ANTHONY MELLORS: ‘Williams Mix’: Collage and Synthesis

‘I threw the I-Ching yesterday / it said there might be some thunder at the well.’ Bob Dylan, New York Sessions version of ‘Idiot Wind’, mid-seventies.

While Cage’s compositions for magnetic tape seem at first far removed from the organic, proprioceptive aesthetic that has come to be associated with Black Mountain, his zen-conscious, mushrooming-gathering, mud-pie making ambience is highly ethically Black Mountain in nature. And Cage’s approach to making is holistic enough to include the inorganic within the organic, so to speak. The pioneering electronic piece Williams Mix was to be my exemplar of the co-operative spirit of experimentation at Black Mountain. However, its place in the history of the College is slightly awkward, for reasons that will become clear. Nevertheless, it’s a genuinely innovative work and one of Cage’s best ‘compositions’. Williams Mix was devised in New York in 1951 and realized electronically between 1952, when Cage was teaching a summer seminar at Black Mountain, and 1953, when it was premiered at the Festival of Contemporary Arts, University of Illinois. In his Forward to Silence, Cage mentions only that at Black Mountain he organized an event that involved the paintings of Bob Rauschenberg, the dancing of Merce Cunningham, films, slides, phonograph records, radios, the poetries of Charles Olson and M. C. Richards recited from the tops of ladders, and the pianism of David Tudor, together with my Juilliard lecture, which ends ‘A piece of string, a sunset, each acts.’

This must have been Theater Piece 1, staged in August 1952, which received mixed responses from an audience divided between the College’s Bauhaus-inspired experimentation and a new extempore approach represented by Cage and Olson. The composer Stephan Wolpe, for example, walked out in protest at the ‘chaos’. (Diaz, 81) The response to the summer seminar, however, was indifference. The project was to assemble the material for Williams Mix by cutting and splicing pieces of pre-recorded tape according to a score that resembles a dress-maker’s pattern, with the tape laid onto the score for cutting, its durations or lengths generated by a random method involving the I Ching. This must have seemed a daunting and tedious project to the students because none of them signed up for it, and the mix was eventually begun by Cage, Earle Brown, David Tudor, and Bebe and Louis Barron, and completed after about nine months in various locations, including Cage’s apartment and the Barrons’ Greenwich Village electronic music studio. A strange project, too, because Williams Mix is one of the first compositions to be generated entirely electronically. Cage’s earliest use of magnetic tape was for the soundtrack of Herbert Matter’s film Works of Calder (1950), where it accompanied pieces for prepared piano (an adaptation Cage had invented in the late 1930s), and Imaginary Landscape No. 5 (1952). The early works of Edgard Varèse are clearly an influence: from Hyperprism and Intégrales in the 1920s, and Ionisation in 1931, Varèse composed non-developmental, spatialized soundscapes which emphasize rhythm over pitch and anticipate Cage’s interest in percussion and electronics. Another 1930s piece, Equatorial, was written for the Theremin and later adapted for the Ondes Martenot, an instrument used also in Messiaen’s Turangagîla Symphony of 1948.* Messiaen’s eclectic approach to composition, which combined serialism with Eastern rhythms, Debussy with Varèse, fits perfectly well in Cage’s world with Henry Cowell’s tone clusters (intermediate points between fixed pitch and noise). And the French context is significant: as soon as he arrived at Black Mountain in 1948, Cage organized a performance of Satie’s ludicrous one-act opera The Ruse of the Medusa as a way of liberating the College from its Germanic seriousness, and he lectured almost exclusively on Satie, whose emphasis on rhythm and duration he preferred to the harmonic tradition represented by Beethoven.

Cage began to experiment with magnetic tape only a couple of years after Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henri coined the term musique concrète for their experiments in sound ‘images’ – ‘juxtaposed, overlaid, fragmented, enlarged, dissected’ [Salzman, 42]– at the Studios of French national radio, and Williams Mix is directly influenced by this event.

The title, Williams Mix, is a dedication to Paul Williams (not to be confused with the African-American architect Paul Revere Williams – see the entry in Wikipedia), a former student and faculty architect of Black Mountain who gave Cage and his friends $5000 to pay for the use of the Barrons’ studio. Shortly afterwards, Paul and Vera Williams purchased with inherited money 116 acres of land in Stony Point, Rockland County, New York, on which they founded an artists’ colony called The Land. Cage lived here from 1954 to the late sixties, replacing his usual urban environment (which he could no longer afford) with a rural one, yet continuing his experiments with electronic composition, which was precisely what Williams had had in mind.

