erasing clouds

by Drew Hicks

DE(construct )ED

John Cage:








                notAt evening

                                    right can see

                                         suited to the morning hour


                                           trucksrsq Measured tSee t A

                           ys sfOi w dee e str oris


                                         stkva o dcommoncurious 20


                theeberries flowere r clover


                                                ebyg d e stuffed too

                                                            fewwadeit e

                      a it cs reflection the light

                                up 6 beenitso light[2]


What is this? (Gobbldy-gook; nonsensical; ineffexplicably meaningless; acausal; arrational; atemporal; synchronistically perfect!)



 The opening thunderclap screaming across the page gives way to the seemingly meaningless, thoughtless collection of language.  Why?



                                    It is the language of       .       synchronicity.



The question:  What to do with this language?  Fill in the gaps and search for meaning?  Surround it with more language?  Or can we just listen, let it speak and be heard?


Writing about John Cage can be the equivalent of clarifying a koan or grammatically diagramming a solecism.  John Cage does not come to us prepackaged; his works work simultaneously on differing levels of perception, differing mediums of reception and resist critique as it is commonly practiced in literature, music, and art.  Jackson Mac Low, poet and critic who studied with Cage in the late 50’s, writing of John Cage finds the same problem: “Writing about John Cage is like writing about the ocean.  Writing about any aspect involves inevitably writing about most of the others. (‘And so we hesitate before crossing the great waters.’)”[3]

Despite the beauty found, it is not something easily translated.  Cage’s non-intentional, non-communicative events resist translation into an intentional, communicative discourse, but struggles with Cage are nothing novel.  When John Cage began his work with chance operations as a means of constructing and composing (or as I will attempt to show, deconstructing and decomposing) compositions the concert-going audience did not know how to respond either.  The audience’s traditional ‘signposts’ of meaning had been (de)constructed and (de)composed in such a way that the quality of the event itself was all the audience was encouraged (allowed) to attend to.  Cage was quickly shunned from the academy and the concert-hall[4], quickly marginalized as an “absurdist” or “poser” but this was and is not the case.[5]  Cage’s allotropic compositions, born of a pervasive East-West philosophical coalescence, a communion of the arts, and of a genesis that is wholly Cage and not-Cage concurrently, disseminated artistic conceptions that were young or absent in Western music to that point.  Prominent ideas surrounding Cage’s music are: the rejection of causality and the acceptance of synchronicity; the removal of the self from artistic expression; and the inclusion of nature’s patterning within art.  In Cage’s music we may open our minds in the face of nature, stilling our preconceptions and opening up the possibility of viewing our selves and our usual ways of thinking from an entirely different perspective.

As a means of introduction, we’ll examine a fundamental antecedent to Cage’s work, the Dada art movement, primarily the work of Marcel Duchamp.  In Cage’s book M: Writings 67’-72’ he states in the forward, “I have the example of Marcel Duchamp.  A paper bag, a cigar, my membership card in Czechoslovakia’s mushroom society, anything became a work of art simply because Duchamp was willing to sign it.”[6]  In a lecture that Duchamp gave in 1946, his thoughts on art correspond very closely with Cage’s practice:

The basis of my work during the years just before coming to America in 1915 was a desire to break of forms—to “decompose” them . . . The reduction of a head in movement to a bare line seemed to me defensible. . .. Reduce, reduce, reduce was my thought,--but at the same time my aim was turning inward, rather than toward externals.  And later, following this view, I came to feel an artist might use anything—a dot, a line, the most conventional or unconventional symbol—to say what he wanted to say.[7]


This contention that nothing lies outside of the scope of the artist provides definite links to Cage’s aesthetic though Cage eliminates the concept of saying what he wanted to say:  “I have nothing to say and I am saying it.”  But his aesthetic developed further through the influence of South and East Asian cosmology (through Coomaraswamy, Ramakrishna, Suzuki, William McNaughton, the Lao Tzu et. al.) which contests that it is not man’s place to impose a hierarchy of expression upon a natural world marked by the very absence of hierarchy.[8]  This hierarchy characterized much of the musical tradition that Cage was trying to deconstruct/decompose.

