Hidden harmonies in John Cage's 'Empty Words'

Mushrooms grow best on shit — specifically, the shit of “corn-fed, hard-worked horses, which have been bedded down on wheat straw.”[1] Some mushrooms pop up after a rain, and grow in circles called “fairy rings,” only to disappear a few hours later. Some mushrooms have names like “Angel of Death” and “Death Cap,” and cause nausea, vomiting, delirium, coma, and — yes — death.

“The function of mushrooms is to rid the world of old rubbish,” wrote John Cage, composer and founder of the New York Mycological Society. He was talking about the Buddha being killed by a poisonous mushroom.[2] This comment seems very Cagean: humble, irreverent, funny.

Another Cage-mushroom anecdote has Cage struggling to find an adequate translation to a Basho haiku about mushrooms. A composer friend, Toru Takemitsu, suggested, “Mushroom does not know that leaf is sticking on it.” Three years later Cage himself came up with two translations: “that that’s unknown brings mushroom and leaf together,” and, his favorite, “What leaf? What mushroom?”[3]

What Cage appreciated in the haiku, besides the oblivious — or nonexistent — mushroom, was the multiplicity of meanings contained in its seventeen syllables — a multiplicity made possible by the haiku’s ambiguous syntax. If destabilizing syntax could admit so many divergent readings, what would happen if one destabilized — or eliminated — words? Syllables? Letters? How many more meanings would be possible? Cage explores these possibilities in his 1974 work Empty Words.[4] In it, he uses aleatory methods, that is, chance operations, to systematically disassemble the journals of Henry David Thoreau.

Empty Words is both text and score: It was designed to turn language into music. Each of its four parts, or “lectures,” is composed of at least four thousand chance events dictated by throwing the I Ching. The first lecture eliminates sentences; and contains only phrases, words, syllables, and letters. The second lecture eliminates sentences and phrases; and contains only words, syllables, and letters. The third lecture eliminates sentences, phrases, and words; and contains only syllables and letters. The final lecture eliminates sentences, phrases, words, and syllables; and contains only letters.

Cage intended the performance of the work to last overnight, with three half-hour intermissions between lectures for the audience to eat. The final lecture would be accompanied by projected images from Thoreau’s journals (also selected and placed in the text according to chance operations), and would be timed to coincide with the dawn. The doors would open and the ambient sounds of the morning would mingle with the linguistic “music” of Empty Words.

* * *

Cage’s methods may have been chance-determined, but his choice of Thoreau could not have been more deliberate. (Cage himself grants that, had he applied the same aleatory procedures to Finnegan’s Wake, or to a non-English text, the resulting work would have been very different.[5]) In the journals, Thoreau’s observations exhibit a disciplined clarity that evokes the wide, non-judging perception associated with Zen. He describes the eyes of an owl and the patterns made by the first frost of the season. In summer, he notes the flowering of the white vervain, checkerberry, spikenard, orchis.

As linguistic material, Thoreau’s journals are no less attentive, no less earth-bound. In Empty Words, we recognize over and over allusions to the cardinal directions (“santwh cur of gen M. more ingSouth them,” “neighborhood youaou is ngdspruongrwestd!” “makingGod on the southeast slopes on”), and to colors (“star quite handsome orange,” “greenness trifolia sky,” “ingray-brown pull nover high ofa e”). Thoreau is just as scrupulous about noting times of day (“notAt evening,” “morning oldgolden andbubble ground,” “noonOthasndry sn nglth e Dr. B the I ee tw”) and Latin species names (“Lysimachia lanceolataare,” “amtheleavesand andFringillareawakened,” “Lechedtyon Vi the terin theoth y”).[6] Oaks, white maples, and blackberries haunt the text, becoming more and more indistinct as the work progresses.

“Meaning,” determined as it is by linguistic and cultural conventions, begins to shimmer. Take, for example, this stanza:

beneathboards in militsvexground

     comes hawk

within some Isoff owlafiftythem[7]

Like the hawk itself, traditional meaning appears, and then gradually, through the chance-driven compounding of words, flies off. Rather than being compulsory, it is merely a point our attention moves toward, and returns from.

