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Song Books (selection) - John Cage

Many John Cage’s works occupy the intersection of music, performance, and theatre action. When musicians in Cage’s percussion ensembles in the 1940s used beer bottles, flowers pots, and drum brakes or when in the piano solo of the Concert for Piano and Orchestra (1958), David Tudor crawled under the piano knocking on the resonance board, it always had a theatrical character. “Concert” denotes an event while the musical genre is called “concerto.” The title, therefore, is not an error stemming from a lack of familiarity with musical tradition, but rather an indication of the social situation in which the orchestra’s musicians act as soloists, autonomously from one another, while the conductor’s slow arm motions imprecisely measure seconds, merely for general orientation.

In 1970, Cage again used the structure of the Concert for Piano and Orchestra, this time in Song Books-Solos for Voice 3–92. He created a compendium of single voices, which can be performed by many singers in any combination and order. Each solo belongs to one of four categories: song; song with electronics; theatre; theatre with electronics. Some are thematically oriented toward the task “combine Satie with Thoreau.” In total opposition to the established model of musical theatre, in which a certain narrative is developed and whose elements maintain a semantic relationship, here each actor establishes his or her own programme, which is presented simultaneously to the actions of the remaining actors. In the score, Cage emphasises: “Any resultant silence in the programme is not to be feared. Simply perform as you had decided to, before you knew what would happen.”

Such musical theatre, with its utopia of a society freed from hierarchy and with the anarchistic triggering of free action, in itself obliterates any idea of theatrical direction. The only thing required is to coordinate the events on stage, which seem unpredictable because of the changing solo singing, the electroacoustically amplified or modified performance, and random theatrical actions. Yet each event follows a strictly composed musical plan, comparable notably to Cage’s Music for Piano and Winter Music, where the flaws of music paper are interpreted as note heads, or to Cheap Imitation, in which the existing musical material (Mozart, Schubert, and Satie in Song Books) is maintained in the rhythmic shape while the pitches become aleatory. Works that include live electronics are akin to listening to everyday life through an acoustic magnifying glass, electrically amplifying the sound of chess playing, someone’s breath or swallowing, while in purely theatrical actions, we witness elementary stage events such as coming on and off stage.

With the passing of time, Song Books have produced their own performance tradition, represented by Joan La Barbara who knows Cage’s aesthetics well from her own experience, as well as Dieter Schnebel’s Maulwerker ensemble. Their cooperation questions the validity of that tradition. Apart from stage actions, Ensemble Ne(x)tworks, La Barbara’s New York band, also performs the different solos of the Concert for Piano and Orchestra. Consequently, Cage’s theatre is related to its musical roots, and instrumental solos become stage events.

Volker Straebel