Ariel Nereson*

I was alone in the casita, puttering around and listening to John Cage.
I decided to sit down at my desk and transcribe what you say.
Cage is quoting of the answer Jasper Johns gave to a Swiss writer’s question about his—Jasper Johns’s—painting.
Cage reads with clarity and assured pacing.
Still, I had to use the remote control so as to stop and go at my own pace.
I wondered, what would Cage have made of the process I was imposing on his report of another writer’s report of Jasper Johns’s thoughts.

As choreographer Bill T. Jones tells this story, one of the seventy he shares in his 2012 work Story/Time, he is seated at a table and chair placed at the center of a grid. His voice is at turns irregular or measured, his breath shifting to support his phrasing. During this recitation, dancer Talli Jackson performs a solo, joints rolling smoothly and deliberately, like water following shoreline. Composer Ted Coffey adjusts the metallic sound that shares acoustic space with Jones’s vocalization. The story lasts exactly one minute, timed in reference (reverence?) to John Cage’s 1958 work Indeterminacy, a series of one-minute stories accompanied by modernist music. The story’s inclusion in the evening’s performance has been decided by random number generation, an interpretation of Cage’s chance operations. Story/Time is a collaborative repurposing of chance operations and a revision of Indeterminacy that foregrounds kinetic storytelling in conversation with the meaning-making work (or lack thereof) of sound that Cage emphasized in his performance.

Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company perform Story/Time with Bill T. Jones, seated. Photo by Paul B. Goode

Jones achieves the “necessary working together of all materials used” that Cage championed in 1939 as the new music and dance (Cage 2011: 88), but with a shift in perspective born from friction between an avant-garde tradition of durational performance that, in Jones’s view, Cage represents, and the black lived experience that Jones embodies. Jones writes that as he listened to Indeterminacy, an act of listening that becomes the story above, oppositional responses emerged: a deep desire for “a tradition, an intellectual home” (Jones 2014: ix) and the simultaneous and “unacknowledged anxiety I have in embracing John Cage as an influence” (x). Much of this anxiety springs from a perceived lacuna, if not hostility, in a Cagean lineage of the avant-garde (already established as a presence in contemporary dance through Cage and Merce Cunningham’s collaborations) based in racial difference. As Fred Moten summarizes: “the idea of a black avant-garde exists, as it were, oxymoronically—as if black, on the one hand, and avant-garde, on the other hand, each depends for its coherence upon the exclusion of the other” (Moten 2003: 32).

Jones’s storytelling reflects the complicated multiplicity of his reactions to Cage; Jones addresses Cage in the third person and then in the second, unsure of the intimacy of the relation. Through Jones’s sonic and kinesthetic exploration of the relationship between aesthetics and identity/lived experience, he questions the racial politics of the Cagean avant-garde, asking, “Who was he [Cage] speaking to? Whom was he making his work for? Was there room for someone like me in his milieu?” (Jones 2014: 101). In Story/Time, Jones makes room: setting up shop center stage, spinning tales from the space of memory that take physical shape onstage, altering Cage’s “milieu” by presenting a wide range of sensory stimuli.

Jones and Cage crossed paths a handful of times before Cage’s death in 1992, often within a network of arts patrons. For Jones, these encounters were formative, particularly his first experience of Cage’s work during an experimental performance by Cage at SUNY Binghamton, in 1972: “that night proved to be a sort of second birth, or coming into consciousness, of the world of ideas or what one might call a tradition of artistic discourse” (Jones 2014: 2).

Story/Time bears a clear but ambivalent relationship to Indeterminacy, a term that not only titles a specific work, but that also defines a “world of ideas” about making and performing durational art. The version of Indeterminacy Jones takes up is a 1959 revision of Cage’s original 1958 lecture, which adds David Tudor’s performance using piano and radios of Cage’s Concert for Piano and Orchestra.

