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The Music of Verbal Space: John Cage's "What You Say"
John Cage in UbuWeb Sound
John Cage in UbuWeb Historical
John Cage in the UbuWeb Anthology of Conceptual Writing
"Postmodernism and the Music of John Cage" Nancy Perloff
government, can only be obeyed. It is
therefore of no use except when you
have something particular to command
such as: Go buy me a bunch of carrots.
As early as 1939, when he was in residence at the Cornish School
of Music in Seattle, John Cage investigated the application of electrical
technology to music. His first (perhaps the first) electroacoustic
composition was Imaginary Landscape No. 1, a six-minute radio piece
for muted piano, cymbal, and two variable-speed record turntables, designed
to accompany the production of Jean Cocteau's play Marriage at the Eiffel
Tower. The piece was performed by Cage, his wife Xenia, and two friends
in two separate studios, mixed in the control room, and beamed the short
distance to the theatre. (1) Imaginary
Landscape No. 1 looks ahead to any number of Cage compositions involving
radio, magnetic tape, and computer technologies. And yet the irony is that,
having produced so many complex intermedia works using the most varied acoustic
materials, by 1970 or so, Cage started to write a series of "mesostics,"
performance works that made use of only a single instrument--the human voice--and
a single medium-- language.
"My first mesostic," Cage writes in the Foreword to M, "was
written as prose to celebrate one of Edwin Denby's birthdays. The following
ones, each letter of the name being on its own line, were written as poetry.
A given letter capitalized does not occur between it and the preceding
capitalized letter. I thought I was writing acrostics, but Norman O. Brown
pointed out that they could properly be called 'mesostics' (row not down
the edge but down the middle)" (M 1).
Here is the Edwin Denby mesostic of 1970 called "Present":
rEmembering a Day i visited you --seems noW
This first attempt, as Cage suggests, was clearly not quite satisfactory.
The four-line text, with its justified left and right margins, doesn't have
much visual interest, the capital letters merely appearing in a linear sequence.
More important, the Denby mesostic doesn't have much aural or musical complexity,
its prose format being that of normal writing of the sort we all do when
we write a note to a friend on an occasion like a birthday. True, the mesostic
rule (Cage was later to call this a 50% mesostic since the given letter
capitalized can occur between it and the following capitalized letter,
whereas a 100% mesostic doesn't allow for occurence of the letter either
preceding or following its appearance) is observed, but hearing this particular
text read, one would not especially notice the structuration of language
by the EDWIN DENBY string, although--a harbinger of things to come--the
"Y" word, "staYs," rhymes with the "D" word,
as I write that the weather theN was warm-- i
recall nothing we saiD, nothing wE did; eveN so
(perhaps Because of that) that visit staYs.
The difficulty at this stage was that Cage was still using normal syntax.
In another early mesostic, entitled "On the windshield of a new Fiat
for James K[losty] (who had not made up his mind where to go) and Carolyn
Brown," we read:
Where it wantS
Unlike the Denby mesostic, this one is "written as poetry," in
that each capital letter gets a line to itself (and as a 100% mesostic,
its wing words are of necessity very short), but again, the poem's syntax
and sound are almost those of ordinary conversation. Thus, although the
Klosty mesostic is visually more of a "poem" than is the Edwin
Denby one, the poetic problem has not yet been resolved.
Cage was quite aware of this quandary. When, in the early seventies, the
French philosopher Daniel Charles posed the question, "Aren't your
lectures, for examples, musical works in the manner of the different
chapters of Walden?", Cage replied, "They are when sounds
are words. But I must say that I have not yet carried language to the point
to which I have taken musical sounds. . . . I hope to make something other
than language from it." And he adds, "It is that aspect, the impossibility
of language, that interests me at present." Again, in a later exchange,
when Charles remarks, "You propose to musicate language; you
want language to be heard as music," Cage responds, "I
hope to let words exist, as I have tried to let sounds exist" (For
the Birds 113, 151). (2)
Making language as interesting as music, Cage was to learn, depended on
the dismantling of "normal" syntax. Much as he loved Joyce,
Cage felt that even Finnegans Wake was conventional in this respect:
Reading Finnegans Wake I notice that though Joyce's subjects,
verbs, and objects are unconventional, their relationships are the ordinary
ones. With the exception of the Ten Thunderclaps and rumblings here and
there, Finnegans Wake employs syntax. Syntax gives it a rigidity
from which classical Chinese and Japanese were free. A poem by Basho, for
instance, floats in space . . . . Only the imagination of the reader limits
the number of the poem's possible meanings. ("Foreword," M
In the former case, the words themselves are made strange, Joyce being,
of course, a master of word formation, punning, metaphor, and allusion,
but the syntax is left intact; "Joyce," Cage remarks elsewhere,
"seemed to me to have kept the old structures ("sintalks")
in which he put the new words he had made" ("Writing" 133).
The alternative (Basho's) is to use "ordinary" language but to
explode the syntax, a process Cage regularly referred to as the "demilitarization
of the language." "Speaking without syntax," he explains
in a note on "Sixty-Two Mesostics Re Merce Cunningham," "we
notice that cadence, Dublinese or ministerial, takes over. (Looking out
the rear-window.) Therefore we tried whispering. Encouraged we began to
chant. . . . To raise language's temperature we not only remove syntax:
we give each letter undivided attention setting it in unique face and size;
to read becomes the verb to sing" ("Notes"
97). But he admits in the "Foreword" to M that "My
work in this field is tardy. It follows the poetry of Jackson MacLow and
Clark Coolidge, my analogous work in the field of music, and my first experiments,
texts for Song Books. . . . Concrete and sound poets have also worked
in this field for many years, though many, it seems to me, have substituted
graphic or musical structures for syntactical ones" (2).
Cage is quite right to refer to his "work in this field" as "tardy."
As early as 1960, Jackson Mac Low had written a sequence called Stanzas
for Iris Lezak based on chance operations. "Call me Ishmael,"
for example, takes the first three words of Moby Dick as its acrostric
string, and finds the words that begin with the thirteen consecutive letters
C-A-L-L-M-E-I-S-H-M-A-E-L in the novel's first few pages, as determined
by I Ching chance operations. (3)The
I Ching also determined their lineation, so that we have five three-line
stanzas, with the pattern 4-2-7 words per line respectively:
When Cage began to write mesostics, he adopted Mac Low's acrostic procedures,
but with an important difference. Whereas in the example above, Mac Low
lets chance operations generate the entire text, Cage, as we shall see,
uses these operations to generate the word pool to be used and the rules
to be followed, but he then fills in lines with "wing words,"
generated, as he repeatedly put it, "according to taste." (4) The result is an idiom markedly different
from Mac Low's, especially in its vocal quality, Cage preferring softer,
blending sounds to the harshly stressed monosyllabic nouns, separated by
strong caesurae, that we find in "Call Me Ishmael." A similar
difference may be observed between Cage and such concrete poets as the Brazilian
Noigandres group (Augusto de Campos, Haroldo de Campos, and Decio
Pignatari), with whom he shared many aesthetic principles and who have assiduously
translated and disseminated his writings. In concrete poetry--say Augusto
de Campos's Luxo or Pignatari's Beba coca cola -- the visual
image predominates, the actualization of performance not giving the listener
the full effect of the figure the poem makes, a figure depending on complex
patterns of typography, spacing, color contrasts, and so on. In Cage, by
contrast, it is the aural that dominates. Indeed, however visually striking
Cage's verbal scores may be, the mesostic column creating an interesting
pattern and the punctuation marks of the original often strewn around the
page, as in Roaratorio, poetic density depends primarily on sound,
as actualized in performance. Cage was, after all, a composer even when
the materials he worked with were linguistic rather than musical.
