It’s hard to document performances of Song Books in a way that preserves the spirit of the composition. Because every version is different, to “fix” one in a recording seems to miss the point. The Song Books are theatrical, so video is necessary; but even video fails to fully capture certain solos, such as those that consist of projections, or leaving the stage. Audio recordings also tend to obscure some often unusual sound sources in Song Books, especially in dense textures that can be hard enough to follow even in live performances. Nonetheless, recordings are useful. Below are excerpts from 5 different live performances, along with the audio track from a video realization posted here.

Song Books in Latvia

The following performance of Song Books, from a concert at Spīķeri Hall in Riga on 25 July 2012, was the culmination of workshops conducted by Vir2Ual Cage team members Paul Berkolds, Jacqueline Bobak, and Mark Bobak during a residency at the International Latvian Young Musicians' Master Classes in the picturesque town of Sigulda from 14–23 July. Recorded from near the house mixer, it's replete with various audience noises, offering a sense of what it was like to be in the actual space. This performance was quite possibly the Latvian premiere of Song Books. For more information about it, including a list of performers and comments about some pieces, click on the link below. For galleries of photos of this performance, as well as of rehearsals in Sigulda, click here and here.

More about Vir2Ual Cage in Latvia

John Cage’s work is still relatively unknown in the Baltic countries. Vir2Ual Cage’s two performances of Song Books—the first in Sigulda, the second in Rīga—were quite possibly the work’s Latvian premieres, and as such drew considerable attention from the local artistic community. The students from the Young Musicians' Master Classes proved to be perceptive learners who caught on quickly, putting together convincing renditions of Song Books in a surprisingly short time.

The distinctive Spīķeri Hall venue, a restored 19th-century riverfront warehouse packed with a vibrant crowd, was reminiscent of a loft space in New York City. Performing along with Vir2Ual Cage team members Paul Berkolds, Jacqueline Bobak, and Mark Bobak were 13 participants from the Master Classes: Asija Ahmetžanova, Alina Aleksejeva, Madara Boka, Margarita Gapčenko, Agnese Kārkliņa, Anete Kārkliņa, Līga Korne, Justīne Kulakova, Rūta Lankovska, Ieva Lavrinoviča, Anastasija Raspopova, Laura Reksne, and Vizma Zvaigzne.

This 33-minute rendition of Song Books comprised the second half of the concert; on the first half were three individual “solos for voice” and another very short rendition of Song Books, amid other works by Cage and contemporary Latvian composers: pianist Juris Žvikovs performed Cage’s lovely solo Dream, and also four of the Six Melodies with violinist Justīne Kulakova. Pianist Asija Ahmetžanova played her new solo Ortus, followed by pianists Diāna Zandberga and Lauma Skride, who performed Andris Dzenītis’ Dorada and Gundega Šmite’s Mercurium respectively.

A few comments about this rendition: With so many performers involved, there's nearly constant activity of some sort, but of course the theatrical elements are sometimes discernible only through the sounds they produce—hence the amplified gaming table, series of footsteps, occasional door slams, writing on a chalkboard, and so forth. Some listeners may wonder about the violin heard prominently thoughout much of this rendition; it's an interpretation of mostly Solo 6, and later Solo 80, by Justīne Kulakova, who just happened to be near the recording microphones. In the score to Solo 35—a setting of “The best form of government is no government at all” from Thoreau’s Essay on Civil Disobedience—Cage mentions that the text should be sung by at least one singer in the language of the audience; this rendition is quite possibly the first ever to declare the text in Latvian, translated and sung by Vizma Zvaigzne.

The efforts of many people behind the scenes were crucial to the success of our workshops, performances, and travel. Thanks to Dace Aperāne, Guntars Zvejnieks, Andris Balodis, Andris Uze and KM Sound (who provided a fantastic sound system), Juris Žvikovs, Sanda Katkevica, Anita Kupriss, Maija Paeglite, lighting designer Anna Etsuko Tsuri, the California Institute of the Arts School of Music, and the support staffs at the Music and Art School, Spīķeri Hall, and Latvijas Koncerti (the country’s largest concert production organization).

