Emptying Words: Demilitarizing, Denoting, and Delight

Written By: Diane Mullin Constellation 19 4.1.12

By Diane Mullin

Our poetry now/ is the realization that we possess nothing/ anything therefore is a delight/ (since we do not pos-sess it) and thus need not fear its loss/ We need not destroy the past; it is gone/ at any moment, it might reappear and seem to be and be the present/ Would it be a repetition? Only if we thought we/ owned it, but since we don’t, it is free and so are we.

—John Cage, “Lecture on Nothing” in Cage, Silence (1973)

Empty Words: So That We Can Do Our Living was a nine-hour, dusk to dawn multimedia event conceived by Piotr Szyhalski and performed/enacted by the artist, his Labor Camp Orchestra, and a host of other collaborators. Taking place at Father Hennepin Park on the Mississippi River for the Northern Spark festival during the summer of 2011 in Minneapolis, the work, as Szyhalski describes it, was “part poetry reading, part dance, parade, and concert—constructed around the collective reading of ‘Empty Words’ by John Cage” [1]. As described by the artist, Empty Words: So That We Can Do Our Living, is thus a combination of disparate but related events and moods:

Empty Words includes spoken word, live musical performances of Vexations by Erik Satie, projections, art objects, and other actions. A dusk ’til dawn collective contemplation of surrender as an opening up to a hopeful future. A spontaneous blend of community festival and a theatrical performance tempered by an attitude of thoughtful expectation. A transformation of darkness into the light, of words into music. The event aims to celebrate these ideas, “so that we can do our living”…[2]

Interested in Cage’s desire to “demilitarize language” with the poem, Szyhalski embraced Cage’s agenda and then amplified and multiplied it. In focusing on distinctions between Cage and Szyhalski I mean neither to rank them nor to argue for relative “uniqueness.” Rather, I reflect on Szyhalski’s quotation of Cage to illuminate the value of the conversation at the heart of Empty Words: So That We Can Do Our Living (2011).

At the park, Szyhalski set up a portable recording and broadcast booth and invited audience members in to read Cage’s poem. At the same time, he projected the text of the poem above a stage on which a series of musicians played Erik Satie’s Vexations. As the evening and the readings went on, Szyhalski’s database of recordings grew, and the layers of recordings “create[d] a unique chorus interpretation of Empty Words.” Alongside the stage and throughout the evening, a full-scale printing press produced new variations of Szyhalski’s signature print, which declares “We Are Working All The Time!” The prints were distributed to onlookers and audience participants. In addition to the action on stage, in the booth, and at the printing press, Szyhalski orchestrated a performance on the field, arranging flag bearers forms derived from military color guard. The flags they carried were pure white: the color of surrender. Over the course of the night the bearers moved, lowered, and raised their flags, ending with one final raising as the sun itself rose above the open, riverside field.

Through its amplified and multiplied recitation and repetition, Szyhalski’s Empty Words lauded the desire to drain words of their meaning, both for the project’s Cagean social mission as well as for its creative and pragmatic power. At the same time Szyhalski seemed to reject repeatedly that desire’s possibility by loading the event with associated, meaning-laden elements. Not necessarily distinct from Cage’s practice in this respect, the contradiction is at the heart of Szyhalski’s Empty Words: So That We Can Do Our Living. The paradox and the practice of the 2011 event, however, was more than influenced by Cage in that it not only recited (repeated) Cage’s famous poem, but instead presented it with new eyes (and ears) to contemporary collective strategies. Also, and importantly, Szyhalski’s work actually enacted the problem, paradox, and power of repetition in art and everyday life throughout the event, allowing connection and complexity to play out and enrich the many propositions–some scripted, most not–made on that long evening.

Empty Words

In 1979, John Cage published his four-part poem “Empty Words” in the anthology Empty Words [4]. The parts were published separately over the years of 1974 and 1975. A result of Cage’s desire to return to nature through a physical relocation out of New York City and into the “woods” and his reading of Thoreau’s journals, the poem is a contemplation of and meditation on the wandering and ideas of Thoreau, Joyce’s sentences, the I Ching, Erik Satie, and freedom, among other things. The poem seeks to empty words of their meanings by systematically stripping and rearranging the knowable elements of the English language—the syntax—to create what in the end becomes nonsense or simply sounds that are freed from the language rules of the original words. Philosopher Norman O. Brown, a close colleague and friend of Cage’s once said to Cage that syntax was the military because it ordered and made sense of sounds and letters. In his introduction to the first poem Cage ponders the issue stating; “Syntax: arrangement of the army (Norman Brown). Language free of syntax: demilitarization of language” [5]

Using his customary experimental ideas on chance controlled music and the activation of performers, Cage determined a set of restrictions from which the poem was free to happen. Cage explains:

It’s a transition from language to music certainly. It’s bewildering at first, but it’s extremely pleasurable as time goes on. And that’s what I’m up to. “Empty Words” begins by omitting sentences, has only phrase, words, syllables and letters. The second part omits the phrases, has only words, syllables and letters. The third part omits the words, has only syllables and letters. And the last part…has nothing but letters and sounds.

