John Cage's “Empty Words” (1974–75) was designed to collapse the space between music and language. In attempting to do so, the work simultaneously disrupts and depends upon expectations generated by our regular interpretive frameworks. Using contemporary affect theory, I offer a new reading of “Empty Words” that locates and examines the pre-semiotic, pre-categorical dimensions of the state that occurs when these expectations are thrown into disarray. To examine the affective dynamic in Cage's cultivation of polysemy and indeterminacy, I draw on Brian Massumi's categorization of the event. I also employ Sianne Ngai's term “stuplimity” to discuss Cage's 1977 performance of “Empty Words” and to deconstruct the affective dynamic generated between Cage and his audience. While Cage is seeking to disintegrate the distance between music and language, he is simultaneously dependent on these frameworks to generate and prolong an affective engagement with the work.
Skip Nav Destination
Lynley Edmeades; Affect and the Musication of Language in John Cage's “Empty Words”. Comparative Literature 1 June 2016; 68 (2): 218–234. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00104124-3507962
Download citation file: