Birth of the Geopolitical Age
Global Frontiers and the Making of Modern China
Shellen Xiao Wu




But bid life seize the present?

It lives less in the present

Than in the future always,

And less in both together

Than in the past. The present

Is too much for the senses,

Too crowding, too confusing—

Too present to imagine.

—ROBERT FROST, from “Carpe Diem”

·   ·   ·

An oft-recounted event. The audience entering the Maverick Concert Hall in Woodstock, New York, on 29 August 1952 came to hear a program of new music by members of the budding New York School. To start the penultimate piece on the program, pianist David Tudor walked onstage, sat before a piano, and quietly held a stopwatch. He turned the pages of a blank score (that was marked only with a title, vertical lines, and time indications), opening and closing the piano lid to frame the three precisely timed movements of John Cage’s “silent prayer.” “What they thought was silence,” said Cage of the audience, who, as he chided, “didn’t know how to listen, was full of accidental sounds.”1 As the story goes, wind stirred outside during the first movement; rain began to patter the roof during the second; and once it was too clear that Tudor would not play a note, audience members began to whisper and walk out during the third.

In the decades following the premiere of 4'33", a flood of ink has filled Cage’s silence. 4'33" demands that one make sense of it, perhaps by reading the composer’s well-known reflections about his experience the previous year in an anechoic chamber at Harvard University: hearing his blood flowing with the tinny ringing of his nervous system, Cage proclaimed there is no such thing as silence.2 One can also read, in his book called Silence, Cage’s affirmation that any listener is free to unite the hodgepodge of sound around them into their own perceptual composition.3 Anything can be music when so heard. The reader may soon discover that Cage envisioned an “all-sound music of the future,” redefining the role of the composer as an “organizer of sound,” one who, with the aid of emerging technologies of sound reproduction and an ever-growing body of recordings, “will be faced with the entire field of sound.”4 In Cage, this entire field of sound, or “all-sound,” becomes totalizing: a philosophical sound, present now and present always. “Until I die there will be sounds,” Cage averred in 1957: “And they will continue following my death. One need not fear about the future of music.”5

4'33" was not only a precisely timed frame or blank canvas for “all-sound” but was also a precisely timed frame for all sorts of inaudible chatter: the inner speech of Cage’s listeners. We do not know what really happened in the Maverick Concert Hall (any more than we can know what happened in any unrecorded performance), but we do know that a murmuring stream ran through it: speech—Cage’s speech, and the words of Cage’s critics, followers, and listeners. We can read this stream through the decades leading up to 4'33", in Cage’s own writings, and we can listen to the murmurs since 1952.

The legacy of Cageian sound depends on this endless murmuring flow of speech, narratives and questions about what music is, what the musical work is, and about the status of the author and of western musical aesthetics.6 4'33" may be read to anticipate various discursive threads in the arts and philosophy, including the “Death of the Author” that signaled the “birth of the reader,” since, as Roland Barthes affirmed in 1967, “a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination.”7 Whole books have been devoted to 4'33".8 It has been read as a symbol of the blurring of art with life, or of aesthetics with banality, that art and music critics have traced backwards at least to Cage’s predecessor Erik Satie, and forward through Marcel Duchamp toward conceptual art.9 It has been read as a liberation of sound on par with Cage’s French senior (who spent most of his life in New York), Edgard Varèse, and as a quest for the “all-sound music of the future” à la Pierre Schaeffer’s musique concrète.10 Douglas Kahn has described the rise of “all-sound” as a theoretical category in twentieth-century modernism, a conceptual shift made possible by new technologies and by musicians who—like Cage—faced the entire field of sound: “sound accumulated across a discursive diapason of one sound and all sound, from isolation to totalization.”11 Reading Cage’s above-quoted aphorism about the eternal presence of sound beyond the composer’s own life: “[i]t is here that Cagean all sound melded forever into always sound.”12 While some affirm that Cage flattened music into sound, thus flattening the composer’s ego, Richard Taruskin (citing Lydia Goehr) claims contrariwise that Cage elevated sound into the aesthetic realm of the nineteenth-century European concert hall, ultimately affirming the composer’s own writerly authority.13 Still others locate this authority in the inner space of the listener. Philip M. Gentry reads 4'33" as a “window into the tense negotiations between one’s private sense of self and one’s relationship with the world.”14 This refrain echoes others who take Cage’s silence to have been a reaction against the intense and bombastic expressions of, say, avant-gardist Pierre Boulez, Cage’s French correspondent, or even a queer resistance to the abstract expressionist ego.15

4'33" has been read to anticipate now-current questions of identity politics, of self-formation and sexuality. It has also been read as a denial of any overt questioning, a “Beat Zen” resistance to meaning.16 It has been read, in short, as both an affirmation and denial of authority and of romantic aesthetics, as a refusal and profusion of meaning, and as an effacement and disclosure of selfhood.

4'33" has been read, and therefore has been written.

·   ·   ·


Despite appearances, John Cage is not the subject of this book. To re-tell a re-telling—with all the possible ironies inherent in “reading” a piece like 4'33"—is to perform the kind of problem that the following pages will examine. The reader need not hurry to the back of the book to read the flurry of notes that has already commenced; this flurry performs the problem in question. To speak of “reading” a piece of music (especially a strange one like 4'33") is already, borrowing a phrase from Paul de Man, to allegorize reading, which is to make the act of interpretation a central feature of a work at the same time that a single definitive reading is precluded—the work thus deconstructs itself.17 Every Cage scholar knows that to write about 4'33" is already to write about other writings, to wade through a sea of ink. I begin by observing that this condition, “writing about writing,” does not just pertain to 4'33" but also characterizes much of twentieth-century music.