The story order is random, as is the musical order, and often decided during the performance. Story/Time adds dance to this equation and de-emphasizes indeterminacy in performance. While chance operations impact the order of the stories, this order is created and posted prior to each performance. There is room for structured improvisation during the performance, but the order is set, and thus Story/Time is not fully indeterminate in Cage’s definition of the term. Interestingly, Jones bypasses a 1965 collaboration between Cage and Cunningham, How to Pass, Kick, Fall, and Run, wherein, as Cage recounts, “Sitting downstage to one side at a table with microphone, ashtray, my texts, and a bottle of wine, I tell one story a minute” (Cage 1967: 133). The table, texts and microphone remain in Story/Time, though they move center stage, and green apples and a bottle of water replace the ashtray and wine. How to Pass does not appear to have, for Jones, the genealogical influence that the 1959 recording of Cage and Tudor does. Ultimately, Story/Time is about reckoning with a process, not a product, and choosing to work with Indeterminacy rather than How to Pass may reduce kinetic interference.

Story/Time combines the interanimation of voice, sound and motion, with an understanding of storytelling as a meaning-making filter for each of these sensory phenomena. For all sensory processes, biology exists within socio-cultural experience, and the biomechanics of producing vocal sound are always in relationship to cultural contexts with differing valuations of individual sounds.

The use of sound in Story/Time is both aesthetic and political, “embracing the exigencies of sonic expression as the complex articulation of self” (Brooks 2014: 205). The vocabulary of sound studies further specifies how Jones repurposes Cage through his instrument, cutting into an artistic tradition of the avant-garde that feels closed to him. Noise, silence and sound are not only sonic but kinesthetic in Story/Time, foregrounding the body and its conditions of freedom and constraint, or what Barthes has described as the “grain” of the voice: the “signifying weight” of the body (Barthes 1988: 185).

Vocal Sound

The voice of an artist is usually considered in two senses: a) the physical voice and its qualities of expression, and b) the artist’s aesthetic point-of-view as distinguished from others. These senses combine in Jones’s storytelling and, particularly, in his singing of Bessie Smith’s 1928 “Empty Bed Blues,” a song whose lyrics are delivered at random intervals throughout the evening.

In his 1944 critique of the state of modern dance, “Grace and Clarity,” Cage argued that modern dancers should adopt a formalist, rhythmical structure that would avoid what he believed was an unfortunate inheritance: “the strength the modern dance once had was not impersonal but was intimately connected with and ultimately dependent on the personalities and even the actual physical bodies of the individuals who imparted it” (Cage 2011: 89). Cage summarizes his disapproval of this history: “Personality is a flimsy thing on which to build an art” (Cage 2011: 90).

Of course, the notion that the artist’s physical body need not influence the artist’s production is one based in privilege. The artist’s physical body, including the voice, is shaped in myriad ways by its raced and gendered status (amongst other inscriptions). This reality is intensified in dance, where embodiment, or the “actual physical body,” is both the material and the product, the medium and the message. While Barthes’ description of the grain of the voice as the “signifying weight” of the body is meant to apply to the first definition of voice, the production of vocal sound, it cannot help but address the second definition as well, of voice as point-of-view, wherein the grain is the profundity of embodied, lived experience.

In Cage’s Indeterminacy, his voice is in conversation with instruments (sounded by Tudor, but nonetheless predominantly present as instruments), while, in Story/Time, Jones’s voice is part of an explicit dialogue of bodies. Dancers’ bodies have their own voices (in both senses) and resist the kind of instrumentalizing that Cage advocates in the pursuit of supposedly neutral qualities of grace and clarity. Throughout the performance choreography counters, corrects and deepens the phonic and sonic meanings bodied forth in Jones’s storytelling. Two such moments occur in quick succession early in the work, when a bell sounds each minute’s passing, “brrring!”