We witness this movement on the syntactic level, too:

                                               to which of the fire
overfelt mebut yet mingled red and green
               about a three espassing over it[8]

Here, a relative clause abuts a prepositional phrase, neither of which has any discernible antecedent. Does “red,” placed after “mingled,” function as an adverb or a noun? What does “it” — nested so deeply within what are ostensibly clauses — refer to? Cage attempted to “demilitarize” language by releasing it from syntax, but it is, on the contrary, the insistence of syntax that makes possible so many divergent readings — that paradoxically liberates it.

Consider the following, taken from the fourth lecture:


h opls e ar as
                                     a eolsstr eu rSp
                           dsbyM h n l re R s ny
              n pr tt Tk sn r ndl llth ksshd
e inat tnthrn ts oe iai twsh.   M es    o rm

                ck          tl hchm                         eihe
                  re                                       y r
                     Stro                  thndB  e
     a   e     kP.    M.      Tho                e
rse  h                             u                 ca           i
               i  s,  s  r
                              ing       ymbf     Chdh             llk
                 n                                            o  n
           stwn                                          r       dyd   ntly,
   thhtlytr                             a


In performance, units that evoke ocean (“oea / ann”) and star (“eolsstr”) are separated by long periods of silence, in which ambient sounds might intervene, and the mind might wander, before being brought back to attention by Cage’s articulation of the next sound. (In his performances of Empty Words, Cage sometimes lets minutes go by in this kind of apparent silence.) In “twsh” and “ksshd” we hear the snap of a sheet drying in the wind, the sound of a boot breaking through the crust of ice that has formed on a puddle. The mind moves from the particular instance to the idea, or chain of ideas, the word evokes. In the voiceless fragments “eihe” and “h,” the sound is the sense: breath.

Given Cage’s method and his theoretical concerns (which he articulates in the introductions that precede each lecture), it is fairly straightforward to identify some of the ways in which Empty Words — both as text and as score — means. But might there be another, more arcane valence of meaning revealed by Cage’s meticulous process?

* * *

Ferdinand de Saussure devoted three years and ninety-nine notebooks to research on anagrams. The French title of the published notes, Les mots sous les mots, suggests that the process was like excavation, looking beneath words to find hidden meanings. Central to his research was the concept of the poetic hypogram, a fragmented version of a “theme word,” usually a name, which is dispersed and circulated throughout the text. In the line of Saturnian Latin verse, “Taurasia Cīsauna Samnio cēpit,” for example, Saussure uncovered “Scīpio,” the name of the man (Lucius Cornelius Scipio Barbatus) the lines honor.[10]

“The hypogram,” Saussure writes, “is very much concerned with emphasizing a name, a word, making a point of repeating its syllables, and in this way giving it a second, contrived being added, as it were, to the original of the word.”[11] This implies that there is a link between the constituents of a word and the word itself; that, in the poetry Saussure studied, phonemes retain vestiges of the names they were once a part of — an idea that is as revolutionary as it is fanciful.

Saussure never conclusively proved this theory; nor did he conclusively fail. What matters to us is the fact that “he isolated a particularity of poetic functioning: that supplementary meanings slip into the verbal message, tear its opaque cloth, and rearrange another signifying scene.”[12] It may be a stretch to consider the text of Empty Words to be the hypogrammatic “residue” of all fourteen volumes of Thoreau’s journals, but we can nonetheless draw on Saussure’s ideas to determine, for example, what “r h nt rt nyncy” could possibly mean — and, perhaps more importantly, how it could possibly mean.

Baudrillard compares the operation of the poetic hypogram to annihilation: “The name of God, torn limb from limb, dispersed into its phonemic elements as the signifier, is put to death, haunts the poem and rearticulates it in the rhythm of its fragments, without ever being reconstituted in it as such.”[13] To him, each fragment — hypogrammatic or not — reminds the reader of what has been lost. (Even though the name of God is torn apart, the specter of God remains, and haunts the poem.)

In Empty Words, it is tempting to attribute the phonemes’ multiple possible meanings not to any hypogrammatic alchemy, but to Cage’s process. After all, he set out deliberately to break down Thoreau’s language (and to tell us that that is what he is doing): of course the fragments are going to suggest the words they came from. However, it must be stressed that Saussure never proved that poets used hypograms as a method of composition. What matters, then, is not the “why,” but the simple, observable fact that the fragment suggests meaning beyond itself.