It is as if, by the time Cage and Tudor premiered 4'33", Euro-American art music had already prefigured the expansion and radicalization of the notion of “writing” that Jacques Derrida describes, with an air of mystery and of catastrophe, during the opening chapter of Grammatology (1967). “The concept of writing, no longer indicating a particular, derivative, auxiliary form of language in general,” Derrida writes, “no longer designating the exterior surface, the insubstantial double of a major signifier, the signifier of the signifier—is beginning to go beyond the extension of language. In all senses of the word, writing thus comprehends language.”18 Derrida portrays this “overwhelming” or “comprehension” of writing as a “profound reversal,” almost an invasion: writing effaces its limits, “reducing all the strongholds, all the out-of-bounds shelters that watched over the field of language.”19 Following Derrida’s words, one gets the sense that an epochal change had occurred: the term “writing” would no longer simply connote the material double of something that is present—the signified, which is here in a moment, present to the mind and pronounced in an act of speech. Whatever is here, whatever is signified, becomes in Derrida’s view just another signifier among others.

The imperative of Derrida’s view on writing has been well examined.20 Derrida’s “profound reversal” means a subversion of western phonocentrism, the belief according to which speech is the ideal medium for thought, expressing the soul through the breath; writing, on this view, would have to be the merely material double of speech, a breathless supplement lost if there is not a voice to speak it. To quote sinologist John Lagerwey’s succinct précis:

in Voice and Phenomena and Of Grammatology, Derrida denounces the Western metaphysical prejudice against writing—a prejudice that he traces from Plato through Rousseau to Lévi-Strauss—and he also critiques the constituent opposition between the “dead letter” and the “living voice.” In admirable pages on Plato, he shows the equivalences in the Platonic system between the notions of father, sun, voice, and life, in opposition to mother, moon, writing, and death. . . . The Latin West will think in terms at once ethical and metaphysical regarding the lexical couples of body/soul, matter/spirit, woman/man, politics/religion (or State/Church), always giving a negative value to the first term of each couple.21

When he writes of the “overwhelming” or “comprehension” of writing, Derrida flattens the field, undermining the privilege granted in western thought to the voice and mind above writing and the body, hence of man above woman or of “the West” above the other. Each of these metaphysical oppositions springs from “the metaphysics of phonetic writing (for example, of the alphabet),” which, in Derrida’s words from the opening page of Grammatology, had been “nothing but the most original and powerful ethnocentrism, in the process of imposing itself upon the world.”22 Once écriture expands to encompass “not only the physical gestures of literal pictographic or ideographic inscription, but also the totality of what makes [inscription] possible; and also, beyond the signifying face, the signified face itself,” then the privilege granted to speech as the living vehicle for thought can no longer remain unquestioned.23

While Derrida does not make the historical configuration about which he writes too clear, during the opening of Grammatology he implies that prior to the modern epoch writing had only been derivative, auxiliary, and a supplement to spoken language, but then it became revealed (as if on its own) that supplementarity in fact defines the possibility for any kind of signification to occur at all.

And thus we say “writing” for all that gives rise to an inscription in general, whether it is literal or not and even if what it distributes in space is alien to the order of the voice: cinematography, choreography, of course, but also pictorial, musical, sculptural “writing”. . . . All this to describe not only the system of notation secondarily connected with these activities but the essence and the content of these activities themselves. One might also speak of athletic writing, and with even greater certainty of military or political writing in view of the techniques that govern those domains today.24

I have wondered about the “we” (“on”) implied in this passage. On one hand, Derrida performs his own thesis, giving an air of historical inevitability to this “profound reversal”—as if suddenly, aujourd’hui during the 1960s, writing “invaded” language, exposing the play of difference and deferral at the heart of any and every act through which meaning may be conveyed. But, on the other hand, if we take Derrida’s “we” to refer to a milieu or to a moment during the mid-twentieth century, a set of historical questions emerges. What was going on in Derrida’s world? What choreographic, pictorial, sculptural, musical, or political writing was he reading? If a larger milieu (and not just one philosopher) hailed the radicalization of écriture, then what role(s) might other thinkers, and particularly artists, have played in signaling this “profound reversal”?

The philosopher was likely unaware of what Cage had done, yet his words well describe the premises and consequences of works like 4'33". Cage expanded the notion of writing—as composition—to encompass any and every sound, including whatever sounds happen to be here during the blank temporal frame of a “silent” piece. Cage can be said to have deconstructed the hierarchized binary oppositions between music and sound, the written and the oral, notation and audition, exposing the movement of all sound that is the condition of possibility for any such distinctions. The composer can also be said to have deconstructed the privilege that western musical traditions had granted to the author and to the urtext: he reduced music to the bare play of sounds, present for a moment, echoing in memory yet never to return. Any sound present is the composition. But, as we shall see, even as the composer went far to expand the notion of composition, to unseat composerly intention and to turn the performance venue into an empty frame—devoid of signification, of meaning and logos—he also retained something of the western metaphysical tradition that Derrida set out to deconstruct. Cage deconstructed the notion of composition but reserved—in fact, he intensified—a belief in the power of voice, of spontaneous utterance—here, this very second—as the model for creation. He was a thinker of presence.

The expansion of “writing” in twentieth-century music is the first theme that will organize this book. To interpret Cage’s music, and even to experience this music, is already—whether one means to or not—to dive into a bath of ink. Cage made explicit a tension that characterizes perhaps all Euro-American art music, a tension that may be termed a dichotomy of musical presence. Performed music is alive for its moment and then vanishes; ephemerality is its nature. Every special experience—the goosebumps, the shock, the reverie—comes after the moment in which sound is created. Like the “now” moment, music in performance constantly slips away—or, as Henri Bergson had it, “nothing is less [present] than the present moment.”25 One can only account for the present (from French le présent, or Latin praesentem, “immediate” or “in sight”) in retrospect. Since many traces of absent pasts linger in every experience of the performed present, music embodies a distinct temporal structure. It is here and then gone, and every movement of a finger on a key or of breath through a horn is afforded by, and is only thinkable in relation to, whatever one retains from the past.