The resulting “empty words” of Part III appear as primarily nonsense and unknown. A stanza of this section illustrates the results:

rb sspr n ty, wdthth fblth u ‘sc h yth s

rk, f eth il ant no c sllyt twp nd ee

heeae th nl rvuoo ctlyspvaek vo r hnth

nthlym a an oo e bth nm – h arsttimes sun

Over the years, the poem has been read/performed many times by the Cage and others. [6]

On the night of June 4 to the morning of June 5, 2011, Piotr Szyhalski, Labor Camp, and collaborators presented a novel, interactive nine hour reading of Part III of “Empty Words” with a performance of Erik Satie’s Vexations. Cage had attached himself to the radical, experimental French composer on several occasions. Satie’s now legendary Vexations (1893) is an epic repetitive work for solo piano comprised of a 52-beat segment accompanied by the instructions that it be played ‘very softly and slowly’ 840 times [7]. In 1963 Cage staged the first complete performance of Satie’s Vexations. The piece was performed at the Pocket Theatre in New York City. Cage’s production featured ten relaying pianists, each playing fifteen repetitions of the segment (twenty minutes) at a time. The event lasted eighteen hours and forty minutes.

Music critic Andrew Ross said about the Cage-Satie nexus:

Out of contempt for tradition, out of loyalty to the absurd, Erik Satie filled his scores with unperformable commands.  “Arm yourself with clairvoyance,” he would write; “open your head”; “be visible for a moment.”  He outdid himself in the short piano piece entitled “Vexations,” writing at the top of the page: “In order to play this motif 840 times, one would have to prepare oneself in advance, and in the utmost silence, through serious immobilities.”

It was left to John Cage to take Satie at his word and organize a nineteen-hour performance of “Vexations” in which the piece was actually heard 840 times in a row. The event, in September of 1963, required a rotating squad of pianists, drew attention from the “Guinness Book of World Records” and brought out a team of critics.” [8]

This twenty-hour concert, closing a brilliantly varied season at Roulette, was intended to mark the 100th anniversary of “Vexations” and also the composer’s birthday.  But the monumental character of the affair seemed to have more to do with Cage’s procedural avant-gardism than with Satie’s bohemian anarchy.  There is no evidence that Satie’s instruction was anything more than an arcane jest. As the musicologist Richard Taruskin has recently argued, Cage’s art was founded in part on a willful misinterpretation of Satie, a plain reading of his paradoxes. [9]

Can something similar be said of Szyhalski and Cage? And doubling up, going back, and repeating, can it also be said about Szyhalski and Satie? Both artists, Szyhalski has admitted, are important influences on his work and thought. (Is there a difference between work and thought? Szyhalski seems to endlessly, repetitively and maybe disharmoniously ask just this.) Perhaps Szyhalski’s engagement with these “giants” is not a willful misinterpretation, but better understood as a radical, open, and perplexing networking of them and other sources, presented to a field of participants—not exactly an audience—as a challenge and a surrender at the same time. Szyhalski and his Labor Camp and Labor Camp Orchestra forcefully and seductively offer these connections while also submitting their fate to the “audience’s” hands/voices/minds. A surrender that, in turn, perpetually energizes the given event.