In the first, Jones tells the story of a press conference held in preparation for the premiere of Story/Time, during which a fire alarm went off and the conference had to be evacuated. It is a wordy story filled with expository prose, and Jones rattles it off at a fast clip, beholden to the timer. To Jones’s right, dancers Jenna Riegel and Talli Jackson perform a slow, erotic duet on a couch framed by a transparent screen that, with Robert Wierzel’s lighting, demarcates another playing space within the grid. They move lusciously, deliberately, sometimes of their own accord, and at other times softly manipulated by Paul Matteson, who, with his back to the audience, regularly steps back to gaze at their tableaux. They pass a green apple between them, referencing the story of Adam and Eve. Dramaturgically, this choreography is a welcome counterpoint to Jones’s clipped delivery, providing not only a kind of kinetic drag on Jones’s sonic propulsion, but also inserting the private and personal into a story about professional life. Jones’s professional self becomes tangibly grafted to the private self, as represented by the body’s desires and tactile experiences, gesturing towards the impossibility of artistic neutrality.

In his search for principles of making, Jones “turn[s] to my mentor [Cage], who has said that the first importance to the composer is to find something new. I counter by saying that is certainly important, but just as important is that the composer finds something— rather than original—authentic” (Jones 2014: 16). This turn from originality to authenticity pinpoints the friction between “avant-garde” and “black” that Moten articulates, and introduces the sonic and kinesthetic qualities of the black voice as the source of authenticity (derivative of the role of the “primitive” in the early avant-garde tradition).

Jones’s choices of how to perform his voice in Story/Time, particularly his use of a blues vocal delivery, interrogate the aesthetic of indifference originally ascribed to Cage’s chance operations by Moira Roth. Roth theorizes that, using “neutrality as their springboard” (Roth 1977: 48), a cluster of artists including Cage, Cunningham, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Marcel Duchamp developed “Coolness and intelligence . . . [as] the hallmarks of the Aesthetic of Indifference. . . . [T]here was among the new group a widespread proclaimed disdain for traditional artistic manual skills and the artist’s personal touch” (50). In Jones’s description of the Story/Time project, the language of discourse and the world of ideas echo this valuation of intelligence and “coolness.”

However, for Jones authenticity rather than originality becomes his entrée into this tradition, utilizing blues rather than jazz or bebop, often considered musical signatures of the black avant-garde. The first time we hear Jones’s blues delivery he is concluding a story about overhearing Smith’s recording in the New York Public Library archives. The story begins with cacophony, Jones’s voice in competition rather than collaboration with dancer I-Ling Liu’s vocalizations and Coffey’s ambient sound. Coffey manipulates Liu’s voice, causing it to echo and bounce off of the screen framing her. She and Jennifer Nugent, dancing in her own screened square, perform quick, short phrases, in near continuous motion. We hear Jones sing, “He’s a deep sea diver with a stroke that can’t go wrong,” his voice sliding between notes, often falling onto a blues note, using an uneven rhythm. Coffey alters Jones’s amplification as he starts singing, distorting the clarity and volume so that Jones sounds like a recording playing in another room. Nearing the end of the minute, Coffey’s manipulations of Jones and Liu’s voices and his ambient sound abruptly cease, and as Jones sings the next verse, “He boiled my fresh cabbage and he made it awful hot,” we hear him clearly.

Bill T. Jones and I-Ling Liu perform Story/Time. Photo by Paul B. Goode

Stripped of sonic machinations, Liu’s exclamations and Jones’s blues singing feel sharply present and immediate. But Jones plays with concepts rather than promoting them, and is well aware of the tropes of authenticity that cling to black cultural expression and the blues, in particular, as well as non-white bodies generally.[1] With every “authentic” delivery of a blues lyric, understood as authentic in the grain of Jones’s voice, his embodied presence and representation of blackness and his use of a typical blues vocal style, Jones undercuts the stability of this trope by engaging the “originality” represented by Cage’s chance operations.

