Intention and (In)determinacy: John Cage’s ‘Empty Words’ and the Ambiguity of Performance


On 2 December 1977, John Cage performed Part III of 'Empty Words' (1974-75) to an audience in Italy. Over the course of three hours, the spectators at the Teatro Lirico in Milan listened to Cage read his text verbatim, with varying intonations and modulations occurring as he saw fit. 'Empty Words' is definitively nonsense; to create the piece, Cage subjected a great portion of Henry David Thoreau's journals to chance operations in order to generate a separate, syntactically defiant text that withstands conventional interpretation. The motivation behind this, Cage says, is to design a 'language that could be enjoyed without being understood' (M: Writings 215). The resulting performance then, such as it was in Milan in 1977, is an experience of listening to Cage read only to find that there is nothing on the page before him that has any regular, semantic meaning. The absence of regular semantic meaning is, in itself, the meaning: the interpretation on the part of the listeners avoids many of the conventional linguistic structures that we normally take to language. Which is to say, as Cage 'musicates' language (Perloff Music of Verbal Space 136), he is performing an act of intentional indeterminacy. He is making sounds with language that do not necessarily correspond to regular signifiers and their corresponding signifieds. Saussure claims that the relationship between signifier and signified is, at best, arbitrary, and Cage takes this to the next level: the signified is the signifier, and nothing else. Nothing lies beyond. Cage's performance is simply arbitrary sound with no intended meaning. Or is it?

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Published 1 June 2014 in Volume 29 No. 1-2. Subjects: Cage, John, Cortazar, Julio, Interdisciplinary studies, Music.

Cite as: Edmeades, Lynley. ‘Intention and (In)determinacy: John Cage’s ‘Empty Words’ and the Ambiguity of Performance.’ Australian Literary Studies, vol. 29, no. 1-2, 2014, doi: 10.20314/als.94fab2b947.