Most of all, warm thanks and congratulations to the students, who quickly embraced unfamiliar territory and performed with remarkable alacrity, especially given their busy schedules and limited preparation time. It truly was a pleasure to work with you.

Performing individual solos from Song Books is unusual. It misses the communal participation, simultaneity, and unpredictability that are central to the work. Although Cage’s instructions mention a lower limit of two singers, the performance history of Song Books seems to justify solo renditions despite their muting the work’s social aspects. Performing a few individual solos on this concert made not only for interesting programming, it also offered a rare chance to hear clearer renditions of music that’s often buried in the profusion of activity that tends to characterize full-fledged renditions of Song Books. Below are interpretations of Solos for Voice 5, 17, and 27 by Paul Berkolds (baritone), Jacqueline Bobak (mezzo-soprano), and Mark Bobak (electronics). Click on the link below for a bit more information about these.

More about the Solos of Solos

In Solo 5, the performer is directed to wander over a given portrait of Henry David Thoreau, turning it so that the path taken suggests a melodic line. Electronics are to be changed when moving on the portrait, for instance from Thoreau's hair to his eyes. The texts are determined via the I Ching from letters and syllables from page 182 in Volume III of Thoreau's Journal. In this performance the voice is joined, per Cage's option, by a recording of rain and thunder, in this case from field recordings of storms in Berlin. The text for Solo 17 consists of comments about the mesmerizing effect of a "telegraph harp" from Volumes II–IV of Thoreau's Journal. Cage directs that the voice be transformed to resemble "singing wires." Here the electronically processed voice is accompanied, per Cage's option, by a synthesized model of an aeolian harp instead of a recording of telegraph wires or a musical saw. Solo 27 is a relatively conventional song, a setting of a text drawn once again from Thoreau's Journal, featuring long, irregular pauses between phrases, timed in quarter-notes (in this case the same as seconds) of silence.

A Long Walk through the Long Books

This recording—presented here in two parts, each about an hour long—documents the soundscape of the Long Books, a four-hour performance at the California Institute of the Arts on 5 February 2012, Super Bowl Sunday, that included all 90 pieces from Cage's Song Books. The recording is a compilation of about two dozen excerpts recorded with a handheld recorder while roaming casually through the several performance spaces, just as an observer might have done. As such it amounts to a random tour, not necessarily focusing on any particular performers, solos from Song Books, or other pieces that were performed along with them. The recording was edited only minimally to cross-fade from one excerpt to another, avoid obvious distractions, and maintain a fairly consistent level from one passage to the next. The order of events was not changed.

For more information, including a list of performers, click on the link below. To see a short video of the Long Books, click here. To see a gallery of photos, click here.

More about Long Books

John Cage said that “Projects involving many people and many interruptions go well,” and that “The more egos you have, the better chance you have of eliminating the ego altogether.” How true this seems when producing an incalculable event with so many performers, support personnel, and logistical details. Sincere thanks and congratulations to all involved in an epic performance that met the lofty goal of presenting parts of all 90 “solos for voice” in a tour de force seldom encountered in the history of Song Books.

Performers included Nicole Angel, Whittney Auerbach, Kevin Austin, Timur Bekbosunov, Paul Berkolds, Jacqueline Bobak, Mark Bobak, William Brooks, Elaine Cho, Adam Dippre, Nina Eidsheim, Carmina Escobar, Katie Gardner, Tony Gennaro, Martin Herman, Richard Hines, Marja Liisa Kay, Aaron Khan, Amy Knoles, Rachel Koonse, Zach Lovitch, Ani Maldjian, Paul Matthis, Eugene Moon, Pat Moran, Christine Morse, Seth Schafer, Christoffer Schunk, Julian Valdivieso, Argenta Walther, Max Wanderman, Kirsten Wiest, and Andrea Young. The performance occupied several spaces at CalArts—including the Main Gallery, Roy O. Disney concert hall, the foyer at the main entrance, hallways, a storage closet, and so on—through which the audience was encouraged to roam freely.

