James Pritchett: Writings on Cage (& others)

John Cage: Song books

© 2012 by James Pritchett.  All rights reserved.  

The music contained on these discs—and that’s really an illusion, you can’t contain this piece in any way at all—is the product of one of the most intensely creative periods in John Cage’s life.  In 1970 he took a commission to write two sets of songs for Cathy Berberian and Simone Rist.  He consulted the I ching (the Chinese oracle book) to determine how many songs would go into each book:  56 and 34 were the responses.  Now he had the ridiculous goal of writing ninety new pieces for a solo singer, and he had only three months to do it.  Cage thought of the two Song books as a continuation of the Solo for voice series that he had begun in 1958, and so officially these pieces are titled Solos for voice 3-92.  Running to 317 pages of manuscript score, they are incredibly diverse, a cornucopia of musical invention only rivaled by their cousin, the Solo for piano of 1957-58.

The heterogeneity of the Song books was the result of the method that Cage set up to guide the construction of the ninety solos.  This was a method that would help him to find his way through the challenge of writing ninety solos in ninety days, and that would simultaneously take him on a host of unknown compositional adventures: not an architect’s blueprint, but the hero’s instructions in a fairy tale, full of riddles and secrets.  For each song Cage had to ask three questions and receive the answers by tossing coins and consulting the I ching.  The answers would provide him instructions on how to discover this solo.

The first question: “Is this solo relevant or irrelevant to the overall theme of the Song books?”  For his theme, Cage took a line from his diaries:  “We connect Satie with Thoreau.”  Relevant solos include references to either Satie or Thoreau or both; irrelevant songs do not.  The second question:  “What kind of solo is this?”  There were four categories: song (that is, a primarily sung piece), song using electronics, theatre (that is, not involving singing, but instead consisting of actions), and theatre using electronics.  The third question, the open-ended one, the key that opened the treasure chest of invention:  “How will I compose this solo?”  There were three possible answers:  compose it using a method that Cage had used before, compose it by making a variation to a method already used, or invent an entirely new method of composition.  If the answer was to use or vary an existing method, chance also determined exactly which method.  Thus armed with a theme, a format, and this general direction, Cage set forth and used his creativity and ingenuity to figure out exactly how to make the solo.  He did this for each of the ninety solos, one after the other, until the work was completed, the journey ended.

The Song books encompass over fifty different methods of composition.  Styles reappear from all the different periods of Cage’s career.  From the 1940s, Solo 49 revives the simple vocal line and closed piano accompaniment of The wonderful widow of eighteen springs.  The 1950s are represented by new pieces following the models of the Solo for voice 1 (Solos 12, 13, 59, 66), Aria (Solos 52 and 53), and Winter music (Solos 45 and 48).  And from the 1960s come versions of 0’ 00” (Solos 8, 23, 28, 62, 63), parts of Cheap imitation (Solos 18 and 30, now with texts taken from Thoreau), and the same similar imitations of works by Schubert (Solo 39) and Mozart (Solo 47).

There are solos that use star charts to generate different kinds of solos, including “coloratura songs” that focus entirely on the high tessitura (Solo 11) and songs with long melismatic arabesques (Solo 40).  In Solo 41, the performer is simply told to “produce feedback three times.”  There are microtonal melodies derived from Satie chorales (Solo 85).  In Solo 35—one of the least Cagean of the set—the singer is presented with 32 different pairs of musical fragments to be sung using the formal pattern AABA.  The music is conventionally notated, rhythmically square, and melodically limited to a six-note range; the text ("The best form of government is no government at all") is a paraphrase of Thoreau's "On the Duty of Civil Disobedience."  Cage indicates that this solo should be sung "in an optimistic spirit as though you believe what you are singing," and should "be used as an irregular 'refrain' in a given performance."  Before singing it, the performer is instructed by Cage to "raise either the black flag of Anarchy or the flag of the Whole Earth."

The theatrical solos of the Song books do not resemble anything that Cage had done before.  There is a whole family of theatrical solos that involve exiting and entering the performance area.  The first of these (Solo 32) simply indicates that the performer should leave and then return hurriedly.  Later variants call for the performer to exit and return by going up or down (e.g., by using a ladder or a trapdoor), by going through the audience, by means of some sort of wheeled conveyance, or wearing an animal's head.  Other theatrical solos involve such simple actions as eating or drinking (in Solos 36, 38, 46, 82, and 89), putting on a hat (Solo 78), projecting slides of Thoreau and Satie (Solo 81), and typing (in Solos 15 and 69).

This is just part of the diversity found in the Song books.  It is a piece that is impossible to characterize in any brief description—a piece which juxtaposes the old and the new, determinacy and indeterminacy, the subtly-crafted melodies of Wonderful widow of eighteen springs and the galumphing cheers of the "Best Form" songs.  The theatrical parts of the piece range from the ordinary to the inexplicable.  Cage's description is as good as any: "To consider the Song books as a work of art is nearly impossible.  Who would dare?  It resembles a brothel, doesn't it?"  This is not music to sit down and listen to from start to finish.  It is questionable whether sitting down is really appropriate at all:  wandering and exploring is more in order.  Start your own journey, ask your own questions, join the adventure.