The experience of music “in the present” may be termed the performed presence of music: music’s transient life in a specific space for a time. This sense of presence aligns with the usual connotation of the term in and beyond music scholarship. Presence usually refers to that which is beyond meaning, or, to paraphrase Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, that which is beyond meaning-based modes of interpreting the things of the world.26 Presence has to do with sensation, immediacy, and with discarding modes of interpretation that would privilege textuality, discourse, écriture. This is the sense of presence that Carolyn Abbate invoked when, in “Music—Drastic or Gnostic?,” she called for a new ethics of musical interpretation that would direct the scholar’s gaze toward the transient, or “drastic,” effects of music in performance as opposed to the meanings that may be summoned through “hermeneutics”—that is, through the exegetical reading of musical works as texts.27

Yet the performed presence of music is already gone. As soon as one recalls a musical moment, music is but a lingering trace: an echo, a memory that is shaped in part by how one wields words. A basic—though perhaps counter-intuitive—premise of this book will be that the lingering trace of music, whatever one grasps or refers to when one writes, is another form of presence; in fact, it is the only presence we can really know. This claim is counter-intuitive because to speak of presence is usually to infer that one can wade backward through the lingering traces of absent music to recapture something of the one-time-only event. Presence, in performance studies in the mode of Peggy Phelan or Erika Fischer-Lichte, means bodily immediacy or co-presence, that which is “unmarked,” un-repeatable in a performance.28 However, since the now in which music occurs is always outside itself, hollowed out by its relation to the near future while already shot through with traces of many absent pasts, our very experience of this present is already marked, already interpreted, already loaded with latent meanings. It is already shaped by lingering memories, by conscious or unconscious biases, the filter of what we know and of what we have practiced. Presence cannot be said to exist, never purely, never simply. There “is” no presence other than the leftover trace, the echo or double that one may mold through words to become something else.

In contrast with the performed presence of music, this other form of presence, which is somewhat like a linguistic double, is what might be termed the written presence of music. This is to paraphrase Derrida again, who claimed that Being or presence, a central notion of Euro-American (i.e., “Western”) philosophy, had only ever been a “written being” (l’être écrit).29 This claim was part of Derrida’s deconstruction of foundational metaphysical beliefs that had structured western philosophical thought. He derived the term “deconstruction” from Martin Luther, who used the Latin destructio to connote a method of questioning and de-constituting the theological heritage of the Church, and from Martin Heidegger, whose Destruktion carried Luther’s quest further, referring to an unravelling of the founding concepts of ontology: the discourse, science, or knowledge (logos) of being (on).30 The distinction between the performed presence of music and the “written being” of music may be understood, along these (dense) Derridean lines, as a modulation of the Heideggerian distinction between lowercase “being” (in German Seiend, or French l’étant, often translated as “entity” or “existent”) and uppercase “Being” (Sein or l’Être). “What do we mean by saying ‘this is a being’? What does it mean to be?” During a seminar given in China late in his life, Derrida answered: “Être/Sein is nothing. You can never find anything anywhere that we can call Sein, and yet Sein is presupposed each time we say ‘this is a being.’31 Being/Sein is not an entity: it is something of a mirage created by a language built on the distinction between ideal and sensible, signified and signifier.

The most significant part of Derrida’s deconstruction for this study will be his conviction that western thought in general rests on a faulty ground because every form of idealism, and even the metaphysics of the phonetic writing used in the west, presupposes that the “now” moment, the present, is somehow stable and self-sufficient. Derrida’s manner of approaching the philosophical question of the “now” or of presence was consistent throughout his career from his early studies of Edmund Husserl. Peter Salmon succinctly sums up Derrida’s early critique of Husserl’s concept of the “living present” (der lebendige Gegenwart):

Deconstruction is . . . born with Derrida’s analysis of Husserl’s “now”—that originary moment, that imaginary vantage point, where one can carry out a phenomenological description of the world as though time does not exist. . . . Husserl relies on this “now” to generate his philosophy and to set its limits, but the concept “now” is itself assumed, unquestioned. For Derrida this is an example, par excellence, of the “metaphysics of presence”—the unexamined assumption and therefore privileging of the notion that consciousness is fully present, that the world is fully present, and that we can analyse it with concepts which are fully present and that, in some sense, exist as things. Metaphysics privileges presence over absence.32

If the “now” is the basis of any idea—any referent—then “now” is no longer a spatio-temporal specificity but rather a general form: Being. This is what is meant by presence in the sense of praesentia, an abstract form of there-ness that is the condition for any ideality to be plausible. Derrida’s oft-mentioned “deconstruction of the metaphysics of presence” can be restated (in a less modish way) as a questioning of the presumed stability or endurance of presence. “What I tried to do,” Derrida stated during the China seminar, “was to deconstruct the main prescription of ontology as a science of something that can be considered present. That is to say, I tried to deconstruct the privilege granted to the present.”33