Several performers’ contributions were so unique or downright amazing that they deserve special recognition. For example, CalArts student Paul Matthis somehow managed to perform passages from all 90 solos in Song Books by himself, singing or acting almost continuously for four hours. Other students and alumni, including several outstanding singers from CalArts’ voice program, proved themselves anew to be top-notch performers. Percussionist/composer Amy Knoles furnished an entire installation featuring prepared piano samples, a video of desert scenes, and her dog Pickles. Photographer Richard Hines performed a brilliant rendition of Solo 82 staged in a closet (“Using a Paris café cognac glass, serve yourself the amount above the line. Drink, using throat microphone to make swallowing very audible.”) Never had Courvoisier sounded so good.

The Long Books' concurrence with the Super Bowl inspired several performers to make references to football or gaming. Singer Jacqueline Bobak utlilized football play diagrams to determine some of her movements among the performing spaces. Composer Mark Bobak created a realization of Cage’s Fontana Mix, a piece that may be performed along with Song Books, using as sound sources recordings of a crowd at a football match, a referee’s whistle, an announcer’s play-by-play, and a marching band. Singer Paul Berkolds decided to follow some of the game by integrating it into his performance: rather than writing a plan of his activities beforehand, he watched the broadcast on his laptop, and interpreted certain events—first downs, touchdowns, commercials, or whatnot—as cues to decide which solos he was to perform and when. CalArts student Adam Dippre and friends staged a living room, replete with a sofa, TV, and snacks, and performed a video-game rendition of Solo 23 (“Play a game with another person.”), amplifying clicks from their electronic controllers. Said one performer/gamer, “We’re just doing what we’d be doing at home anyway.” Cage would have been delighted by such integrations of life and art.

Many thanks to the technical support crew from CalArts, who provided invaluable assistance with setting up and running audio and video equipment, especially in cases of idiosyncratic needs in multiple spaces. Amplifying voices or instruments is one thing; amplifying chessboards, knitting needles, and tea kettles, in an environment with dozens of unusual sounds coming from unpredictable locations, posed challenges that were met with aplomb. Thanks also to our friends who loaned equipment, sometimes at the last minute, and helped spread the word about this event. Though of course it wasn’t a contest, and we didn’t keep score, we feel confident we won.

Song Books in Kraków and Brno

In November and December 2010, Vir2Ual Cage team members Paul Berkolds, Jacqueline Bobak, and Mark Bobak, along with vocalist extraordinaire Carmina Escobar, traveled to Poland and the Czech Republic to present Song Books, among other compositions, and to conduct workshops and seminars on John Cage’s music and aesthetics. The performances included 64-minute renditions of Song Books at the Academy of Musical Arts in Kraków, as part of the Audio Art Festival; the Janáček Academy of Music and Performing Arts in Brno, as part of the New Music Plus Festival; and a 40-minute rendition at the historic baroque Chapel of Corpus Christi at Palacký University in Olomouc. The two recordings below, about 25 minutes each, are distillations of our performances in Kraków and Brno. They’re unpolished documentary recordings, edited largely to include representative passages; there’s been no additional processing, layering, or other manipulation beyond minimal cleaning up.

For more information about two of these performances, click on the link below. To see a video of the entire performance in Kraków, click here. For more about the workshops in Brno, click here. For photos from all these events, click here.

More about Vir2Ual Cage in the Czech Republic

Jacqueline and Mark Bobak continue to enjoy long-standing associations with many colleagues, friends, and institutions in the Czech Republic, having traveled and performed there several times over almost two decades. This time, our performance in Brno was preceded by workshops on Song Books at the Janáček Academy. Joining us on stage were students Radim Kolář (drum set) and Lucie Vítková (voice, harmonica, and dance), whom we thank for their enthusiastic participation and engaging contributions to the performance.

As far as we know, this may be the first rendition of Song Books to include a drum set; drummer Radim performed an interpretation of Solo 6, one of the noun/verb/number pieces that can be realized in nearly any medium. Playing the drums nearly always features substantial improvisation, for practical reasons of interpretation and notation if not inevitable associations with jazz, rock, or pop. In light of Cage’s general opposition toward improvisation—because of its association with the kinds of artistic habits and tastes he was trying to circumvent—playing a drum set in Song Books may seem aesthetically precarious. However, the point is not to flatly avoid any particular activity per se, but rather to act with discipline rather than arbitrarily. We noted that Radim prepared a fairly detailed score based on Solo 6, finding a fruitful way to approach his instrument within Cage’s framework.

