John Cage's Empty Words is more of a literary work than a musical composition -- at least it is written (or rather, assembled) on typing paper with a typewriter, rather than on staff paper. Divided into four parts, Empty Words is a long text derived from the journals of Henry David Thoreau, achieved through extraction of its words, letters, and phrases through Cage's use of the I Ching. Nothing in Empty Words is actually meaningful, but Cage is moving beyond language into the realm of pure speech, something nearly musical related to both sound poetry and randomly generated texts, such as Tristan Tzara's novel drawn, word by word, from a hat, L'Homme approximatif. Cage's careful recitation of the alphabet soup that makes up the text of Empty Words comes close to being a musical performance, though the result is not one that many will be patient enough to withstand for as long as it goes.
This recording of Cage in a performance of Empty Words originates from the Teatro Lirico in Milan on December 2, 1977; it first appeared on the Italian label Cramps Records. Cage reads alone, and as the performance progresses the situation disintegrates -- by the second disc the audience is totally out of control, yelling, mock drumming, jeering, and whistling. Cage continues unabated, his slowly measured cadences nearly drowned out at points by the riotous crowd. It is not a very good recording, although the microphone used by Cage might be the culprit in this case.
ampersound has reissued this long unavailable recording in a truly splendid package, housing two discs in a slipcase with a handsome booklet containing a facsimile of Cage's illustrated text. Having survived a similar live performance given by Cage of his four-hour-long MUOYCE in the early '80s, this reviewer would have loved to have then been able to follow along with Cage's text as one can do here. On the other hand, outside of university libraries, it's hard to imagine anyone, outside of the hardest core hardcore Cage fans, wanting to own this set other than as an objet d'art.