 Through the Common Practice period and Modern Practice period in music history, the composer was a godhead figure hovering above the music.  He/she was often considered to function on a higher artistic, intellectual and moral plane than most.  This privileging of the composer mystified the compositional practice.  So, in order for the common man (Tovey’s “naïve listener”?) to understand the glorified music emanating from the composer’s mind, music moved towards a more and more precise notation; from aspects of tempo and rhythm to articulation and tone quality, all in an effort to give the music a real meaning.  Classical music was (to some extent) the ideal masterpiece for the audience to respond to in a directed way, for the piece was a blueprint containing the signposts for the emotions and meaning intended by the composer.  The audience, with the help of the composer and musicians, needed just to find the intended response. 

John Cage began his development as an artist within that tradition and with his first compositions he remained faithful to it.  This is seen in his initial works for the prepared piano.  In this mode of composition a piano is rigged with spoons, rubber bands, paper etc. placed upon the strings changing the timbre of the note.

When I first placed objects between piano strings, it was with the desire to possess sounds (to be able to repeat them).  But, as the music left my home and went from piano to piano and from pianist to pianist, it became clear that not only are two pianists essentially different from one another, but two pianos are not the same either.  Instead of the possibility of repetition, we are faced in life with the unique qualities and characteristics of each occasion. 


This realization was a turning point of Cage’s compositional style for he realized that the moment cannot be controlled,  “My work since the early ‘fifties has been increasingly indeterminate. . . .  The prepared piano now has a life of its own.”[9]      

As non-possession of sounds increased for Cage, so too did the inclusion (´ la Dadaism) of all sounds.  Cage embraced the absence of hierarchy and fought for the dissolution of “privileged sounds.”  To Cage, the final chord of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is no more inspired nor glorified than the slam of a car door in Toledo on a Thursday afternoon.  Cage said,

When I was setting out to devote my life to music, there still were battles to win within the field of music.  People distinguished between musical sounds and noises.  I followed Varèse and fought for noises.[10]


  One of the means that Cage utilized to avoid privileged sounds was chance operations.  The tool with which these chance operations were derived was the classical Chinese text, the I Ching, or Book of Changes.  This particular aleatoric “tool” has a foundation which reaches deeper than just a “random number generator.” Thanks to Carl G. Jung who penned the Forward to the Wihelm/Banes translation (the translation used by Cage) the I Ching is entangled with the dichotomy of causality vs. synchronicity.

Jung coined the term “synchronicity” writing, in short, that in the wake of quantum physics the “axioms of causality are being shaken to their foundations.”[11]  The given natural laws that state that—when “A” then “B”; then when “B” then “C”; then when “C” then “D” and so forth in a temporal, rational, and causal order, can no longer be assumed as an axiomatic truth for “we know now that what we term natural laws are merely statistical truths and thus must necessarily allow for exceptions,” and he continues, that within nature “we see a very different picture: every process is partially or totally interfered with by chance, so much that under natural circumstances a course of events absolutely conforming to specific laws is almost an exception.”[12]  Thus it follows that the “natural laws” we have leaned upon in the West are, according to Jung, not laws at all, but rather exceptions. 

The childhood wonder that “no two snowflakes are alike” offers an example of clarification of this concept. Science informs us that the formation a of snowflake occurs when particles of moisture in the atmosphere, in the form of water vapor, reach the necessary temperature and pressure for the freezing point of water. This causes ice crystals to form and join together in to particles of frozen water heavy enough for the weight to counter any updraft within the atmosphere etc . . . Here again we see scientific causality hard at work showing us A>B>C . . . But we know that no two snowflakes are exactly the same. So could it be that each individual snowflake is a product of the specific moment of its formation? As Jung would state it, each individual snowflake is the perfect exponent of its momentary situation.