Circulation. And long long
Interest Some how mind and every long
Coffin about little little
I shore, having money about especially little
Cato a little little
I sail have me an extreme little
Cherish and left, left,
It see hypos myself and extremest left,
City a land. Land.
Is spleen, hand, mouth; an east, land. (89)
The influences Cage cites in M could thus take him only so far. A
decade of experimentation followed. While the earliest mesostics, like the
"25 Mesostics Re and not Re Mark Tobey" (M186-94) were
written in Cage's own words (the first "MARK" mesostic reads "it
was iMpossible / to do Anything: / the dooR / was locKed"), and while
what we might call the middle ones were "writings through" such
great literary texts as Finnegans Wake or Ezra Pound's Cantos,
(5) in his last years, Cage turned
increasingly to making mesostics out of texts not in themselves consciously
"poetic." In Tokyo in 1986, for example, Cage performed a mesostic
piece called "Sculpture Musicale," which used as its source text
for the mesostic string only that title and the following words of Duchamp's:
"sons durant et partant de differents points et formant une sculpture
sonore qui dure." A second Tokyo piece submitted to "writing through"
Cage's own "Lecture on Nothing," even as his "Rhythm, etc."
(1988) takes a passage from A Year from Monday ("There's virtually
nothing to say about rhythm. . .") and uses the four sentences of this
passage as the mesostic string.
Discussions of Cagean mesostic have usually ignored this evolution from
mesostic strings based on single proper names, repeated throughout (as in
the case of the name "JAMES JOYCE" in the Roaratorio),
to strings derived from larger statements or paragraphs, whose individual
words are part of the standard lexicon. The turning point from the "proper
name" string to what we might call the "sentence" string
may well have come with the writing, in the early eighties, of the performance
piece Marcel Duchamp, James Joyce, Erik Satie: An Alphabet. In this
complex work, the hypothetical "conversation" between the three
artists is presented, partly by means of found text, artfully collaged from
their writings, partly by Cage's own discourse, structured by the proper
names of the three artists, repeated as mesostic strings according to chance
operations. In "A Conversation about Radio in Twelve Parts" with
Richard Kostelanetz," conducted a few years later, Cage expressed dissatisfaction
with Alphabet because its "scenes [are] in a very simple way
differentiated from one another. They don't overlap so that it's as simple
as a work by Stravinsky, but within each part there's a great disparateness
with the next part; so that the act of listening is very uncomfortable."
"All those scenes," he explained, "have beginnings and endings.
It's a multiplicity of beginnings and endings. That's what annoys me. I
don't mind it as something to read; but as something to hear" (293-94).
What Cage means, I think, is that proper-name mesostics, derived, not from
a "writing through" but from sentences made up for the occasion,
have a tendency to form independent strophes of four to six lines, strophes
divided by a sharp pause and hence not sufficiently "interpenetrating"
phonemically. For example:
from his Jumping
the older one is Erik SAtie
he never stops sMiling
and thE younger one
iS joyce, thirty-nine
with his back tO the audience
for all we know he maY be quietly weeping
or silently laughing or both you just Can't
Here the syntactically straightforward narrative perhaps too easily yields
the requisite mesostic letters: J-A-M-E-S and J-O-Y-C-E; if, say, an "O"
were needed as the final mesostic letter, Cage could substitute "knOw"
for "tEll" without it making much difference. Then, too, the stanza
break follows the normal syntactic break: "the younger one is Joyce,
thirty-nine. // He jumps. . . ," thus producing the "differentiat[ion]
from one another" Cage criticizes.