The juxtaposition of a supposedly authentic blues with an abstract originality questions both tropes of performance categorization. We might understand this juxtaposition through Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s notion of “signifying.” Returning to Barthes’s description of the grain of the voice as the “signifying weight” of the body, the notion of signifying becomes usefully triangulated in Story/Time with Gates and with Jones’s self-aware relation to Cage: “I choose Cage because as an icon he is better able to absorb all the symbolism and significations I direct at this tradition I have labored so long to be a part of” (Jones 2014: 4). For Gates, signifyin(g) is a uniquely African American approach to revision or repurposing, a “structure of performance” (Gates 1989: 69). Represented by Gates’s signifying monkey, signifying is “a term of (anti)mediation . . . between two forces he seeks to oppose for his own contentious purposes, and then to reconcile” (Gates 1989: 56).

The juxtaposition between “unmediated” blues song and intensely manipulated sound and noise is Jones’s way of signifying on both the tropes of black authenticity and the whiteness of the avant-garde. Authenticity’s origin in non-white “others” is made available for further critique in Liu’s performance, as she speaks her native language, Taiwanese. If, for Barthes, “The ‘grain’ is . . . the materiality of the body speaking its mother tongue,” then Jones provides a critical complication wherein vocal sound is not necessarily authentic and spoken language can be the least mediated presence within a cacophony (Barthes 1988: 182).

Noise and Silence

Jones and Cunningham are not the only choreographers to work with Cage’s techniques. Trisha Brown, another major influence on Jones, experimented with Cage’s work in several pieces in the 1970s, finding that “shifting between movement and storytelling facilitates these languages’ mutual interference” (Rosenberg 2017: 224). My attention here is to both the sonic and phonic dimensions of storytelling, mirrored inexactly by the sounds of the body in motion, by the relationship of the sonic (breath, feet on the floor, hands slapping) to the phonic (phrasing, gesture, repetition) within choreography. Speaking of the impossibility of working in one register (storytelling) without another (choreography), Jones describes his initial thinking: “I thought that’s what I would do: make a program of telling stories. . . . And then something happens. There is this hungry child, which is called a dance company. And the child has an appetite, always: ‘What’s new?’” (Jones 2012). Within the genesis of Story/Time, movement interferes, demanding originality.

The idea of interference is a useful one for thinking through sound, noise and silence in Story/Time. These categories include Jones’s vocal performance, simply via the biomechanics of speech and song, but also extend beyond it, each category stretched by a relationship of mutual interference with dance. Jacques Attali defined noise as “a resonance that interferes with the audition of a message in the process of emission” (1985: 26). Kay Larson notes of Cage’s distinction between sound and noise, “All that was required was a decision to accept all sounds as good, by ridding oneself of mental prejudices that elevated some sounds into ‘music’ and derided others as ‘noise’” (2013: 6).

For Jones and Coffey, sounds have multiple functions, sometimes becoming music, other times noise. The tyranny of the phonic, of hearing language as linguistic meaning without acknowledging its sonic qualities, is of mutual concern to Attali, Cage, Jones and Coffey. About two-thirds of the way through Story/Time, noise becomes voice. Many of Jones’s stories are familial; this one is a story from his mother, Estella. As Jones speaks, dancers run in and out of trios and duets and Coffey builds a soundscape, including coffee maker percolation, dripping and clanging metal that begins rhythmically but soon loses regularity. Jones’s voice is drowned out, impossible to hear, then as the soundscape drops out, “she was found dead, standing tiptoe, with her face in the wall.” Our interest is piqued, and Jones continues, “My mother said” but before we can hear the explanation, a surplus of noise fills the aural space. Jackson performs a fragmented solo in dim side lighting as Jenkins watches. Jones, center with a spotlight, continues to speak, his voice muffled by the noise. The last column of the grid is brightly lit, but empty. Occasionally, the noise recedes and we hear Jones rushing quickly through the text, soon to be overtaken again by the noise. I say noise, and not sound, because here sound interferes with the phonic meaning transmission of language that we cannot help, due to the highly dramatic narrative, but desire. The choreography’s abstraction provides no narrative clarity.

