Included in Silence, John Cage’s most relevant collection of writing, Lecture on Nothing is in many ways an essayistic response to the thinking behind his music. Comprising of repetition, self-referential musings on its own structure, comments on American geography, as well as scattered observations on music (including connections between Brahms and thirds, and the general popularity of Bach), Lecture on Nothing is, as you might expect, about many things. Much like 4’33’’ challenges the listener to acknowledge music in the absence of complete silence, this lecture, originally given in 1950, faces both reader and author with the difficulties of talking about nothing at all.
Robert Wilson’s stage production of Lecture on Nothing, originally commissioned for Rurh Triennale to mark Cage’s centennial is faced with an even bigger task – it inevitably has to deal with visual semiotics. Set in a space filled with placards that desperately try to avoid being actual sentences, Lecture on Nothing is strikingly clear in its attention to force interpretation. This visual landscape – ambiguous placards, floor covered in old newspapers, hiding a plain desk and single bed – contains too many connotations to ignore, including, but not limited to, mediations on protest, the superfluousness of media and scientific devotion. Yet these connotations are also too discrepant to form a single narrative. Purposefully easy to identify and contextualise, the combination of these signs is enough of a mismatch to form a solid semiotic puzzle, particularly as random and diverse noises appear for no reason, only to fade minutes later.
This concept could have easily turned into a pretentious defense of simplified postmodern principles, had it not been for the fact it thoughtfully pairs up with Cage’s text. When the lecture goes into what promises to be an endless repetition of literal structural descriptions, Wilson takes a nap – at the author’s suggestion. Moments like these, Wilson’s periodical half-performed, comical ‘stances’, or his insistence on breathing casual interpretative notes into the reading, allow for a bit of a much needed ironic distance – as if to underline that, contrary to what might be the first impression, Lecture on Nothing is not all that serious. It is however an occasional but serious test of patience – the performance opens with what sounds like an eternal, deadly noise; the fourth part – one that includes the nap – loops a dozen sentences over and over and over again, until they start to lose any meaning. This combination of sneaky comic breaks and endurance provocations, topped off with due attention given to certain parts of Cage’s text, makes Lecture on Nothing a decent blend of intellectual attacks and thought provoking incidents.
That being said, the performance does occasionally look like an easy ride – for Wilson as much as for the audience. Although careful to respect Cage’s writing, Wilson seems satisfied with finding the easiest of accurate solutions. The very notion of calling an essay Lecture on Nothing is so ‘against’ the nature of the form that it requires an equally brave and challenging approach to staging. For all its mixture of noise, scrambled words, loops and visual multi-signifiers, this Lecture on Nothing uses a language that might have been daring at the time the text first appeared. Since then however it has become part of the cannon – thanks in no small part to Robert Wilson himself.