The solution was to use a seemingly inconsequential prose text
as the source, not only for his own "writing through" but for
the mesostic string as well. There would be, in other words, a rule to follow,
but that rule would be so hidden that "beginnings and endings"
would not call attention to themselves. Moreover, the discourse of ordinary
prose--a passage from an interview, a newspaper paragraph, a statement from
a lecture--could now be decomposed and recharged so as to uncover the mysteries
of language. "You see," Cage told Niksa Gligo in an interview,
"language controls our thinking; and if we change our language, it
is conceivable that our thinking would change" (Kostelanetz 149). For
this purpose, "empty words" are more useful than "full"
ones. "Full words," Cage explains to Richard Kostelanetz, "are
words that are nouns or verbs or adjectives or adverbs,"
whereas "empty words" (what we call function words or deictics)
are "connective[s] or pronoun[s]-- word[s] that refer to something
As an example of such an "empty word" mesostic, I have chosen
a short piece called "What you say. . ." from 1987, a "writing
through" of an informal statement on aesthetic made by Jasper Johns
in an interview with Christian Geelhaar. This is the first of two companion
texts based on Johns's commentary on his work, the second being "Art
Is Either A Complaint Or Do Something Else," which is taken from a
series of statements cited by Mark Rosenthal in his Jasper Johns: Work
Since 1974 (Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1988). Cage discusses this mesostic
piece with Joan Retallack, in an interview originally published in Aerial
(1991), together with "Art Is Either A Complaint." As Cage explains
. . . it's all from words of Jasper Johns, but they're used
with chance operations in such a way that they make different connections
than they did when he said them. On the other hand, they seem to reinforce
what he was saying . . . almost in his way. And why that should surprise
me I don't know because all of the words are his. (laughs) But they
make different connections. (Retallack 107) (7)
Consider the "different connections" in "What You Say. .
.", which draws on a statement Johns makes at the very end of the Geelhaar
What you say about my tendency to add things is correct. But,
does one make a painting? How does one deal with the space? Does
one have something and then proceed to add another thing or does
one have something; move into it; occupy it; divide it; make the
best one can of it? I think I do different things at different
times and perhaps at the same time. It interests me that a part can
function as a whole or that a whole can be thrown into a situation
in which it is only a part. It interests me that what one takes to
be a whole subject can suddenly be miniaturized, or something, and
then be inserted into another world, as it were.
Notice that Cage's reproduction of Johns's response is already a kind
of writing through, the sentences being arranged as line lengths and centered
so as to give the whole an accordion-like visual shape. At the Los Angeles
performance I attended (at UCLA, 4 September 1987, in conjunction with the
opening of the exhibition of the Samuel Beckett-Jasper Johns collaboration
Fizzles), "What you say . . ." was preceded by the reading
of three short mesostics on the name JASPER JOHNS, one of them having appeared
in Empty Words (1979) under the title "Song":
not Just hunter:
Notice that this mesostic belongs to Cage's earlier "concrete poetry"
phase, the lines built primarily on catalogues of nouns, and the game being
that each of two words (or phrases) per stanza can supply the poet with
the necessary capital letters (e.g., the "S" and "E"
of "morels"). These are primarily eye devices. By the time Cage
wrote "What you say. . .", his aim was to "musicate"
the language, letting it do the sorts of things he had hitherto done with
musical sounds. Indeed, at the UCLA performance, the piece was performed
by a dozen or so readers, according to the following program notes:
For any number of readers able to read in one breath any of
the 124 "stanzas" (a "stanza" is a line or lines preceded
and followed by a space).
Whether performed chorally or by Cage himself (and I have heard it done
both ways), the "frame" is now no longer the decision how many
times to repeat a given proper name like JAMES JOYCE but the "agreed-upon
performance time." Cage's initial experiments with magnetic tape in
the late forties and early fifties, Margaret Leng Tan has pointed out, "emphasized
the fact that duration (time length) is synonymous with tape length (space)
and it is the application of this principle which forms the basis for the
space-time proportional notation used in the Music of Changes and
the Two Pastorales of 1951" (51). The same principle, Cage came
to see, could be applied to language texts. In the case of "What You
Say. . .", duration would seem to be determined by the need to provide
one line for each of the 512 letters in Johns's paragraph. But in fact "What
You Say. . ." is much longer than 512 "lines" because of
the spacing (silence) Cage introduces between word groups, with extra rests
replacing the missing letters. Missing because "For several letters
there were no words: the v of have (twice); the v of move; the j of subject;
and the z of miniaturized. Spaces between lines take the place of the missing
letters" (F 53).