This same idea is the essence of the I Ching. It is a book that contains 64 different, yet “generic” situations and these are accessed through the counting of yarrow stalks or throwing of coins. The counted stalks or the fallen coins are products of the moment to which they belong. From these “chance” operations a number is determined which directs one to a particular situation in the I Ching. This situation and mode of action found in the I Ching is not necessarily the only answer, but it is the answer for that moment selected from a multiplicity of answers. Jung tells us “the hexagram was the exponent of the moment in which it was cast.”[13] Thus the key is not the answer, but rather the question it is answering. Thus Jung’s pointed definition of synchronicity states: “synchronicity takes the coincidence of events in space, and time as meaning something more than mere chance, namely, a peculiar interdependence of objective events among themselves, as well as with the subjective states of the observer or observers.”[14] Consulting the I Ching gives one a door through which one may participate in and be meaningfully related to the acausal patterning of events in nature.

John Cage was first introduced to the I Ching in 1936 but it was in 1950 that he began to utilize it in composition.[15] The version Cage was introduced to was Wilhelm and Baynes translation, the same translation in which Jung wrote the forward. Cage was then familiar with Jung’s philosophy and wove the ideas of synchronicity with its rejection of causality into his music.

The first piece he composed with the I Ching was Imaginary Landscape No. 4 (1951) to be performed with 12 radios, two performers “playing” each radio. Henry Cowell, who attended the performance, remarked:

Imaginary Landscape was not a broadcast of Cage’s music played at and transmitted from one, or from twelve, radio stations. Twelve radios were, instead, to be treated like musical instruments and played in concert. . . . Therefore if the piece is played in New York City, one set of stations will be drawn upon; if in Denver, another set of stations, the ones using the same wave-length in that locality, will be heard.[16]


To create the overall content of the work Cage constructed series of charts with all of the possible permutations of all the aspects of the piece (durations, sounds, silences, kilocycles etc).

All of the charts contain 64 cells (arranged into eight rows of eight columns each), so that the cells could be related one-to-one with the 64 hexagrams of the I Ching. To select an element from the chart, Cage would simply need to obtain a hexagram by tossing coins, find its number in the I Ching, and then look up the corresponding cell in the chart.[17]


As it is obvious, with this use of chance operations, the role of the composer in a traditional sense is forgone. Here we start to see the diminishing of the role of the self within the creative act. In a more extreme sense then Cage’s prepared piano, Imaginary Landscape No. 4, bows to the moment rather than possessing the moment. Compositional intention is sacrificed and every performance was and will continue to be different. It is “a musical composition the continuity of which is free of individual taste and memory (psychology) and also of the literature and ‘traditions’ of the art. The sounds enter the time-space centered within themselves, unimpeded by service to any abstraction . . .”[18] If the sounds are centered “within themselves” without serving a referential function (though possibly serving a self-referential function) then the sounds are meaningless and empty.

Cage transfers this idea of meaningless sounds in music to the medium of meaningless language which is then just sounds, music:

Charles: You propose to musicate language; you want language to be heard as music

Cage: I hope to let words exist, as I have tried to let sounds exist.[19]


Meaning is a function of an event within a structured context. For example, four friends are sitting around a table one night playing cards. Spades are led and the last card thrown, the highest card on the table, is the queen of spades. If the context of this

event is a game of Spades, the trick is taken fairly quietly and smiles are exchanged. But if we change that context to a game of Hearts, suddenly that single trick, the very same cards, becomes a bane to the winner and thirteen, oft undesired, points enter her/his hand. Thus this one example trick, four cards the highest being the queen of spades, has an intended meaning that is entirely dependent on the context. Once traditional language is used to define and give meaning to something, it is thrust into a superstructure based upon the social conventions and context. And it ceases to function alone; it is no longer, as Cage would say, “centered within itself.” The opening passage of the Lao Tzu, one of the Taoist four classic Chinese texts, says: The way that can be spoken of / Is not the constant way; / The name that can be named / Is not constant name.[20] This is then reiterated later in the text: “The way is forever nameless.”[21] The author of these words fully realized the inadequacy of language and its need for definitions.