Music is an embodiment of this philosophical dilemma of the “now,” since by its nature, performed music strikes the senses right away, yet can seem to recall or manifest something that endures, or that has been present all along. Michael Gallope has termed this dichotomy a “paradox of the ineffable,” citing Arthur Schopenhauer’s affirmation that “music is as immediate an objectification and copy [Abbild] of the whole will as the world itself is, indeed as the Ideas are, the multiplied phenomena of which constitutes the world of individual things.”34 It is Schopenhauer’s use of the term Abbild that most intrigues Gallope. The paradox of ineffability connotes the strange situation that music is immediate to perception yet “copies,” and hence mediates, something else; in his own words, “music appears as a sensuous immediacy at the same time that it is mediated by forms and techniques.”35 An immediate mediation? Perhaps this duality is best understood, as Gumbrecht has suggested, “if one replaces Schopenhauer’s reference that music is an ‘immediate copy of the will itself’ with the formulation that it is ‘the embodiment of the will,’ less an Abbild than an alternative modality of its [the will’s] reality.”36 But whether one takes music as a copy or an embodiment of the will, the basic “paradox,” or dichotomy, still characterizes what music is: a “now” moment that is always outside itself. Music is a movement of différance as Salmon understands the term. “Différance . . . is the moment before this founding act of violence, where we are held before the decision,” that is, the decision about what to name something, the effort to oust indeterminacy in favor of the fixity of meaning: “[différance] is the moment of aporia, before there is a road taken and a road not taken.”37

To put it more boldly: music is presence. The very dichotomy of musical presence is the very dichotomy of western philosophy as ontology: the “now” moment is already gone, yet it leaves its trace. I will suggest throughout this book that the always vanishing nature of musical sound, instead of revealing or supporting a fixed, stable, and indeed “ontological” understanding of things, avowedly destabilizes ontology. The “now” is but a trace, and a trace of the erasure of the trace, yet western philosophy has always striven to deny the trace structure.38 As Fuoco B. Fann has it, “Western philosophy from Plato to Heidegger is,” according to Derrida, “ontology that attempts to delimit ‘being present’ or ‘now’ in the Logos; in other words, there has to be a way we can settle ‘being present’ or ‘now’ in writing!”

We are sitting here now getting older. Every second slips out of our fingers and there is nothing we can do about it. That’s the very nature of life. But since Plato, Western philosophy has taught us that we have to hold on to it because we can make it ontologically permanent. We must philosophize it so that is becomes permanent. This particular inquiry develops into written philosophy, namely Ontology.39

The will to settle the now in words—to make it “ontologically permanent” or present—also characterizes musicology, or music as anology, a logos: a discourse, science, or knowledge. How do you write about music? That is, how do you write about something that vanishes, that seems to resist language even as it moves like language and invites language? This book begins from the conviction that the dichotomy of musical presence, the “paradox of the ineffable,” is best understood as a shifting historical ratio. Musicians and other thinkers in different historical configurations have given more priority to “sensuous immediacy” or to “forms and techniques,” depending on their aims and means. An overall trajectory can, however, be discerned.

Whereas in nineteenth-century contexts the performed presence of music in concert halls and private venues came conceptually before music’s discursive elaboration—inspiring composers and their critics to write about what music can mean and what music can do to the self or to the soul—by the twentieth century it became possible for this relationship to be reversed. In short, whereas music once came before writing, during the twentieth century, writing began to efface music. When E. T. A. Hoffmann wrote of Beethoven that the composer took listeners “out of the everyday into the realm of the infinite,” for instance, or when Schopenhauer wrote that music allows a listener, through the paradoxically immediate medium of sound, to experience a torrent of emotions—joy, anger, striving, and melancholy—in their pure form (i.e., without attaching these feelings to a specific worldly referent), one can presume that when these philosophers wrote about music, it was the performed presence that inspired their awe.40 The profound experiences of music in the concert hall—and the intimate experience of studying this music in private with four-hand piano transcriptions, or, in Schopenhauer’s case, by playing Gioachino Rossini’s melodies on a flute—aided these thinkers on a spiritual journey.41 They then articulated ideas about music’s metaphysical import that would become emblematic (and, indeed, something of a historiographical caricature) of (German symphonic) romanticism.42

The era of Hoffmann and Schopenhauer inaugurated the modern form of the “written being” of music, its double that arises, specter-like, in the virtual space of language. After the turn of the twentieth century, however, as French modernists brought listeners down deliberately from Hoffmann’s “infinite realm” to the everyday, and as avant-gardists laughed in the face of meaning, things changed. Which leads us back to where we started, not specifically to 4'33", but to a dichotomy that characterizes perhaps all music, a dichotomy that Cage seems to have exploited for all it was conceptually worth in 1952.

·   ·   ·

Unlike a painter’s paint or a sculptor’s stone, the sonic material of music is elusive. Its ephemerality is part of what makes it meaningful for philosophers as for musicians and their listeners. It can seem so close, so present. We chase its trace down many curves of a pen impressed in paper, through grooves dug in a record, through data encoded in files, through movements trained in a musician’s muscles, and through the distant memories impressed in one’s self. And then, looking back, we see a pile of words in place of the absent sounds, a specter that threatens musical presence. By chasing music’s presence, we inevitably create more traces, more writings. Perhaps, after all, “the present” can only ever be a figment or mirage, something we can only recognize after the fact, in the movement of writing, once the game of references, deferrals, and differences has begun. When we return to the present, we have already fallen. The real present, the fleeting here and now, is, to paraphrase Robert Frost, perhaps too crowding, too confusing—too present to imagine.