The distinctive venue where we performed in Olomouc, shown in the accompanying thumbnail photo, merits its own attention. Palacký University’s stunning baroque Chapel of Corpus Christi (Kaple Božiho Těla) was originally associated with the founding of the Olomouc Jesuit University in 1573. The present chapel, built in the 1720s, features interior paintings and scultpures rich with motifs and allegories referring to historical events, for example drawing parallels between a 13th-century battle and 17th-century central European politics. These days it serves as a concert hall for the university’s Arts Center, and in our case provided a venerable backdrop to decidedly modern music.

Vir2Ual Cage extends heartfelt thanks to our generous and amazingly energetic hosts—composers/professors Marek Chołoniewski, Ivo Medek, Vít Zouhar—and their keen associates at the Academy of Musical Arts, Janáček Academy, and Palacký University. Thanks also to professor Jiří Luska, who hosted our seminar presentation in Olomouc, where we appeared as part of a project involving interdisciplinary research in selected areas of musical culture. Our trip was busy but wonderful, enlivened by excursions to historic old town squares and cheery Christmas markets during unusually early and heavy snowfalls, as well as by the company of our colleagues David Rosenboom and Vinny Golia, who headlined their own concerts and gave presentations in the Czech Republic.

Song Books in Columbus, 2009

Vir2Ual Cage’s workshops and performances at the Columbus College of Art and Design were inaugural events in the project. Mounting the two performances—Thursday, 17 September 2009, at 12:00–1:30 p.m. and 6:00–10:00 p.m.—involved extraordinary collaboration and logistical support, what with numerous performers, a complex sound system, and live video streaming between Columbus, Ohio and Ghent, Belgium, where a simultaneous performance of Song Books took place at the Orpheus Institute. Below are 4 short audio clips from the evening performance on 17 September. These are casual, unedited recordings, made at random intervals, that include sounds of the audience conversing and moving around the space. As such, they serve more to convey the texture and spirit of the event than to document any particular solos from Song Books.

Performers in the evening rendition included Jacqueline Bobak, Paul Berkolds, Nina Eidsheim, Carmina Escobar, Kathy Carbone, Danielle Julian-Norton, Tim Rietenbach, Rocco Di Pietro, Larry Marotta, Ike Newsum, and several students from the Columbus College of Art and Design and Ohio State University. Some of these participants performed live, while others played cameo roles, contributed video realizations, or made installations. For a seven-minute video clip from the afternoon performance, which included live streaming between Columbus and Ghent, click here. For photos from both performances, click here.

Audio from a Video Realization, 2008

An eventual goal of Vir2Ual Cage was to develop a cumulative performable archive, containing numerous video recordings of pieces from Song Books from which renditions of the work would be generated algorithmically and streamed online. Below is the audio track from a brief video realization, produced in June 2008 as a work sample for a grant application before Vir2Ual Cage coalesced as such, that illustrates how Song Books might appear in such an interpretation. Though this rendition is fixed, and includes only two performers and a small selection of solos for voice, it demonstrates how several solos can be juxtaposed in the spirit of Cage’s instructions. Performances by Jacqueline Bobak and Paul Berkolds, with electronics by Mark Bobak, were constructed according to various chance procedures, then recorded by video artist Aleigh Lewis and assembled in a studio. Much to the artists’ glee, certain coincidences of timing, or what may appear to be planned connections among solos, really did occur by chance. Since any rendition of Song Books may be accompanied by other indeterminate music, running throughout this one are excerpts of Cage himself performing his text composition Mureau, which he created shortly after Song Books in 1970 by randomly selecting passages about sound, silence, and music from Thoreau’s famous Journal. Here the choice and timing of excerpts also were determined via chance procedures. To see the video, along with a list and description of the twelve solos from Song Books performed in this rendition, click here.