The score of Williams Mix is 192-3 pages long and contains over 3000 tape splice shapes, with each shape requiring a minimum of 8 measurements. Each page represents 1.1/3 seconds of sound (20 inches per page equal to 15 inches per second tape speed) amounting to 255 seconds in total. (Duration is therefore calculated in inches rather than seconds; a second becomes 15 inches, and Morton Feldman got Cage to include 1, 097 sounds into a quarter of an inch of tape.) 8 single track or 4 double track tape machines are specified. The types of splice are unusual and various, allowing for fragmentation, fades, loops, and backward movements, therefore changing the sound envelope. 6 sound-types are designated: city sounds, country sounds, electronic noises, human sounds, sounds made by wind, including pitched sounds such as in song, and discreet noises requiring amplification. Initially, a deck of 1024 cards were used to select the sounds; each splice includes 1 or 2 sound types; when 2 are indicated, these are mixed together. Sounds with constant pitch, such as a foghorn, are never repeated more than twice, but sounds with variable pitch, like the susurrus of a street market, are repeated many times. The sounds then become part of a taxonomy involving the relative predictability of their frequency, timbre, and amplitude. Overall, 222 sources amount to 1024 sounds. According to Tom Erbe, who has generated a digital version of the mix, in practice nearly three times the number of source sounds were used. In various interviews, Cage himself says that he drew from a library of 500 to 600 sounds, yet according to Larry Austin ‘the actual number of different recorded sounds used in the Cage score for Williams Mix is 350, their iterations totalling 2, 128.’ The Peters Edition of the original work states the ‘The compositional methods were I Ching chance operations.’ What this seems to have meant is the use of the basic tossing method used to provide numerical values for the I Ching hexagrams, which are then applied to questions asked by the composer about formal components of the score rather than applied to the meanings of the hexagrams themselves. In any event, hundreds of operations were needed to determine the various parameters that governed the assembly. The nature of each splice was determined by chance from a number of predetermined choices. However, one choice required the editor to freely make a splice in whatever pattern he or she wished, however irregular or unconventional. (Thom Holmes, Electronic and Experimental Music)

We might need to talk about what it means to define the process as deploying a chance-based factor ‘n’ to translate the given number of the rhythmic structure (5-6-16-3-11-5) to inches. [Falkenburg] *

The slightly earlier Imaginary Landscape No. 5 was part of Cage’s ‘Project of Music for Magnetic Tape’ and involved sampling material from 42 phonograph records. Williams Mix, however, is a prime example of musique concrète in that it uses found sounds, irrespective of whether these are pitched (in other words, ‘noise’). The Barrons were given the task of making the field recordings. They were to go on to ‘compose’ the first entirely electronic soundtrack for a feature film: Forbidden Planet (1956). (Astonishingly, prior to the decision to use electronic sounds, the producers of this film had at one point thought of Harry Partch as composer!) Just as the Barrons got into trouble for describing their soundtrack as ‘music’ (the credit reads ‘tonalities’ instead), so Williams Mix was to receive as much invective from concert-goers and critics as praise. Imaginary Landscape No. 5 sounds like the musical equivalent of cut-ups of literary works; by contrast, Williams Mix introduces us to a radically transformed landscape of noise. It’s worth comparing two other short pieces that came out of the ‘Project’: Morton Feldman’s Intersection (1953) and Earle Brown’s Octet I (1953). Both of these works are faster paced than Williams Mix, though that’s not to say that Cage’s piece is exactly slow: one commentator describes it as ‘fast-forwarding through an entire acoustic universe in just a few minutes.’ [Valkenburg] In fact, what’s immediately noticeable about Cage’s electronic experiments is that they appear to contradict the Cagean emphasis on silence. Even Feldman’s dizzying piece includes brief moments of silence, but in Williams Mix there is only the placement of sounds moving too fast to be registered: ‘musique concrète at Warner Bros. cartoon speed’, according to Matthew Guerrieri of the Boston Globe. It hardly needs pointing out that nothing could be farther away from the minimalism of Cage’s most famous ‘work’ 4’33’, which is almost the same length as Williams Mix. The dominant interpretation of this piece of non-music (a piece that, for piano, remains defiantly acoustic, because electronic keyboards do not have a lid – don’t take this observation too seriously) has come to be that it provides a frame for both silence itself as a key component of listening and whatever sounds stray into the auditorium in which it is (not) played. Eric Salzman’s revised 1967 study of the avant-garde argues that it is also ‘the zero point of perception where total randomness and aleatory meet total determinism and unity in the literal experience of nothing.’ This systematic and controlling element in Cage is rarely discussed, but it seems to me that this is also what tends to be elided in the western appropriation of the I Ching: I Ching: even when we subtract the text’s elaborate hierarchy of gender, family, and state, its modus operandi is highly ordered and ordering.

