering.pdf.