Three main premises structure this book. The first has already been stated: music embodies the philosophical question about the “now,” or about the present; the “now” always vanishes yet presence is the basis by which anything can be known. The language we use, the designations we make, refer to something that is there, hence a stable presence, a general and abstract sense of there-ness, resides in the metaphysics of our language. Second: this question of the “now,” of the present, is at the heart of ontology—any ontology. A discourse on Being presupposes that Being has a stable existence. There is always “now.” But since there is no present, and the present is only knowable as a trace of a now-absent past, it is fair to say that presence is an ontological idea.43

This brings me to the third, and most important, theme of this narrative: that presence is a distinctly western idea, since ontology is a western thing. It is, in Emmanuel Lévinas’s words, a “philosophy of power” because to think ontologically is already to bring the other, that which is unknown and yet to be settled in words, into the domain of Being. Whatever is distinct and incomprehensible must be illuminated by the light of Being. “The relation with Being [l’être] that is enacted as ontology consists in neutralizing the existent [l’étant] in order to comprehend or grasp it.”44

It is worth pausing over the term “ontology,” and I will do so later. For now, it suffices to say that the idea of ontology that informs this book is drawn primarily from thinkers who have contended that the philosophical discourse on the nature of being has always amounted, in the west, to a kind of power game: Lévinas and Derrida, and—as I will describe below—Sylvia Wynter and Tendayi Sithole.45 Lévinas writes of (uppercase) Being as a light (a metaphor that Derrida, as we shall see, also employs): “[t]he neutralization of the other who becomes a theme or object—appearing, that is, taking its place in the light—is precisely his reduction to the same.” To “know ontologically” is to turn that which is yet to be named and yet to be written into a general object of knowledge, an illumination that “[removes] from being [i.e., the entity] its resistance” and its alterity, “because light opens a horizon and empties space—delivers being out of nothingness.”46 Derrida would later voice a similar idea when, during a conversation with his Chinese translator Ning Zhang, he defined the logos as a “gathering”:

If one tries to think, strictly speaking, what is philosophy (what you call the philosophical consistency), from that point of view, I have tried quickly enough, at once in the footsteps of Heidegger, but also turning away from Heidegger, to see there an acknowledgement of, or submission to the authority of what one calls in Greek the logos, meaning at once reason, discourse, calculation, speech—logos means all that—and also “gathering”; legein, that which gathers. Thus, the idea of a system.47

White Musical Mythologies: Sonic Presence in Modernism reassesses twentieth-century modernism by examining musicians who “gathered” various non-European and pre-modern forms of expression under the banner of sound. I describe some of the means by which a series of modernists—including Satie, Varèse, Boulez, and Cage—strove to intensify the performed presence of music, seeking to strip music bare of its normative syntax, to rid us of the historical baggage of (German/romantic or Italian/operatic) tradition(s), and therefore to construct various forms and figures of the primitive. The musicians studied here sought to convey—through sonic violence, shock, revelation, or even boredom—an abiding sense that something is wrong with us, and that the estrangements of modern society—of rationalism, capitalism, consumer culture, what have you—might be shorn in a profound moment of presence. This is the story of an irony, however, since while these modernists sought to amplify the performed presence of their music, they wound up foregrounding music’s “written being,” forging an ontological understanding of sound that persists in the pages of sound studies today. The presence that they sought is, after all, dichotomous.

Composers of art music had long sought fresh styles and new sounds by reconstructing a non-European other, whether through Mozart’s imitations of Turkish music, the exoticized characters of Bizet’s Carmen, or the rhythmic counterpoint that drew Debussy to Javanese gamelan. I suggest that these endeavors to imagine and to appropriate extra-European sounds became specifically “ontological” by the mid-twentieth century. This occurred as composers approached sound by way of primitivist musical tropes and techniques, referencing non-European peoples, quoting, mimicking, and re-imagining the sounds of the other (while not always citing their sources). The central idea that will join my descriptions of the composers studied here—whose works and thoughts will often appear quite distinct, demanding patient study on their own terms—will be that primitivism was the means through which twentieth-century Euro-American creators of avant-garde and experimental music forged an ontological understanding of sound. In other words, through various encounters (or encounter narratives) with otherness, a central philosophical idea of sound emerged, a kind of trans-historical figure of sound like the “all-sound” that we have already “read” in Cage. Sound became ontological.

Otherwise stated, White Musical Mythologies describes the emergence of the modernist credo that sound has an ontology, or a metaphysical reality that a composer or a scholar might reveal, and that may become the basis of art practice or of scholarly authority; once again, ontology is a power move. This book may therefore be read as a prehistory of our contemporary thought of sound, noting that sound studies is, by and large, just as Euro-western-centric as the form of modernism studied here.48 Sound is only thinkable today because of the modernists who have made it for us, and through the pages to follow, a collection of diverse—sometimes incompatible—beliefs about sound will emerge, many of which may be familiar.

Sound is the real itself, present here, now, and always; sound is a vibrant, immersive materiality out of which any particular music or human utterance emerges, and into which our voices die away; sound is therefore beyond perception and even beyond the human, an eternal energy in itself; at the same time, sound is also a vital resource for musicians; it is productive of musical form and technique, inspiring methods of organization, inscription, analysis, reproduction, visualization, simulation—in short, the media of écriture; sound may be liberated, dematerialized or idealized; it may also be banalized, returned to its inert, meaningless vibratory nature and made to fill the room like light and heat, as comfort in every form. But most crucially: sound emanates from the ethnographic other; it vibrates in the unseen realms opened by ancient spiritual practices and by hypnotic repetition and psychological experimentation; it echoes in the cacophony of the modern city as in ritual dance or chant; sound is something feminine, Black, beyond. Yet, even as the musicians studied here sought (in a deconstructive mode) to destabilize western traditions and the metaphysics of romantic music, they wound up ontologizing sound, re-affirming in a new and inextricable way the metaphysical beliefs about musical sounds that they sought to bracket. To quote Zakiyyah Iman Jackson,

appeals to move “beyond the human” may actually reintroduce the Eurocentric transcendentalism this movement purports to disrupt, particularly with regard to the historical and ongoing distributive ordering of race—which [tacitly] authorizes and conditions appeals to the “beyond,” maybe even overdetermining the “beyond’s” appeal.49

By casting sound as the beyond and casting the other as sound, these musicians wound up re-inscribing Eurocentric transcendentalism.