In his 1954 study of Chinese Thought, H. G. Creel writes that [b]y means of such divination techniques as those of the Book of Changes, and the theory of numerology, yin and yang, and the five forces, there was developed a vast and intricate system for the analysis and control of phenomena.

So it’s not so much a case of human determinism giving way to nature as the chance-led determination of natural resources. ‘I certainly had no feeling for harmony’, writes Cage, and this is why he was always going to reject serialism as well as more conservative western compositional structures, for they all depend on the twelve-tone harmonic series. ‘Sound,’ Cage argues in Silence, has four characteristics: pitch, timbre, loudness, and duration. The opposite and necessary coexistent of sound is silence. Of the four characteristics of sound, only duration involves both sound and silence. Therefore, a structure based on durations (rhythmic: phrase, time lengths) is correct (corresponds with the nature of the material), whereas harmonic structure is incorrect (derived from pitch, which has no being in silence).’

It’s not until Charles Ives begins to use microtonality, Partch invents his own scales on his own instruments, and new technology liberates noise as a musical tool, that the traditional harmonic series breaks down, so that musical progression is no longer limited to an opposition between tonality and atonality. Cage’s way forward is by means of duration and indeterminacy, and – crucially, like Satie – a lack of seriousness. And this conjunction is what unites 4’33” with Williams Mix: they are both open to the indeterminate, they are both ways of ordering sonic experience within a durational frame, and they are both open to the absurd. In a sense, the liberation of noise becomes the pretext for the liberation of silence. Nevertheless, it’s arguable that Cage’s methodology shares with serialism an obsession with determinism, if not of content then of the process by which content is generated. It’s significant that Karlheinz Stockhausen, whose ‘concerns were the complete isolation and definition of every aspect of musical sound and the extension of serial control into every domain’ (Salzman) arrives at deconstructive compositions and aleatory performance practices, so that even an early work like the uncanny Gesang der Jünglinge (1956) subverts traditional demarcations of pitch and noise, sound and silence. In 1952, Stockhausen had factured Étude by cutting up a tape of sounds recorded from a prepared piano, and in 1968 he followed Cage’s Imaginary Landscape No. 4 (1951) by producing Kurzwellen, for shortwave radio receivers. While both Imaginary Landscape and Kurzwellen necessarily involve random effects, Stockhausen’s process emphasizes improvisation on the part of the musicians-operators. Cage’s aesthetic, however, is not improvisatory, as this would bring back into play the ego of the composer and the performer.*** Yet even if they are not the result of systematic, rational deliberation in the style of total serialism, Cage’s numerical-rhythmic abstractions from the I Ching are so elaborate that they might be said to bear the mark of the composer in a way that is not so dissimilar from other decision-making processes, and they determine performance just as Stockhausen’s work determines results that are far from being controlled. Adorno complained that serialism was the tyranny of method over material, and its rationality heralds the death of contingency. (see Martin Jay, Adorno, 151-2.) Bizarrely, the same criticism could be leveled at Cage, except that, here, method is the means of contingency: a paradox of intentional non-intention.

‘In the end,’ writes Eric Salzman, Cage’s use of chance or randomness was the least important aspect of his work.’ (156) Yet, at Black Mountain, the shift from a model of creativity based on what Eva Diaz calls in her book The Experimenters ‘the Bauhaus model of attention and serial variation’ to a new, paradoxically disciplined approach to random events redefines the concept of experimentation itself. Like Duchamp, Cage doesn’t care if the results of an experiment turn out to be boring; in fact, because the focus is now on the attention of the listener instead of the innate quality of the work itself, dullness might be regarded as desirable.


*Varèse went on to compose major electronically mediated works in the 1950s. Varèse and Cage also shared an interest in reinventing drama as ritual via the writings of Antonin Artaud. In the ‘30s, Varèse began to compose a science fiction opera developing creative sound technology, with a libretto by Artaud; the libretto remains but there is no trace of the score. Cage’s Theater Piece 1 (see above), was influenced by Olson’s notion that ritual theatre could replace conventional dramatics and also by Artaud’s The Theatre and Its Double, which the Black Mountain poet M. C. Richards was translating at the time.

** An example of just how arbitrary the coin method can be is shown by the confusion over yin and yang coins and their respective values. Chinese coins have clear yin and yang sides, the yin corresponding to the side with four characters and the yang the side with two squiggly characters. The confusion begins when we use Western coins instead of chinese ones. Some accounts call heads yang (3 points, unbroken line) and tails yin (2 points, broken line), while others reverse this, so that heads are yin and tails are yang. Since the designation of which side of the chinese coins correspond with heads and which tails is a matter of choice (‘experts’ are equally divided on the issue), the whole principle is thrown out of whack. Should we accept either that the coin faces have actual values or that the process is totally random?