But let us return to our card game and further complicate matters. Not only do meanings of individual events shift depending on structured contexts, but the meanings of the contexts the events are subsumed in shift as well. For one of our card players, the game might be a brief respite of friendly competition. For another, it could be a psychological battle for control and domination of the friendship. Still another might view the very same game as a means of securing respect for his/her card-playing prowess. Each definition changes the way in which the situation is interpreted and reacted to. Instead of using a definition to label an experience, the label becomes an inhibitor and we experience a label. (If the Tao were to be named it would then cease to “just be” and rather would shift and change with the whim and caprice of society and language.) Thus for Cage to produce meaningless language, traditional syntax, context, and the codified definitions subsumed within needed to be dissolved. It was with these ideas in mind that Cage tackled the idea of utilizing words as he had utilized sounds.

Central to this deconstruction is Cage’s attempt at separating sound from memory.

There is a beautiful statement, in my opinion, by Marcel Duchamp: “To reach the impossibility of transferring from one like object to another the memory imprint.” And he expressed that as a goal. That means, from his visual point of view, to look at a Coca-Cola bottle without the feeling that you’ve ever seen one before, as though you were looking at it for the very first time. That’s what I’d like to find with sounds-to play them and hear them as if you’ve never heard them before.[22]


(This idea is another that can be traced to ancient Chinese thought. The Taoist Lieh Tzu, wrote of the beauty of living life as a metaphorical traveler. “Travel is such a wonderful experience! Especially when you forget that you are traveling. Then you will enjoy whatever you see and do.” [23])

To implement this removal of sound from memory within language, conventional language must be foregone it “relies upon memory through syntactical connections and relationships.”[24] Cage furthered his explorations into language by turning to the work of Thoreau. Cage believed that Thoreau effectively moved language away from memory.

When [Thoreau] found himself interested in writing, he hoped to find a way of writing which would allow others not to see and hear how he had done it, but to see what he had seen and to hear what he had heard. He was not the one who chose his words. They came to him from what there is to see and hear . . . [In his writings] Thoreau’s own experiences become more and more transparent. They are no longer his experiences. It is experience. And his work improves to the extent that he disappears. He no longer speaks, he no longer writes; he lets things speak and write as they are.[25]


Within Thoreau Cage found the beginnings of moving from definition to experience, the word becoming the thing and the signifier becoming the signified. The composition that best exemplifies Cage’s musicating of language, and I think his most ambitious work, is the textual composition/experiment Empty Words (composed 1973-74). The title of this work, Empty Words was the product of a correspondence Cage had with the Oriental scholar William McNaughton who familiarized Cage with the indeterminate semantics of the classical Chinese language. According to McNaughton the language can be categorized into (1) “full words” which have a specific and serve a referential though indeterminate role, as it is often ambiguous as to what form (noun, verb, adjective, etc.) the word is taking and (2) “empty words,” words that have no meaning alone but only function as references to other terms (i.e. conjunctions, participles, pronouns etc.)[26] Daniel Charles’ interview with Cage in 1973 discusses specifically Empty Words.

Cage: I hope to let words exist, as I have tried to let sounds exist.

Charles: . . . And haven’t you taken up this concern in turn? [referring to the idea of “opening” and “freeing up” words]

Cage: . . . I must say that I have not yet carried language to the point to which I have taken musical sounds. I have not yet made noise with it. I hope to make something other than language.

Charles: How do you expect to accomplish that?

Cage: It is that aspect, the impossibility of language, that interests me at the present.[27]


Cage, now having shifted from music to language, seems, by his phrase “impossibility of language” to be aware that he was working within a different structural context than that of music, that being the structure of text. Umberto Eco elucidates this structure in his book Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language.

The text is the locus where meaning is produced and becomes productive (signifying practice). Within its texture, the signs of the dictionary (as codifying equivalence) can emerge only by a rigidification and death of all sense…. A text is not simply a communicational apparatus. It is a device which questions the previous signifying systems, often renews them, and sometimes destroys them.[28]


Eco continues by naming a work that he calls “a textual machine made to liquidate grammars and dictionaries,”[29] Joyce’s Finnegans Wake. Cage evokes Joyce in his introduction to Empty Words. He writes, “James Joyce = new words; old syntax.”[30] It is from this evocation, as well as textual parallel between the works, that I feel it is valuable to use Finnegans Wake to shed light upon Empty Words.

