John Cage’s Lecture on Nothing is one of his early, legendarily forbidding speeches first held in 1950. The score of the lecture can be understood as a reaction to one of the most momentous cuts in twentieth century’s media history. Cage’s lecture overtly responds to the establishment of the electromagnetic recording, storing and distributing of acoustic material after World War II by reflecting on these technical developments. The text, however, also accurately and subtly reacts to the profound destabilization of the relationship between literacy and orality triggered by these inventions by applying new methods of writing.
Seen as such, the Lecture on Nothing can be connected to Cage’s electronic music on audiotape, Williams Mix for example, and his elaboration of 4’33”, which forms the basis of his “silent pieces.” What unifies these three contemporaneous, but essentially different, works is their thought-provoking semantic emptiness. This article argues that these works are best understood as an artist’s quest for an adequate semiotic means of writing an aural event after electroacoustic media have become widely accessible.
John Cage, Lecture on Nothing, aural media, media history, ephemerality, writing, notation, written music