John Cage: Song Books

Program Note

Many of the fundamental ideas of John Cage’s later compositional practices emerged in his earlier years. He entered Pomona College as a theology major in 1928, and describes in his autobiographical statement why he left soon after:

“I was shocked at college to see one hundred of my classmates in the library all reading copies of the same book. Instead of doing as they did, I went into the stacks and read the first book written by an author whose name began with Z. I received the highest grade in the class. That convinced me that the institution was not being run correctly. I left.”

Decades later, Cage would become a pioneer of indeterminacy in composition and in performance, where elements of the music are left up to chance or to the whim of the players. In 1951, Cage acquired the first English translation of the I Ching [Book of Changes], the Chinese symbol system designed for divination. Much of his subsequent work used operations based on pages from the I Ching to which Cage would randomly flip, including Imaginary Landscape No. 4 (1951) for 12 radio receivers, Music of Changes (1951) for piano, and, later, Cheap Imitation. He also composed using star charts in his Etudes Australes (1975) for piano and Atlas Eclipticalis (1962) for orchestra. Cage’s most ambitious work involving chance procedures was Europeras I & 2 (1987), which uses the I Ching to generate every aspect of the production—libretto, score, costumes, sets, lighting, “plot”—based on a database of over 100 classic European operas. According to Cage, his use of the technique allowed a piece to be performed in chaotically different ways, and also fulfilled his intention to “let things be themselves.”

In 1970 Cage took a commission to write two sets of songs for Cathy Berberian and Simone Rist. He consulted the I Ching to determine how many songs would go into each book: 56 and 34 were the responses. Now he had the ambitious goal of writing ninety new pieces for a solo singer, and he had only three months to do it. Running to 317 pages of manuscript score, the songs are incredibly diverse, a cornucopia of musical invention.

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 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.

Song Books is a piece that is impossible to characterize in any brief description—a piece which juxtaposes the old and the new, determinacy and indeterminacy. 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?"

—James Pritchett