The “white mythology” named in this book’s title is, I will demonstrate, the myth of “pure sound,” the sound that Varèse sought to liberate, that Boulez sought to neutralize, and that Cage—following Satie’s half-winking quip that sound is an inert, meaningless comfort, a vibrating Furniture Music—cast as all-sound and always-sound. I describe the emergence of sound as these composers constructed a “West” against a “non-West,” the Same against the Other, taking cues, arrogating ideas, and appropriating forms of expression from this other. This primitive other was sometimes to be found within Europe or the United States, for instance, in medieval Catholicism or nineteenth-century transcendentalism, in the realm of the unconscious (newly discovered by the late nineteenth century), in the unorganized sounds of the modern cityscape, or in the incantatory clash of verbal sounds—the letters and syllables stripped of representational function in Dadaism and the murmuring streams of consciousness characteristic of surrealist poetry. But primarily, the other was reconstructed as avowedly outside the center, that is, as a voice, a dance, a ritual, or a vision emanating from the Global South.

The chapters to follow will trace these exoticist tendencies across modernist musical practice: the fascination exerted on Satie and fin-de-siècle mystics in his circle by medieval Catholicism (northern Europe’s pre-modern other, ever since the early romantics) and by the unconscious states revealed through hypnosis and other more occult practices (Chapter One); the inspiration Varèse took from the sounds of the New York cityscape and Dadaist sound poetry, on one hand, and from ethnographic surrealism on the other (Chapter Two); Boulez’s musical approximations of the shouts, noises, and rhythmic effects of Antonin Artaud’s screaming voice as the actor mimicked the sounds of Rarámuri ritual, as well as the composer’s appropriation of the poetics of Bahian Camdomblé in Le Marteau sans maître (Chapter Three); and the fascination exerted on Cage (and Derrida) by Wiener’s Cybernetics while Cage flattened composition into “all-sound,” appropriating words and ideas willy-nilly from Eastern thought (Chapter Four).

By examining musicians who strove to produce sonic presence, specifically by re-thinking the concept of musical writing (écriture), my inquiry opens into philosophies of sound and writing in twentieth-century France. I place these musicians in dialogue with contemporaneous French philosophers and theorists, pairing Satie with Bergson, measuring Varèse by Georges Bataille, listening with Boulez to Artaud, and, finally, examining Derrida’s notion of the “overwhelming” or “comprehension” of écriture alongside Cage’s effort to expand the notion of composition. The process of learning moves in both directions: White Musical Mythologies positions each of these modernist musicians in an anticipatory position leading to Derrida, suggesting that musicians already prefigured the “deconstruction” of western metaphysics before Derrida wrote his books. Deconstruction was always already musical.

And yet . . . Even as these modernists sought to destabilize the norms and mores of their musical pasts, they also intensified something of the Euro-western tradition, something very old and very white: ontology, the belief that the reality of things, whatever is foreign, unwritten, and unknown, may be given form, brought into the light, made part of a method or technique, and written into being. Musical modernism well embodies a tension that Geoffrey Bennington stated succinctly, summing up the consequences of Derrida’s body of thought: “deconstruction maintains that we are always in a tension between the metaphysical and its undoing.”50 These musicians, like other thinkers in their surrounds, worked stubbornly within this tension between, on one hand, the fixity of meaning and the monumentality of tradition, and on the other, the deconstruction of “the West.” Modernism was perhaps always in a tension between Hoffmann’s realm of infinite yearning and the formless indeterminacy of différance. White Musical Mythologies uses philosophy to illuminate music and uses music to open a new perspective onto the 1960s French intellectual milieu commonly grouped under the banner of “French theory.” We cannot fully understand French theory in its novelty and complexity, I suggest, without music and sound.


1. John Cage, in Richard Kostelanetz, Conversing with Cage, 2nd ed. (New York: Routledge, 2003), 70; David Nicholls, John Cage (Urbana and Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 58–60.

2. John Cage, A Year from Monday (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1969), 134.

3. “Here we are concerned about the coexistence of dissimilars, and the central points where fusion occurs are many: the ears of the listener wherever they are. This disharmony, to paraphrase Bergson’s statement about disorder, is simply a harmony to which many are unaccustomed.” John Cage, Silence: Lectures and Writings by John Cage (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1973), 12.

4. See Cage’s “Future of Music: Credo,” in Silence, 5.

5. Cage, “Experimental Music,” in Silence, 8.

6. In her discussion of 4'33", Lydia Goehr remarked that although “Cage’s ‘work’ reflects an attempt to shed music of its institutionalized constraints imposed by composer, performer, and concert hall,” Cage nevertheless “maintained control (however minimal) over the music” by using the traditionally established framing of score, piano, and venue. Cage “aims to bring music back into the real or natural world of everyday sounds,” but despite “whatever changes have come about in our material understanding of musical sound . . . the formal constraints of the work-concept have ironically been maintained.” Lydia Goehr, The Imaginary Museum of Musical Works: An Essay in the Philosophy of Music, rev. ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 264.

7. Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author,” in Image-Music-Text, trans. Stephen Heath (New York: Hill & Wang, 1977), 148; for the connection between Cage and Barthes’s “Death of the Author,” see G. Douglas Barrett, After Sound: Toward a Critical Music (New York and London: Bloomsbury, 2016), 22.

8. Kyle Gann, No Such Thing as Silence: John Cage’s 4'33" (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2010); Dieter Daniels and Inke Arns, eds. Sounds Like Silence; John Cage, 4'33", Silence Today: 1912, 1952, 2012 (Leipzig: Spector Books, 2012).