Each reader, equipped with a chronometer, and without intentionally changing
the pitch or loudness of the voice quietly reads any 4 "stanzas"
at any 4 times in each minute of the agreed-upon performance time.
The readers are seated or stand around the audience or both within and outside
The selection of words from the source pool, Cage explains in his note to
"What you say. . ." (F 53), is based on MESOLIST, "a
program by Jim Rosenberg," extended for this particular piece by a
second program made by Andrew Culver, which extended the number of characters
in a search string . . . to any length; this extended MESOLISTwas used to
list the available words which were then subjected to IC (a program by Andrew
Culver simulating the coin oracle of the I Ching)." Although
I have not seen this program, it seems clear that even though the MESOLIST-derived
"chance operations" do govern the sequencing of the words that
contain the requisite letters for the mesostic string, the variable length
of the search string made it possible for Cage to create precisely the semantic
and phonemic juxtapositions that suited him. In this particular case, he
had to begin with a line containing the "W" of the first word
"What," followed by the "h," the "a," and
so on, and the first "W" word designated by Mesolist is the last
word of Johns's statement--"were." But although chance operations
dictated the selection of "were" as the first capitalized word
to be used in "What you say. . .", it was Cage's own choice to
place, in the opening line, the whole phrase, "as it Were." Indeed,
as we shall see, in this instance as elsewhere, Cage's poetic composition
is nothing if not designed. As he put it in the Foreword to Silence:
"As I see it, poetry is not prose simply because poetry is in one way
or another formalized. It is not poetry by reason of its content or ambiguity
but by reason of its allowing musical elements (time, sound) to be introduced
into the world of words" (x).
The world of words, in this case, consists of seven "ordinary"
sentences (three of them questions), containing 127 words, 99 of them monosyllables.
This is already an unusual linguistic situation but what's even odder: there
are only seven words in the entire passage that have more than two syllables.
(9) And further: the majority of monosyllables
and disyllables are deictics or function words: "it" appears seven
times, "thing" six times, "one" five times, "something"
three times, "how," "what" and "whole" twice
each. In this context, the word that stands out is the five-syllable "miniaturized"
in the next to last line. (10)
The sentence structure is as elementary as is the word pool. "How does
one" with the variant "does one" appears four times; "it
interests me that" twice, and simple parallel structure occurs in "move
into it; occupy it; divide it; make the best one can of it." Johns's
statement, at least as lineated here, thus has a naive or childlike sound
structure, especially since the artist hesitates or withdraws statements,
as in "I think I do different things at different times and perhaps
at the same time," or when he declares that "a whole subject can
suddenly be miniaturized, or something." Finally, the paragraph concludes
with the qualifier, "as it were."
Why would Cage, who has previously written through the incredibly rich word
pool of Finnegans Wake or the hieratic rhythms of Pound's Cantos,
select such an ordinary flat discourse to "write through"? After
all Johns's statement is just an unrehearsed response to a question from
an interviewer. This is of course Cage's point. "There is no such thing
as an empty space or an empty time. There is always something to see, something
to hear" (Silence 8). Even in his off-the-cuff remarks about
his art-making, Johns, so Cage posits, is saying something significant,
is posing basic questions about painting. And moreover, Johns's own vocal
patterns, with which Cage was of course deeply familiar, produce a sound
curve to which Cage's own sound curve is designed to respond. Indeed, the
composer-poet's role, in this scheme of things, is to bring Johns's "something,"
his particular signature--the visual made verbal and vocal-- out into the
open, by "demilitarizing" the syntax so as to controvert the chosen
statement's linearity and permit its components to reallign themselves.
Let me try to elaborate.