Consider the following:

                the er think three – rind-in the
oftheshaldol ifis andhard Coloingdis
                Monto ahisgold in de weeds should in and
oncealedso with asun lyby sim Pond[14]

Might “Co” in “Coloingdis” have originally been part of “Concord”? Or “Thoreau and Company,” pencil makers? Perhaps. For those listening to the performance (on whom the initial capital would be lost), it may suggest “cottage,” “cloudy,” or “factory” — all likely possibilities given Thoreau’s lexicon (and Cage’s process). 

Likewise, “oncealedso” could be a composite of “once a led so,” “onc[e] [s]ealed so,” or “[c]oncealed so.” (Unless we have read the entire journal, though, the “lost meaning” we recover, or, rather, the lost meaning each fragment suggests, is not the journal itself, but our idea of it.)

So the text, especially in its earlier sections, asks the attentive listener to hold different ways of meaning and different chronologies of meaning in a kind of negative capability, in disciplined Zen attention. Empty Words becomes a palimpsest, with all possible meanings leaving their traces on the text.

Indeed, if the fragment can contain links to a presumed “original” whole, why could it not contain links to every whole it might possibly be? In

cm orv rthtnhu t strs ws
                               art ainS o nt in
              sh chi htndSpsca[15]

“strs” could originally have been starlings, streams, stutters. Could it not also be stairmasters, strippers, stoplights? And why limit our readings to English? “t u as glass”[16] and “leaf oneRain aler”[17] have lovely possibilities in French.

I am not asking these questions to be perverse. Rather, I am asking whether the possible signification of Cage’s text is limited by the text from which it is drawn: do the words in Thoreau’s journals describe the boundaries of Empty Words, or do they open the text to a multitude of possibilities? And if this is the case, might reading be less like murder and more like reassembling the body of Osiris?[18]

I think it is both. One would be hard pressed to look at the unit “nt” and claim that it does not seem to be missing something. So on this level, yes, the fragments emphasize their own incompleteness. However, I would venture that this very incompleteness gives the text its meaning. The fragment, according to Steve McCaffery, “contaminates the notion of an ideal, unitary meaning and thereby counters the supposition that words can fix or stabilize in closure.”[19]

On first read, McCaffery’s conclusion seems overly ambitious. If the fragment is indeterminate, must it necessarily follow that the word from which it originated is also indeterminate? In Empty Words, yes. Cage’s process, in the way that it systematically divides and combines units of meaning, reminds us that words themselves are configurations of interchangeable parts, assembled according to phonetic conventions. Just as the ostensibly incomplete words (“nt,” “de”) allude to all of their possible “wholes,” the hybrid words (“oneRain,” “oftheshaldol”) allude to all of the possible words they comprise. Just as Co could be Concord, so too could Concord be Co, acorn, raccoon. And because it could be any of these, it must be none of them — it must remain open.

“A,” then, is above all a symbol of indeterminacy. The fragments in Empty Words, by retaining links to words they comprise, words they may have been, and words they may yet become, keep the text porous — so much so that when the work dissolves into “emptiness,” it is, paradoxically, full of inchoate meaning.

* * *

When Cage performed parts of Empty Words at the Naropa Institute in 1974, people jeered and threw things. When he performed it in Milan in 1977, the audience of 3,000 divided into camps: some audience members tried to destroy the slide projector Cage was using; others fought them off. One person smashed the bulb in Cage’s reading light; another screwed a new bulb in. Someone even took off Cage’s reading glasses then, on second thought, placed them carefully back on Cage’s face.[20] One can see why audiences may have felt threatened: Empty Words can justifiably be described as pretentious, a work accessible only to an educated coterie. Visually and sonically, it is hostile to conventional notions of sense and harmony. Yet Cage did not intend only to provoke.