Joyce destroys and empties words of dictionary equivalencies in Finnegans Wake, ‘re-filling’ them with a new thick multi-layered web of homonymic puns (sintalks) and blended languages (one ‘signifier’; seemingly infinite ‘signified’) and framing them within old “sintalks”. This full text then allows the reader to fully participate and become active in choosing/creating the ‘signified.’ The reader creates his/her own reading of the text. Joyce is everywhere present at the textual level, and nowhere present at the reading/experiencing level.

Cage deconstructs and empties words of dictionary equivalencies in Empty Words but unlike Joyce he does not actively ‘re-fill’ them. He permits them to remain newly empty, framing them within a deconstructed syntax, allowing the reader to fully participate and become active in the text by extending and expanding his/her experience with the text to realizing that the empty words are actually full of activity. Empty Words ‘accompanies’ Cage’s earlier work, 4’33’’. “When I write a piece, I try to write it in such a way that it won’t interrupt this other piece which is already going on.”[31] Cage is present in the text through his conspicuous near-absence from the text, and is even more absent at the reading/experiencing level.

How did Cage effect this deconstruction and textual near-absence? From the introduction to Empty Words:

What can be done with the English language? Use it as material. Material of five kinds: letters, syllables, words, phrases, sentences. A text for a song can be vocalise: just letters. Can be just syllables, just words; just a string of phrases; sentences. Or combinations of letters and syllables (for example), letters and words, et cetera. There are 25 possible combinations. Relate 64 (I Ching) to 25.[32]


Again, as we see in the above passage, the I Ching was the key to accomplishing this task “I wrote it [Mureau][33] by subjecting all the remarks of Henry David Thoreau about music, silence, and sounds he heard that are indexed in the Dover publication of the Journal to a series of I Ching chance operations.”[34] But the entire work was not a product of chance operations, as I said above, Cage is near-absent, not absent. Cage separated the work into four sections. The first section he made a conscious choice, without using chance operations, that no coherent sentences existed, the second, phrases disappeared, the third eliminated the possibility of words and the last equated letters and silence. The composition was structured so that it faded from intended non-intention to non-being. From a new language to a new music to a textual silence. Looking at passages from each section this structure and progression becomes evident,

I.                                  bon pitch to a truer wordgenerally the

                                                     shoal and weedy places

                                       by her perseverancekind velled

                                       no longer absorbed ten

                                            succeededbetween the last hoeing

                                                and the digging a mica many

                                    of swampsaio against its white body


   lastno less than partridges

       ncthe e or day of the sun[35]


II.                                 ratherWhat while iif rrn totig rtn

                                 n a nywhoorr s or e h e thrds lyme re

                                    s e thddsshounsrnpnsi oaand out not

                              fairly - nutmutuallevel


tessellated fromladders whenare

    Morningandhad  He  sky  Thenone[36]


III.                               ffndfrtui ea ifthng

                                    mee ho cr e y oo sty ngrmssh c llbtoue

                                                    p rly nd, benly oce, e w oh

                                                            odti eallsvh cnla meday

                                                mak ber onlamb day

                                                   leaf oneRain aler?


carv thatrowsbe thefore three a


old thoughtprob-tchi toIplodtion

        ingand Mead gunde imhighthem[37]


IV.                                                                                              ndbl

                                          u e sea                                ea err  i   ea

                                            o     l                              brs   s

                                   sth                           ri                        i  w

                                    ly       ienl

                                                                   a                       l  i  ss

                                  o  ll    nc      dlkn

                                             a oo            t                                    u  e  u

                                                       o                                       ou s



This blend of chance operations and conscious choice brings an interesting point into play: the intention of nonintention, and the purposeful purposeless. The meaningless silence was created through Cage’s conscious progressive elimination of sentences, then phrases, then words etc… Non-intention and intention are both present within the work thus something and nothing are not opposed but work together-“each something is a celebration of the nothing that supports it”[38]- to produce this silencing of the self.[39]

In experiencing the compositions of John Cage, we allow ourselves to enjoy, and even openly court, the indeterminate patterns of nature unimpeded by service to intention. But within a greater view of his work, it has been cultivated intentionally, creating and bringing non-intention to our attention, and has been set up for a reason. Cage’s work can put us in an unaccustomed frame of mind, guiding us to hear, see, and experience life in a new way.