9. For the connection between Cage and Satie, see Alan M. Gillmor, Erik Satie (New York and London: W. W. Norton, 1988), 36, and Cage’s own essay, “Defense of Satie,” in John Cage: An Anthology, ed. Richard Kostelanetz (New York: Da Capo Press, 1970), 77–84; for Satie and the everyday, see Nancy Perloff, Art and the Everyday: Popular Entertainment and the Circle of Erik Satie (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991) and Steven Moore Whiting, Satie the Bohemian: From Cabaret to Concert Hall (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1999); for the collapse of aesthetics and banality vis-à-vis Duchamp and conceptual art, see Donald Kuspit, The End of Art (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

10. Douglas Kahn, Noise, Water, Meat: A History of Sound in the Arts (Cambridge, MA, and London: MIT Press, 1999).

11. Kahn, Noise, Water, Meat, 9; italics in original.

12. Kahn, Noise, Water, Meat, 191; italics in original.

13. Richard Taruskin, “Ne Plus Ultra (Going as Far as You Can Go),” in Music in the Late Twentieth Century: The Oxford History of Western Music, vol. 5 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 67–73.

14. Philip M. Gentry, What Will I Be: American Music and Cold War Identity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 121.

15. Jonathan D. Katz, “John Cage’s Queer Silence; or, How to Avoid Making Matters Worse,” GLQ 5, no. 2 (1995): 231–252.

16. Caroline A. Jones, “Finishing School: John Cage and the Abstract Expressionist Ego,” Critical Inquiry 19, no. 4 (1993): 628–665.

17. De Man described the “allegory of reading” in Proust, noting that while the narrator of À la Recherche du temps perdu invites the reader, through lush descriptions of various phenomena, to plunge right into Marcel’s world, Proust nevertheless foregrounds the act of reading—since Marcel’s love of novels is what compels his imagination—and therefore imposes a distance. An “allegory of reading,” in this sense, refers to the self-reflexive nature of À la Recherche, to the fact that the work is, in some sense, “about” reading. For de Man, Proust’s novel thus “deconstructs” itself, since it is impossible, by nature, to experience Marcel’s sensory world naively and simply and to take these phenomena, as Proust seems to imply, as a meta-reflection on the very act of reading, creating, and interpreting literature. For Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, therefore, de Man’s “allegory of reading” describes literary works that foreground the inadequacy of language’s referential power. Literary “deconstruction” in de Man’s sense occurs when a work demonstrates, through its own narrative logic, that “language cannot refer.” Paul de Man, Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Proust (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1979), see esp. 57–78; Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, “Presence Achieved in Language (With Special Attention Given to the Presence of the Past),” History and Theory 45, no. 3 (2006): 318.

18. Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), 7; italics in original.

19. Derrida, Of Grammatology, 7.

20. See Suzanne Lüdemann, Politics of Deconstruction: A New Introduction to Jacques Derrida (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2014).

21. John Lagerwey, “Dieu-Père/Dao-Mère: dualismes occidentaux et chinois,” Extrême-Orient Extrême-Occident, Hors-série (2012). Translation is mine.

22. Derrida, Of Grammatology, 3.

23. Derrida, Of Grammatology, 9.

24. Derrida, Of Grammatology, 9.

25. Henri Bergson, Matter and Memory, trans. Nancy Margaret Paul and W. Scott Palmer (New York: Zone Books, 1991), 150; italics in original.

26. Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, Production of Presence: What Meaning Cannot Convey (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004).

27. Carolyn Abbate, “Music—Drastic or Gnostic?,” Critical Inquiry 30, no. 3 (2004): 505–536.

28. This sense of presence will be taken up in Chapter Four in relation to Cage. Peggy Phelan, Unmarked: The Politics of Performance (London and New York: Routledge, 1993), 146; see also Erika Fischer-Lichte, The Transformative Power of Performance: A New Aesthetics, trans. Saskya Iris Jain (London and New York: Routledge, 2008), see esp. 38–74.

29. Derrida; see the section “The Written Being/The Being Written,” in Grammatology, 18–26.

30. Derrida, quoted in Ning Zhang, “Jacques Derrida’s First Visit to China: A Summary of His Lectures and Seminars,” Dao: A Journal of Comparative Philosophy 2, no. 1 (2002): 153.

31. Quoted in Zhang, “Jacques Derrida’s First Visit to China,” 154.

32. Peter Salmon, An Event Perhaps: A Biography of Jacques Derrida (London and New York: Verso, 2020), 5.

33. Salmon, An Event Perhaps, 154.

34. Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, vol. 1, trans. E. F. J. Payne (New York: Dover Publications, 1969 [original German 1818]), 257; italics in original.

35. Michael Gallope, Deep Refrains: Music, Philosophy, and the Ineffable (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2017), 10. And again: “if music is a sensuous immediacy, it cannot be immediate to our experience without taking recourse to some form of mediation” (246).

36. “Worum es hier geht, wird deutlicher, wenn man Schopenhauers Verweis, die Musik sei ‘unmittelbar Abbild des Willens selbst,’ ersetzt durch die andere Formulierung, sie sei ‘Verkörperung des Willens,’ weniger ein ‘Abbild’ als eine alternative Modalität seiner Wirklichkeit.” Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, “Von Geschmack zu Intensität: Lässt sich der existentielle Stellenwert von Mozarts Musik historisch erschließen?” Conference presentation; cited with the author’s permission.

37. Salmon, An Event, Perhaps, 78. “Différance will thus be the movement of play that ‘produces’ (and not by something that is simply an activity) these differences” by which a concept is named, since “the signified concept is never present in itself”; “every concept is necessarily and essentially inscribed in a chain or a system, within which it refers to another and to other concepts, by the systematic play of differences.” Radicalizing this play of differences into différance, Derrida stated that différance, which is not itself a concept, is “the possibility of conceptuality.” Jacques Derrida, “Differance,” in Speech and Phenomena and Other Essays on Husserl’s Theory of Signs, trans. David B. Allison (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1973), 140, 141.