"What you say. . ." opens with the final "as it Were"
of Johns's paragraph and comes full circle to "wEre" on its last
page. Here is the beginning:
as it Were
A whole or
The best one can of it
Perhaps the first thing to notice here is the elaborate sound structure,
a structure especially notable in Cage's own reading of the text in which
each line, spoken slowly, is followed by a silence the length of a short
syllable. (11) The first three lines
are linked by stress pattern (two stresses per line), anaphora of short
"a"s and internal rhyme ("Were" / "world"
' "or"). In line 4, the sound shifts to short vowels, embedded
in "t"s and "th's; the lightly stressed monosyllabic line
"The best one can of it," being related to the first three by
the repetition of "it", the internal rhyme of "an" (in
"another") and "can", and of "-tHer" and "The."
("t"s and "th"s, incidentally, constitute 52 or roughly
one tenth of the poem's phonemes.) Lines 5 and 6 --"suddenlY / sOmething"--are
again related by stress pattern and alliteration, and "move,"
with its open vowel followed by a voiced spirant opens the way for the alliterating
"m" of the passage's longest (and perhaps least musical) word,
"miniatUrized," a word that appears again and again, furnishing
the different letters of the "What you say. . ." string.
But there is also a curious clinamen in this passage. Line 7, "move"
is not part of the mesostic string at all, "WHAT YOU" being complete
without it. The source text reads: "does one have to do something;
move into it." Cage might have put "move" on line 6 along
with the semi-colon, or he might have left the word out completely since
the search string can be, as Cage points out, of any length. Yet "move,"
physically moved over to the right here, has an important effect. The domain
of art, the text suggests, is "as it Were / anotHer world / A whole
or / The best one can of it." This other world is "suddenlY /
sOmething," and it is, in Cage's elliptical construction, "move"--which
is to say, moving, on the move, in movement, in a move toward, the "miniaturization"
of "subject" which is art.
But of course the text itself we are reading (or hearing) is precisely this
miniaturization, this creation of "suddenlY / sOmething." Lift
the ordinary out of the zone of saying, Cage seems to say ("The best
one can of it") and "it" will become "something."
Just as Johns would paint ordinary numbers (0 to 9) or the letters of the
alphabet (A to Z), or a clothes hanger or beer can, so Cage will take words
as uninteresting as "as," "it," "or," "of,"
and "a," place those words in particular spatial configurations,
white space (silence) being at least as prominent as the spoken and written
language itself, " and create a minimalist ars poetica.
That Cage's work continues to go unrecognized as poetry by those who produce
books like the Norton Anthology of Poetry as well as those who read
and review them, has to do with our general inability to dissociate
"poetry" from the twin norms of self-expression and figuration.
"What you say. . .", it is argued by Cage's detractors (and they
are legion) is, after all, no more than a reproduction of someone else's
text: the "I" is not Cage's and, in any case, there is no psychological
revelation of a personal sort. Moreover, in the passage we have just read
there isn't a single metaphor (except for that dead metaphor "world")
or arresting visual image. Indeed, Cage's diction, so this line of reasoning
goes, is merely trivial, isn't it?
This is to ignore the crucial role played by the context in which words
occur, by their temporal and spatial arrangement, and especially by their
sound. Take, for example, the common phrase "make the best one can
of it" in Johns's paragraph. Eliminate the initial "make"
and the phrase becomes the strange "The best one can of it," made
even stranger by its insertion in the text between "A whole or"
and "suddenlY." Yet the reallignment produces a new meaning: "a
whole or / the best" may now be read as adjectives modifying "world,"
and "the best one can" may be construed as a noun phrase. Certainly
a "can" is a kind of whole. Aural performance, in any case, activates
any number of meanings, especially since the spacing (the visual equivalence
of silence) ensures very slow reading, whether one or more persons are reading
simultaneously. "SuddenlY / sOmething / move / miniatUrized"--one
word per line, a rest between lines: the audience is forced to listen carefully,
to pay attention to the sound of each unit.