[1] James Joyce, Finnegans Wake (New York: Penguin Books Ltd., 1976) 3.

[2] John Cage, “Empty Words” in Empty Words (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 1979) 12.

[3] Jackson Mac Low, “Something about the Writings of John Cage,” Writings About John Cage, ed. Richard Kostelanetz (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1999) 283.

[4] At a New York Philharmonic avant-garde concert series the orchestra, during Cage’s piece Atlas Eclipticalis, breached professional decorum, laughing and talking, playing wrong notes, and hissing at Cage after the piece concluded. Calvin Tompkins, The Bride and the Bachelors (New York: Viking Penguin, 1976) 142.

[5] Thankfully the tide has turned and many scholars have opened to Cage’s ideas. This paper is my own attempt to continue and further the scholarship

[6] John Cage, M: Writings 67’-72’ (Middletown Conn.: Weslwyan University Press, 1973)

[7] Marcel Duchamp, “Painting . . . at the service of the mind” in Theories of Modern Art, Herschel Chipp ed. (Berkley, CA: University of California Press, 1970) 392-3

[8] For a masterful “unpacking” of these quickly tossed names see: David Patterson, Appraising the Catchwords: C. 1942-1959: John Cage’s Asian-Derived Rhetoric and the Historical Reference of Black Mountain College, diss., Columbia University, 1996.

[9] John Cage, “How the Piano Came to be Prepared” in EW, 9

[10] Cage, “The Future of Music” in EW, 177

[11] C.G. Jung, foreword, I Ching, Wilhelm & Baynes trans. (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1977) xxii.

[12] C.G. Jung, xxii

[13] Jung, xxiv

[14] Jung, xxiv

[15] Charles Hamm, “Privileging the Moment: Cage, Jung, Synchronicity, Postmodernism,” The Journal of Musicology Vol. XV (1997): 288.

[16] Hamm, 281

[17] Hamm, 284 - 5

[18] John Cage, “Composition” in Silence (Wesleyan UP: Middletown, CT 1961) 59.

[19] Christopher Shultis “Silencing the Sounded Self: John Cage and the Intentionality of Nonintention,” The Musical Quarterly Vol. 19 (1995): 336

[20] Lao Tzu, D.C. Lau trans., Tao Te Ching (Penguin Books Ltd.: New York 1963) I (1-4).

[21] Lao Tzu, XXXII (72).

[22] Shultis, 336.

[23] Eva Wong, Lieh Tzu: A Taoist Guide to Practcal Living. (Shambhala Publications: Boston 1995) 115.

[24] Shultis, 336

[25] Shultis, 337

[26] Shultis, 339

[27] Shultis, 336-8.

[28] Eco, Umberto, Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language. (Bloomington: University of Indiana Press, 1984) 25.

[29] Eco, 25.

[30] Cage, “Empty Words” in EW, 11

[31] Cage, quoted in “ ‘There’s no such thing as silence…’ ” by Eric De Visscher in Writings About John Cage, ed. by Richard Kostelanetz (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1999), 129.

[32] Cage, “Empty Words” in EW, 11.

[33] Mureau was the initial title of the final product Empty Words, it is a combination of the first two letters of “music” with the last four letters of “Thoreau.”

[34] Shultis, 338

[35] Cage, “Empty Words” in EW, 12

[36] Cage, “Empty Words” in EW, 35

[37] Cage, “Empty Words” in EW, 55

[38] Cage, “Lecture on Something” in Silence, 139.

[39] Shultis, 319-20

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