38. To quote Bennington: “the fundamental thought” for Derrida

is that everything, everything one might want to give an account of—everything we might be inclined to think of in ontological terms—has to be thought of in terms of the structure of the trace, where there are never anywhere any self-present elements at all. . . . [T]he trace is always trace of a trace. All that there “is” is trace structures where everything is what it is only in being fundamentally and originarily involved with what it is not.

Geoffrey Bennington and Alberto Moreiras, “On Scatter, the Trace Structure, and the Opening of Politics: An Interview with Geoffrey Bennington,” Diacritics 45, no. 2 (2017): 40.

39. Fuoco B. Fann, This Self We Deserve: A Quest After Modernity (Berkeley: Philosophy and Art Collaboratory, 2020), 12, 34; italics in original.

40. Ernst Theodor Amadeus Hoffmann, “Beethoven’s Instrumental Music,” in E. T. A. Hoffmann’s Musical Writings: Kreisleriana, The Poet and the Composer, Music Criticism, ed. David Charlton, trans. Martyn Clarke (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 96. To quote Hoffmann’s famous essay: “Music reveals to man an unknown realm, a world quite separate from the outer sensual world surrounding him, a world in which he leaves behind all precise feelings in order to embrace an inexpressible longing” (237). And Schopenhauer:

[Music] does not . . . express this or that particular and definite joy, this or that sorrow, or pain, or horror, or delight, or merriment, or peace of mind; but joy, sorrow, pain, horror, delight, merriment, peace of mind themselves, to a certain extent in the abstract, their essential nature, without accessories, and therefore without their motives. Yet we completely understand them in this extracted quintessence.

Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Idea, vol. I, trans. R. B. Haldane and J. Kemp (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co., 1909), 338.

41. This is not to say that music was ever neatly separable from writing during Hoffmann or Schopenhauer’s nineteenth century. Rather, the very idea of music’s autonomy and its spiritual power was partly an affordance of written scores and print technology: Thomas Christensen has demonstrated, for instance, that four-hand piano transcriptions allowed musicians and critics, in the words of Austrian piano pedagogue Eugen Eisenstein, to “awake[n] the spirit and breath dormant in these forms”—that is, in transcriptions of Haydn or Beethoven playable by a pair of friends at a piano. “A meaningful, radiant performance” may bring this spirit to life, giving the listener a sense—maybe a fantasy—of the event that was to occur in the concert hall. Eugen Eisenstein, Die Reinheit des Clavier Vortrages: Dem Idealismus in der Tonkunst (1870), quoted in Thomas Christensen, “Four-Hand Piano Transcription and Geographies of Nineteenth-Century Musical Reception,” Journal of the American Musicological Society 52, no. 2 (1999): 266. See also Adrian Daub, Four-Handed Monsters: Four-Hand Piano Playing and Nineteenth-Century Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014). For Schopenhauer the Rossini-loving flautist, see Yael Braunschweig, “Schopenhauer and Rossinian Universality: On the Italianate in Schopenhauer’s Metaphysics of Music,” in The Invention of Beethoven and Rossini: Historiography, Analysis, Criticism, eds. Nicholas Mathew and Benjamin Walton (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 283–304.

42.. For Hoffmann and Schopenhauer’s historiographical importance vis-à-vis the philosophy of romantic music, see Karol Berger, A Theory of Art (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), esp. 133–138.

43. I am indebted to Fuoco B. Fann’s insights into the term and concept of ontology from comparative historical and philosophical perspectives. In personal correspondence as well as his writings, Fann has linked the ideas of many major thinkers—Michel Foucault, Derrida, and Lévinas among them—to contend that ontology, a central thread running through all western philosophy, has bolstered the privilege granted in western thought to phonetic language (as opposed to non-phonetic languages), and has also buttressed the modern knowing subject’s anthropocentrism. See Fann, This Self We Deserve, esp. 12–17, 25–34, 49–50, 132–142, and below.

44. Emmanuel Lévinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, trans. Alphonso Lingis (The Hague, Boston, and London: Martinus Nijkoff, 1979 [original French 1961]), 43–44.

45. See Sylvia Wynter, “On How We Mistook the Map for the Territory, and Re-Imprisoned Ourselves in Our Unbearable Wrongness of Being, of Désêtre,” in Not Only the Master’s Tools: African-American Studies in Theory and Practice, eds. Lewis R. Gordon and Jane Anna Gordon (London and New York: Routledge, 2006), and “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/Power/Truth/Freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation—An Argument,” CR: The New Centennial Review 3, no. 3 (Fall 2003); Tendayi Sithole, The Black Register (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2020).

46. Lévinas, Totality and Infinity, 43–44.

47. Ning Zhang, “Interview with Jacques Derrida: The Western Question of ‘Forgiveness’ and the Intercultural Relation,” Comparative and Continental Philosophy 12, no. 1 (2020): 14.

48. Things are, thankfully, changing: the ambiguous and ever-growing field of sound studies has finally begun to be “remapped,” and the intellectual debt that Global North scholars of music and sound owe to the South is beginning to be recognized anew. See Gavin Steingo and Jim Sykes, Remapping Sound Studies (Durham: Duke University Press, 2019).

49. Zakiyyah Iman Jackson, “Outer Worlds: The Persistence of Race in Movement ‘Beyond the Human,’” in José Esteban Muñoz, “Theorizing Queer Inhumanisms: The Sense of Brownness,” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 21, nos. 2–3 (June 2015): 215.

50. Geoffrey Bennington, Interrupting Derrida (London and New York: Routledge, 2000), 15; italics in original.