The strategy of "What you say. . ." --and this is where the mesostic
mode, with its dependence on a fixed word pool, can work so effectively--
is to recharge individual words by consistently shifting their context and
hence their use. Take the word "whole," used three times in Johns's
statement: "It interests me that a part can function as a whole
or that a whole can be thrown into a situation in which it is only
a part. It interests me that what one takes to be a whole subject
can suddenly be miniaturized. . . " (my emphasis). In Cage, this "normal"
syntax gives way to astonishing variations. "Whole" appears twenty-eight
times, each of its letters appearing in the mesostic string of the text.
Along the way it yields such stanzas as:
a whole sUbject
a whole Can be
whaT you say about
a whole caN
different timeS and
can be throWn
and perHaps at the same time
how does one deaL with
diffErent times and (F 62)
Here the mesostic string is "FUNCTION AS A WHOLE." But the poem
itself questions this "function"; the "whole sUbject"
is in apposition to a mere "it"; "a whole Can be" "whaT
you say about / It," "a whole caN / hAve / different timeS and
/ takes," it can be "throWn / and perHaps at the same time."
On the next page "wHole" furnishes Cage with the "H"
mesostic letter and thus becomes a "hole."
Now let us look again at the source text which reads" "What one
takes to be a whole subject can suddenly be miniaturized." Cage's own
text enacts precisely this statement: what we "take to be a whole"
dissolves into a number of possibilities. Not only can this "whole"
be "miniaturized" but it "caN / hAve / different timeS and
/ tAkes"; there is no essential truth behind the word: "a whole
Can be / whaT you say about it." A neat illustration, as it were, of
Wittgenstein's proposition that "the meaning of a word is its use in
Again, consider the couplings and uncouplings given to the word "tendency,"
which appears only once in Johns's statement, in the opening sentence: "What
you say about my tendency to add things is correct":
about my tenDency
thrOwn into a
and then be inSerted
my tendency tO
move iNto it
What tendency, we wonder, is this? ThrOwn into a / thEn? "My tendency
tO / move iNto it"? It sounds risky. Two pages later, we read:
How does one
my teNdency to
where "deal" may be either noun or verb, either indicative or
imperative, the "tendency to / have somethinG" therefore being
quite mysterious. Further down on the same page, the plot thickens:
a situatiOn in which
you sAy about
one Deal with
As it were
Let's make a deal and take care of the situation in which the tendency in
question arises, as it were. Two pages later, we find the stanza:
situAtion in which
can funcTion as
The instructions are to "moVe it" (reenforced by the verb "make,"
another one of what we might call outriders in the text, "make"
not being part of the mesostic chain, which here is "[DI]VIDE IT MAKE
T[HE BEST OF IT]"), to which the response is "i Do movE,"
and now "tendency" is explicitly linked to "situation,"
a "situAtion in which / i thinK / one can funcTion as." Function
as what? Johns's "tendency to add things" now takes on a darker
cast, his tendency producing a situation in which the artist only thinks
he can function." When "tendency" reappears some time later
in the performance, it is "thAt / teNdency to / oF it," where
the "tendency" can be interpreted in a variety of ways. Or again,
it becomes a whoLe / tendencY to / whAt one / occuPy." The last three
pages of "What you say. . ." accelerates the repetition, "tendency"
appearing six more times:
1) to bE
2) doeS one
fUnction as a
3) mY tendency
4) it intErests me
5) anD perhaps
whaT one takes to be
tendency to add tHings is
This is Cage at his most Steinian, charging language by means of permutation,
words like "tendency" taking on a different aura with every repetition.
What makes these pieces so remarkable is that they are, to use Joyce's term,
"verbivocovisual." Visual, to take it backwards, in that the spacing
and mesostic chain produces its own meanings, so that "tenDency,"
with that "ten" separating out, is not the same as "tendenCy,"
and the construction of larger units will depend upon word placement and
spacing. "Verbi," in that Cage is always constructing new meanings,
in this case giving new connotations to a "tendency" Johns mentions
only casually. But it is the "voco" ("musical") element
which perhaps dominates here. For given the nature of the writing-through
process, there are only so many words at the composer's disposal, and these
words-- "what," "world," "perhaps," "another,"
"something," "interest," "function"--appear
again and again, becoming familiar counters. "Miniaturized," for
example, has nine lives, supplying the mesostic string with necessary letters
(aurally phonemes) at frequent intervals, even as its "z," as
Cage notes, cannot be used.
