Composing With Words Like John Cage

"People expect listening to be more than listening. And sometimes they speak of inner listening, or the meaning of sound. When I talk about music, it finally comes to peoples minds that I'm talking about sound that doesn't mean anything. That is not inner, but is just outer. And they say, these people who finally understand that say, you mean it's just sounds? To mean that for something to just be a sound is to be useless. Whereas I love sounds, just as they are, and I have no need for them to be anything more. I don't want sound to be psychological. I don't want a sound to pretend that it's a bucket, or that it's a president, or that it's in love with another sound. I just want it to be a sound. And I'm not so stupid either."

John Cage

When writers read their work in public, it’s usually pretty clear to the audience what’s on the page. The writer reads to the audience from the page, and the words come out in the same order that they appear on the page. If the writer reads that same passage of text again, usually it will be the same words, in the same order again. Performances of written texts don’t vary so much, unless they are slightly revised from time to time or the voices change. It’s rare that a writer would improvise like a jazz musician, appropriate like a DaDa sculptor, or compose the reading, rather than to script it, the way John Cage would with his music.

In about two days, I plan to get on stage to perform a written work in front of a live audience and read, not from a script, but from something more like a score. I’m not the only person engaging in this literary experiment. There are about a dozen of us. What are we doing? We’re performing at an event called States and Drives II. This is the second annual installment of the event, and it is an evening-long performance of new works inspired by John Cage.

I like to think that every experiment has a hypothesis, even a creative one. I hope I say this in harmony with the others, but for me, the hypothesis is this: I propose to arrange words the way John Cage composed sound.

In order to figure out how to write this way, I had to think about two questions. What’s the difference between a script and a score? What is it about the way John Cage composed sounds? For both questions, an important part of the answer is something called chance operation. Generally speaking, a script tells its readers what to say and do and in which order. That’s also generally true of a musical score, but in the hands of a conductor a musical score can be reinterpreted, and indeed much of the musical notation on a score does leave room for interpretation. In cage’s hands, a score can be something quite different. There’s room in the script for an element of chance. That’s not to say that the whole thing is random, but it’s not totally scripted either.

For example with the Sonatas and Interludes for prepared piano, the score is an ordinary one in most ways, except that it begins with instructions for how to modify the piano. The placement of screws, bolts, and other found objects between the strings of the piano might have been determined by chance or creative accident, but in the score their arrangement is deliberate.

I’m also fascinated by Cage’s use of found sounds to make music, which resembles the way Duchamp worked with found objects to make sculpture. What’s it like to use found words, found sentences and paragraphs, from the world at large, in a piece that’s composed the way Cage composed? That’s what I hope to find out.