A Marvelous Madness: John Cage's Song Books

by Rob Haskins

[program notes for performance by Ossia in Kilbourn Hall, Eastman School of Music, March 30, 2001]

1 From August to October of 1970, John Cage (1912-1992) completed one of his largest music-theater works, Song Books.  He conceived the work as a two-volume collection of 89 separate pieces simply called "Solos for Voice".  Some of these solos called for singing, conventional or otherwise.  Other solos require no singing at all, but rather reproduce the word-game actions of Cage's Theater Piece (1960).  Still other Solos are examples of another kind of theater altogether, one which clearly reflects the influence of the neo-Dadaist Fluxus movement.  Instructions for some of these Solos ask the performer simply to "prepare something to eat" or to "perform a disciplined action that fulfills an obligation to others." 

2 As in many of Cage's works, Song Books is indeterminate with regard to performance.  Any number of singers and actors decide upon a length of time they want the piece to last, choose freely among the 89 pieces, and put them in any order they wish.  In addition, the score allows the possibility for a number of other works to be performed simultaneously with any one Song Books performance: the Winter Music (1957), Concert for Piano and Orchestra (1958), Indeterminacy (1959), Rozart Mix (1965), and others. 

3 Tonight's performance attempts to strike a happy medium between poise and pandemonium: the various Solos were chosen in advance by members of the production team, who also created a dramatic structure for the whole and rehearsed it with the cast.  Excerpts from the Concert and from Indeterminacy were added, as was the Aria in its entirety, as a kind of icing for this indeterminate cake.  This "pre-planning" is particularly not without precedent in the history of Cage performance, of course, and it is particularly relevant in light of a notorious performance of Song Books by Julius Eastman at 1975's "June in Buffalo"--a performance that Cage, to put it mildly, intensely disliked.  As Peter Gena explains:

During the performance, Julius had extended his interpretation to slowly undressing his boyfriend on stage.  Then, he approached his (Julius's) sister and attempted to do the same thing.  His sister responded, "No Julius, no!"  Julius moved on to something else.  The next day during a plenary session John pounded his fist on the desk and shouted, "I'm tired of people who think that they could do whatever they want with my music!" Everyone has witnessed pieces where performers or composers make fools of themselves, etc., under the "aegis of Cage."  Too many mistakably thought that John cheerfully accepted such abuses.[1]

4 It would be easier, perhaps, if we knew precisely what Cage wanted performers to do with his music, easier still if we could simply adopt an attitude in which anything goes.  But I like to think that the ambiguity inherent in a "performance practice" for Cage is one of the sources of its great richness and variety.

5 "We connect Satie with Thoreau"--this enigmatic remark from one of the entries in the composer's Diary: How To Improve the World (You Will Only Make Matters Worse) serves as the overarching theme of Song Books. Accordingly, texts and other imagery often refer to these two men: in one Solo, the performer uses a portrait of Thoreau to construct a melodic line; in another, Cage fashions the text from a chance-determined mixture of syllables from Thoreau's journal. In other Solos, the composer takes some of Satie's music and retains its rhythms but alters the pitches through chance operations; he first used this technique in a work called Cheap Imitation(1969), which was based on Satie's Socrate (1917). Socrate and the Messe de Pauvres (1898) appear in Song Books as "cheap imitations," but so do such other unlikely compositions as the "Queen of the Night Aria" from Mozart's The Magic Flute.

6 But Cage did not limit his subject matter to Satie with Thoreau. In fact, one of the first chance operations Cage performed in the compositional process for each Solo was to determine whether the Solo he would compose next would be relevant to either Satie or Thoreau, or whether the Solo would be irrelevant to them. If the latter, Cage was free to choose among any other sources that he wished. And so we find in Song Books texts or references to many other composers, writers, or artists: Mozart (as I noted above), Schubert, Buckminster Fuller, Norman O. Brown, and Marcel Duchamp--all of these people and more have a place in Song Books. We even find two instances in which Cage composed music entirely according to his own taste without any use of chance operations whatever.

7 And so, one might think of Song Books as Cage's Art of Fugue, an exhaustive demonstration of the diverse approaches to music-making that the composer had practiced over his long career. Of course, Cage--unlike J. S. Bach--continued his career for more than two decades after he completed the piece. But although he found new ways to extend his artistic vision in ways that surprised even him, he would only occasionally match the diversity and ambitious scope that he achieved so brilliantly in Song Books.

8 The cast and crew of the original production:

Rob Haskins and Elizabeth Wells (original conception)
Nigel Maister (Design and Direction)
Jason Price (Sound Design)
Peter Dusaitis (Lighting Design)
Rob Haskins (Producer and Music Co-director)
Clay Greenberg (Music Co-director)
Jocelyn Swigger (Repetiteur)
Caleb Burhans
Gavin Chuck
Cory Clines
David Peter Coppen
Yasmin Craig
Heather Gardner
Alissa Goodkin
Jeremy Grimshaw
Rob Haskins
Lisa Lynch
Payton MacDonald
Nigel Maister
Sarah Moran
Alexander Postelnek
Ian Quinn
Jami Tyzik
Brianna Winters
Florent Renard-Payen


[1] Peter Gena, "Re: John Cage and Song Books in Buffalo," online posting, 7 December 1997, Silence: The John Cage Discussion List, 15 June 2002, <http://www.newalbion.com/artists/cagej/silence/html/1997q4/0292.html>.