“The word at the center of [Cage’s] appreciation of sound is beauty,” writes David Revill in Roaring Silence.[21] Indeed, Cage famously used the word “beautiful” to describe the sounds of traffic and the sound of a table being dragged across the floor. But his is not the kind of essentializing beauty by whose simplistic definition the sound of traffic would be considered discordant — ugly, even. Beauty for Cage admits uncertainty and change, chance and imperfection. Conceived this way, it “[troubles] unquestioned categories, values, and generalized truth …. Beauty troubles sameness because it embodies difference.”[22]

Other poets and scholars who have been talking about beauty recently take a similar tack, pointing out the ways in which beauty is fraught, while affirming that it is nonetheless something real, charged, potent. Karla Kelsey suggests that it is a movement of mind, a way of perceiving.[23] Elizabeth Robinson offers this definition: “beauty is by definition imperfect: partial, transitory, and yet willing to embrace the valuations that are intrinsic to the pleasure we take in perceiving beauty.”[24] There is a wonderful double meaning here that I am sure she intended: beauty is partial in that it can never fully be realized; and beauty is partial in that it is biased — it is connected to ideology. Robinson implies here that qualities like “imperfection” and “value” can coexist.

The sound of traffic may have been beautiful to Cage because it did not seek to “mean”; it sought only to be. Likewise the sound of a table being dragged across the floor. Unlike the table, however, Empty Words is entirely dependent on traditional habits of meaning-making. The distinctions among sentences, phrases, words, syllables, and letters delineate each of its four lectures, thereby constituting the framework of the piece. Syntax, phonics, sound, process, and even the obscure signification of Saussure’s hypograms all become more pronounced as the mind attempts to impose their rules and conventions on Cage’s text.

Yet it is not the rules themselves, but their “failure” that gives Empty Words its artistic energy. The furtive, unruly fragments in Empty Words resist containment and preclude definitive interpretation. They activate multiple registers of sense at once, generating myriad shifting, partial meanings. Perhaps most importantly, they destabilize our notions of sense and closure by exposing the mechanics of our different systems of meaning-making. Here, then, is the subversive beauty that Robinson and others describe.

Joan Retallack asks us to consider the implications of the beautiful, radical shifts Empty Words requires of us: “Might it be possible to move through our lives in other ways, guided by other processes and structures, perceiving connections, even constellations lost to our habitual grammars, seeing the side streets, getting lost and discovering something new?”[25] In a linguistic universe dominated by the cant of politics, religion, war, and commerce, this task is increasingly urgent — a poethical imperative. When reading the paper, shopping for groceries, passing by a billboard, we would do well to remember Cage’s translation of Basho’s haiku: “What leaf?” he asks. “What mushroom?”



1. Lucy Kavaler, Mushrooms, Molds, and Miracles: The Strange Realm of Fungi (New York: John Day, 1965), 45.

2. John Cage, Silence (London: Marion Boyars, 1994).

3. Kenneth Silverman, Begin Again: A Biography of John Cage (New York: Knopf, 2010), 261. 

4. Cage, Empty Words (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1979).

5. Richard Kostelanetz, Conversing with Cage (New York: Routledge, 2003), 150.

6. Cage, Empty Words, 8, 20, 28, 25, 18, 37, 12, 37, 61, 30, 49, 62.

7. Ibid., 18.

8. Ibid., 14.

9. Ibid., 71.

10. Jean Starobinski, Words Upon Words (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980), 16.

11. Ibid., 18.

12. Julia Kristeva, “Towards a Semiology of Paragrams,” in Tel Quel Reader, ed. Patrick French and Roland-François Lack (London and New York: Routledge, 1998), 293.

13. Jean Baudrillard, Symbolic Exchange and Death, trans. Iain Hamilton Grant (London: Sage, 1993), 199. 

14. Cage, Empty Words, 52.

15. Ibid., 54.

16. Ibid., 15.

17. Ibid., 55.

18. Starobinski, Words Upon Words, 20.

19. Steve McCaffery, Prior to Meaning: The Protosemantic and Poetics (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2001), 196.

20. Kostelanetz, Conversing with Cage, 130–133.

21. David Revill, The Roaring Silence: John Cage, a Life (New York: Arcade, 1992), 123.

22. Steven Taylor, “Beauty Trouble: Identity and Difference in the Tradition of the Aesthetic,” in Civil Disobediences: Poetics and Politics in Action, ed. Anne Waldman and Lisa Birman (Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2004), 389.

23. Karla Kelsey, “Attention in the Garden: Beauty as an Act of Mind,” Five Fingers Review no. 23.

24. Elizabeth Robinson, “The Ecology of Beauty (And the Vulnerability of the Perceiver),” Not Enough Night (Fall 2006).

25. Joan Retallack, The Poethical Wager (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004), 223.