***I need hardly point out that the question of the ego in modernism and the avant-garde is a vexed one, but I shall anyway. According to M. C. Schmidt of the electro combo Matmos, John Cage’s life and work constitute a perverse object lesson in the consequences of reduction. The harder he sought to suppress and remove his own ego in order to let the sound of the world through, the more powerfully his work took on a signature quality, an aesthetic charge that is continuous. Chance operations now sound ‘Cage-ian’.

Just as Olson’s project to destroy the lyric ego was complicated by the highly personal, ‘maximal extent’ of his own poetry, Cage’s zen disavowal of self hides a personality that achieves itself through the manipulation of chance. By contrast, the work of Jackson Mac Low, the poet most closely associated with Cage, follows a different path – if, that is, we accept the argument of Michael O’Driscoll that what most generally characterizes Mac Low’s writing career is explicitly not the use of chance in the composition of his poetry, but rather the persistent questioning of the limits or purity of the twin poles of subjective, intentional writing (or “making”) and objective, aleatoric/deterministic methods (or “letting be”) through the deployment of a wide range of competing and interdependent authorial practices in which each challenges and gives shape to the other.

The history of the avant-garde (including the neo avant-garde, as Peter Bürger calls it, and the neo neo avant-garde – meaning interminably belated projects to remain within the non-expressive expressionist orbit of the ‘original’ avant-garde) is the history of attempts to circumvent what might be termed the aura of the non-auratic artefact, a project doomed to failure as long as the name of the artist provides an imprimatur. For better or worse, we might venture to define the ‘postmodern’ as a response to this impasse of the de-historicized historical avant-garde. That is to say, the postmodern, at least the postmodern poem, rejects the avant-garde’s residual expressionism in favour of a dialectics of impersonality: it accepts the existence of the speaking subject while subjecting it to profound uncertainties as to its position in the symbolic, so that readers must read from a position of intense critical attention. By contrast, the avant-garde desires a voice that operates within a fantasy world of pure materiality, relegating the act of reading to a conservatism of sense. Ideally, the avant-garde poem doesn’t want to be read; it wants merely to be, as long as something (e.g., the popularity of the empirical poet within his or her clique) guarantees the radical inflection of the text. If the avant-garde text becomes open and productive by putting both its subjectivity and objectivity on the line, enjoying the frisson of meaninglessness, it also condemns itself to the endless replication of belated gestures, which induce a tribal stupefaction of the already-read.



Austin, Larry, ‘John Cage’s Williams Mix (1951-3): The Restoration and New Realizations of and Variations on the First Octophonic, Surround-sound Tape Composition.’ in Patricia Hall and Fridemann Sallis, eds, A Handbook to Twentieth-Century Musical Sketches. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.

Bernstein, David W., ‘Music I: to the late 1940s’, in David Nicholls, ed., The Cambridge Companion to John Cage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Cage, John, Silence: Lectures and Writings. 50th Anniversary edn. Wesleyan University Press, 2011.

Creel, H. G., Chinese Thought: From Confucius to Mao Tse-Tung. London: Methuen, 1962.

Diaz, Eva, The Experimenters: Chance and design at Black Mountain College. University of Chicago Press, 2015.

Erbe, Tom, ‘The Computer Realization John Cage’s Williams Mix. (;idno=bbp2372.2016.029;format=pdf)

Guerrieri, Matthew, ‘Cage’s painstaking labour created the illusion of chance’, Boston Globe, October 18th, 2014.

Harris, Mary Emma, ‘John Cage at Black Mountain: A Preliminary Thinking’ (

Holmes, Thom, Electronic and Experimental Music: Technology, Music, and Culture. Fifth edn. London: Routledge, 2016.

Jay, Martin, Adorno. London: Fontana, 1984.

O’Driscoll, Michael, ‘By the Numbers: Jackson Mac Low’s Light Poems and Algorithmic Digraphism.’, Jacket 2, 2013.

Salzman, Eric, Twentieth-century Music: An Introduction. Englewood Cliffs, Prentice-Hall, 1974.

Schmidt, M. C., contribution to 33 Musicians on What John Cage Contributes (

Valkenburg, Jochen, ‘From Bars to Inches (to Seconds): Timekeeping in the Music of John Cage’, Dutch Journal of Music Theory, vol. 15, no. 1 (2010), pp. 68-75.


Anthony Mellors‘ recent work includes Sylphs (with Penny Hallas: Five Seasons Press), Confessional Sonnets (Aquifer Books), and Song Cycle (with Chris Moss for the 2018 Swaledale Festival). He has just completed a book based on Schubert‘s Winterreise.




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