The forcefulness of Coffey’s noise impacts Jones’s motion, in the increased tempo of breath and text, and the dancers’ choreography, as they respond with more speed as well. Moten writes of pianist Cecil Taylor’s improvisation, “words that had been thought of as the elements of a purely constative expression are radically reconnected to their essential sonic performance by eccentric physical action, by an excess of the physical that deforms the word conceived of as a mere vessel of meaning” (Moten 2003: 48). A similar dynamic is at work here: the kinetic density of movement and aural intensity of Coffey’s soundscape dampen Jones’s vocal storytelling, offering the audience member interpretation based on other rubrics than the phonic. Noise, understood here as interference with a message (the story), is aural and kinesthetic, creating an abstract surplus of stimuli that juxtaposes the work’s storytelling structure.

If there is breath, there is motion, there is sound. The impossibility of silence and stillness, useful though they are as compositional tactics, undergirds both Cage and Jones’s work. Cage recognized this when he noted, “There is no such thing as an empty space or an empty time. . . . In fact, try as we may to make a silence, we cannot. . . . I entered one [an anechoic chamber] at Harvard University several years ago and heard two sounds, one high and one low. When I described them to the engineer in charge, he informed me that the high one was my nervous system in operation, the low one my blood in circulation” (Cage 2011: 8).

This phenomenon appears throughout Cage’s work and was part of the 1972 performance at SUNY Binghamton that Jones attended, where, as he recalls, “the microphone was picking up frequencies bouncing off the boat and the woman that fed back into the system” (Jones 2014: 2). In Story/Time, dancers’ stillness is choreographed variably: they stand or sit and watch others without deliberate motion, or they freeze mid-motion. Either way, it is an imperfect gesture as breath and blood maintain the muscular-skeletal relation required.

Jennifer Nugent (foreground), Erick Montés Chavero, and Bill T. Jones perform Story/Time. Photog by Paul B. Goode

Silence in vocal delivery is juxtaposed often in Story/Time with frenzy in movement; likewise, stillness in the body is juxtaposed with a surplus of sound or rapid storytelling. In one such moment, Jones begins a story: “I knew the monologist Spalding Gray casually in the mid-1980s.” Jenkins and Nugent duet directly up stage left of Jones, behind a screen. His delivery of this sentence is brisk but measured, and then he is silent. There is no deliberate sound until Coffey cues the next beat with a piano thud. They continue a canon phrase from the previous story, their tempo increasing through Jones’s pause, which ushers in a slower pace of delivery for the rest of the story. Jackson faces upstage on the diagonal, watching Jenkins and Nugent through Jones, a neat staging of the audience’s experience. During Jackson’s stillness and Jones’s silence, Jenkins and Nugent give the lie to the reality of either stillness or silence, continuing their seamless duet, breath evident in each fluid exchange. The choreography and storytelling share an intentional phrasing connected to the breath, one that exists often in tension with the clock that commands arbitrary switching from one story to the next. Their movement foregrounds the body as the condition for meaning-making, for the development of concepts, including noise, silence, stillness and sound. And the body is not a neutral place indifferent to the world or the world to it.

Much of Story/Time argues that the phonic cannot be separated from the sonic, that linguistic meaning emanates from embodied experience, that a neutral investigation of sound is not, in fact, possible either as an academic or artistic enterprise because of the foundational quality of the body to human experience. Jones’s search for an artistic lineage is one shaped by the racialized body; in particular, the problematic history of the black body and voice in the avant-garde tradition.