As such, Cage's sound structure has a decisive semantic import. Unlike most
actual art discourse, the mesostic "written through" lecture or
essay cannot just continue, cannot move from point to point, from thesis
statement to exemplification or analogy, in a logical way. Rather, the discourse
must "say something" about aesthetic, using no more than its baseline
of 127 words, whose rule-governed permutations take us from from "as
it Were" to "a wholE can / peRhaps / wEre."
That it does "say something" is, of course, the work's great feat.
"What you say. . . ," what Cage's work "says" takes
us back to the famous (perhaps too famous) theorem of "Experimental
Music" that the "purposeless play" of art means "waking
up to the very life we're living, which is so excellent once one gets one's
mind and one's desires out of its way" (Silence 12). Purposeless
play is not a matter of making "just any experiment." It does
not mean that anything goes, that anyone can be an artist, that any random
conjunction of words or sounds or visual images becomes art. What it does
mean, as a reading of "What you say . . ." teaches us, is that
the ordinary (in this case, Jasper Johns's not terribly edifying comment
about his painting habits) can provide all that the artist needs to make
"something else." Indeed, the challenge is to take the ordinary--words
like "it" and "one" and "function" and "situation"--and
"miniaturize" it into "something."
And that is of course what Johns himself does in his paintings (figure 1).
When he remarks, "Does one have something and then proceed to add another
thing or does one have something; move into it; occupy it; divide
it; make the best one can of it?", we should note the allusion to his
own famous warning to "Avoid a polar situation." For of course
there is no meaningful opposition between "add[ing] another thing"
or "hav[ing ]something [and] mov[ing] into it"; the either-or
proposition is falsely posed. Johns is playing similar games when he says,
"I think I do different things at different times and perhaps at the
same time." At one level, the tautology is absurd. But as we learn
from Cage's "What you say. . .", such tautologies are integral
to the process whereby we learn that there is no essential truth
about art making, no way of saying for sure what art is or what the artist
"I think," Cage remarked a few months before his death, "a
very impressive quality [of Johns's painting] is the absence of space. Something
has been done almost everywhere. So it leads very much to the complexity
of life." (12) The verbal equivalent
of this "absence of space" can be seen in a passage like the following:
Or does one
and tHen proceed to
a paintinG (F 54)
In the source-text interview, Johns speculates on the ways "a whole
subject" might "be inserted into another world." Cage shows
how such insertion is performed by presenting himself as "one"
who can actually "function As / another WorlD." And just
as Johns's painting is characterized by an "absence of space"
(which is to say, unused space), so Cage's performance poem is characterized
by an absence of time, in that each word, each morpheme, each phoneme must
do double duty: look, for example, at the way "d"s "o,"
and "n"s are modulated in the "miniaturizing" sequence
When Cage began to experiment with mesostics, he worried that he had not
yet hit upon a way of "carry[ing] language to the point to which I
have taken musical sounds." The solution, it seems, was to learn to
"Do /Time / and tHen proceed to / dIvide it." But even this stanza,
taken out of context, may seem too assertive, too dogmatic to suit those
like Cage and Johns who want to avoid polar situations. And so the poem
makes a tentative circle back to the "as it Were" of the opening:
a wholE can
where the last two lines introduce internal rhyme--"peR" / "wEre"--
only to qualify repetition by the intrusion of that little particle "haps,"
which repeats the "p" sound but combines it with a prominent spirant
so as to produce dissonance. A wholE can / peRhaps / wEre": the difference,
as Gertrude Stein would put it, is spreading.