Doing Our Livings

It was in a 1974 radio interview the night before a public performance (at Wesleyan University) of the final section of his composition Empty Words that Cage casually, conversationally connected his poem to doing a living:

I let it be known to my friends, and even strangers, as I was wandering around the country, … that what was interesting me was making English less understandable. Because when it’s understandable, well, people control one another, and poetry disappears –and as I was talking with my friend Norman O. Brown, and he said, “Syntax [which is what makes things understandable] is the army, is the arrangement of the army. So what we’re doing when we make language un-understandable is we’re demilitarizing it, so that we can do our living. . . [10]

Here Cage uses a term of labor/work and not of play or poetry to describe the need to empty words. Szyhalski’s elevation of this almost sidebar comment made on live radio to the equivalent of the poem’s title by its connection through a colon, is part and parcel of his practice. Taking the formal—the poem’s official original title—and mixing it with the language of the everyday. Cultural critic and historian, Cesare Casarino says of conversation his co-authored with Antonio Negri In Praise of the Common

The common speaks: a conversation unfolds . . . Unlike Folly—the garrulous, auto-encomiastic, first person narrator of Desiderius Erasmus’s In Praise of Folly—the common abhors monologues. Arguably, the exuberant, joyful Stimmung and the dramatic, polyphonic structure of Eramus’s monologue could be understood as belonging to the dialogic in their own right. A conversation, however, is no more a dialogue than it is a monologue. Neither monologic nor dialogic, the common converses. For the common is that which is always at stake in any conversation: there where a conversation takes place, there the common expresses itself; there where we are in common, there and only there is a conversation possible. Conversation is the language of the common. [11]

Szyhalski enacts the conversation in his works when he invites the audience in and lets them act on their own will. The classic poetry reading or concert is monologic. Cage, of course, was committed to complicating the idea of the audience as passive and absolutely separate from the performance, but he did, in retrospect, mainly present monologues or dialogues with his collaborators and performers. Like Cage, Szyhalski certainly presents a set of parameters for his performers (proper), but in inviting the audience into that scenario as active agents and contributors, the work goes from dialogue to conversation. Szyhalski’s use of the words/actions/sounds of others is multivalent and seems always to be striving for egalitarian and active inclusion.

In Empty Words: So We Can Do Our Living, Szyhalski proposed we surrender—a purposeful and charged military metaphor in an event striving to abolish control and de-militarize language. But we might ask, surrender to what?  Surrender as a way of evading or abolishing control? In the performance, Szyhalski keeps and gives control, which animates and complicates the event. The same surrender is asked of the audience.

In his revolutionary composition, 4’ 33”, Cage crafted a precisely timed musical work that entailed a full orchestra on stage keeping time by turning score pages and sitting still and silent for four minutes and thirty three seconds. Long talked about by Cage and commentators alike as a work not of silence but of the sound and noise made by the audience when the piece was performed, 4’ 33” is often used as an example of another of Cage’s long standing desires: to meld art with life.

Szyhalski too is interested in the bringing together of art and life—and perhaps more so in how that overlapping, melding, and intertwining happens on its own and presents itself to us. Always enlivened by the accidental, and often poetic juxtapositions of things, images, words, Szyhalski, rather than primarily setting artful happenings in motion, looks and listens and artfully highlights and emphasizes such events through performance and sound. Though akin and in deep sympathy at many levels with Cage’s approach, Szyhalski’s art is not the same. In this constant engagement with and surrender to, as Cage once put it, “the very life we’re living,” Szyhalski enacts Labor Camp’s mantra-like message: “We Are Working All The Time!” Note, for instance, that one of the artist’s latest iterations of this many-times-multiplied poster and print is his new archive of images photographed when he encounters one of the posters in the world, doing its living.

What is the power of rereading and repeating Cage’s revolutionary poem in our time? Do we believe it is an act of resisting control, and melding art and life? Part traditional homage and part mash up, Szyhalski’s Empty Words: So We Can Do Our Living highlights and ponders repetition itself. Was the event a repetition at all?  As Cage asserts, it is but only if we think we own it. Sometimes even if we don’t own it, we can think we do. Empty. But when we believe we don’t, we are, as Cage says, free to surrender. And in surrendering, then, we can freely repeat. Rethink, rewrite, re-imagine. Demilitarize, denote, and delight. In Szyhalski’s universe, we are repeating, working, living all the time. It is not an issue of ego, but one of endless work and endless delight—and endless living.

[1] See Labor Camp.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] John Cage, Empty Words. (Middleton, CT: Wesleyan, 1979).

[5] Ibid 11.

[6] John Cage, radio interview, August 8, 1974.

[7] See The Tate Modern: Sleep: Warhol/Cage/Satie

[8] Alex Ross, “Satie Vexations,” New York Times, May 20, 1993.

[9] Ibid.

[10] John Cage, radio interview, August 8, 1974.

[11] Cesare Casarino and Antonio Negri, In Praise of the Common: A Conversation on Philosophy and Politics. (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), 1.

Photographs by Patrick Kelley, courtesy Northern Lights.mn.

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