Symptomatic of the avant-garde’s relationship to race is African American composer Anthony Braxton’s claim, “Both aleatory and indeterminism are words which have been coined . . . to bypass the word improvisation and as such the influence of non-white sensibility” (1985: 366). Returning to Jones’s story that opens this essay, what would Cage make of Jones’s signifying process? In an interview, Cage wonders, “Should there be other people working with chance operations? I think so, yes. There’s so many ways to do it, and I’ve only been able to do the ones that I noticed. Whereas the thing that makes us all so difficult for each other is that we notice different things” (Corbett 1994: 189). For Jones, a difficulty with Cage is the noticing of sound as neutral, which requires muffling the cultural noise of embodiment. The sensory phenomena of noticing are engaged in an endless feedback loop with the self. Though chance operations shape every Story/Time performance, Jones often keeps the same story as the closer, one where, after viewing a work by Michel Auder, Jones “explain[s] to Michel how his work had forced me to confront my own seeing/selection process . . . he said, ‘You motherfucker! You were thinking about yourself while watching my work!’” While humorous in this telling, Auder’s comment cuts to the crux of Jones’s project of re-purposing Cage, wherein Cage’s influence is filtered through Jones’s experience of black embodiment. When Jones layers an explicit engagement with movement, with the kinesthetic, onto Cage’s approach, he provides a vital corrective, offering the body as a differential condition for participating in artistic discourse, for noticing.


[1] For an analysis of the gendered dynamics within the trope of blues authenticity, see McGinley 2014.

Works Cited

Attali, Jacques. Noise: The Political Economy of Music. Trans. Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985.

Barthes, Roland (1988) Image Music Text. Trans. Stephen Heath. New York: The Noonday Press, 1988.

Braxton, Anthony. Tri-Axium Writings. Vol. 1. Hanover, NH: Frog’s Peak Music, 1985.

Brooks, Daphne A. “Afro-Sonic Feminist Praxis: Nina Simone and Adrienne Kennedy in High Fidelity.” Black Performance Theory. Ed. Thomas F. Defrantz and Anita Gonzalez. Durham: Duke University Press, 2014. 204-22.

Cage, John. Silence: Lectures and Writings, 50th Anniversary Edition. Ed. Kyle Gann. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2011.

Cage, John. A Year From Monday: New Lectures and Writings. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1967.

Cage, John, and David Tudor. Indeterminacy. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian/Folkways, 1992. CD.

Corbett, John. Extended Play: Sounding Off from John Cage to Dr. Funkenstein,. Durham: Duke University Press, 1994.

Gates, Henry Louis Jr. The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African American Literary  Criticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Jones, Bill T. Story/Time: The Life of an Idea. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2014.

Jones, Bill T. “Chance Ruminations.” Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 2012.

Larson, Kay. “Five Men and a Bride: The Birth of Art ‘Post-Modern.’” PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 35.2 (2013): 3-19.

McGinley, Paige. Staging the Blues: From Tent Show to Tourism. Durham: Duke University Press, 2014.

Moten, Fred. In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003.

Rosenberg, Susan. Trisha Brown: Choreography as Visual Art. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2017.

Roth, Moira. “The Aesthetic of Indifference.” Artforum 16.3 (1977): 46-53.

Story/Time. 2012. Directed by Bill T. Jones and Janet Wong. Montclair, NJ: Music Feature Films, 2014. Streaming.

*Ariel Nereson is Assistant Professor of Dance Studies at the University at Buffalo – SUNY as well as a choreographer and dramaturg. She researches the body in motion across dance, theater and performance art. Her current monograph project is Democracy Moving: Bill T. Jones Dances Lincoln. Her articles and reviews have appeared in several publications across theater, dance and American studies, including Theatre JournalTheatre Survey, American Quarterly, The Journal of American Drama and Theatre, and Studies in Musical Theatre.

Copyright © 2017 Ariel Nereson
Critical Stages/Scènes critiques e-ISSN: 2409-7411

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Sound in Motion: Bill T. Jones Repurposes John Cage
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