Sketching Solo 6: Realizing Song Books in Other Media

The following essays are revisions of two blog posts originally published in July 2009 and October 2010. The first post, written as Vir2Ual Cage coalesced a few weeks before its workshops and performances at the Columbus College of Art and Design, was a sort of tutorial aimed at students who were neither musicians nor actors but were nonetheless interested in Cage’s work. The second post illustrated the first with a specific example, a simple realization of Solo for Voice 6 in the medium of algorithmic drawing. Perhaps other performers will find these essays useful when interpreting Song Books in media besides music.

All the pieces in Song Books are titled “solo for voice” regardless of whether they involve singing. The pieces that do call for singing are arguably among the easier ones in the collection to understand, though they’re not necessarily easy to perform. This discussion sidesteps music and singing altogether. Instead it focuses on some of Song Books’ non-vocal but often perplexing solos, those in the category of theater, that lend themselves to interpretation in such other media as dance, drawing, or animation, and offers some strategies for realizing them. In fact, some pieces in Song Books may be performed by almost anyone, with or without artistic training. 

John Cage embraced an expansive view of theater. In his text composition 45’ for a Speaker (1954), he wrote that “Theatre takes place all the time wherever one is and art simply facilitates persuading one this is the case.” His compositions increasingly included theater, perhaps most obviously in his Theatre Pieces (1952 and 1960), the first of which fostered among the first artistic “happenings” and the second of which presaged Song Books, especially in its “noun/verb” pieces. In Song Books, such pieces fall into the category of theater, with or without electronics. These are identified in Vir2Ual Cage’s “categories” tables, where they are labeled “noun/verb/number” pieces or “word/phrase” pieces, the scores to which include plus or minus signs and different typefaces. These solos allow practically unlimited interpretations in a broad range of media. In fact, renditions of them typically are not even recognizable as instances of the same piece. Below is the first line of Solo 6:


Solo 6 is the first “theater” piece, and first “noun/verb/number” piece, in Song Books; later similar solos—10, 19, 31, 76, and 77—refer back to it for directions. In Solo 6 the performer is to make a numbered list of verbs (actions) or nouns (things), not to exceed 64 items, with which he would be willing or able to be involved. If the list is shorter, a table provided with Cage’s instructions may be used to relate a smaller list of numbers to 64. The actions or things must be theatrically feasible; the actions may be “real” or mimed. However, actions that are physically unfeasible for a human may nonetheless be quite possible in other media, such as animation, film, or video. When Cage said “actor,” he meant an actual person performing live, but a more expansive approach allows for renditions in other media, including those that rely on technology. Hence we stretch the definition of theater broadly enough to encompass electronically produced and recorded renditions, even though Solo 6 doesn’t happen to be among those that expressly call for electronics. Such an interpretation makes several pieces in Song Books available to artists outside music or theater as traditionally defined, and is consistent with the spirit of Cage’s work.

How to realize Solo 6? How to choose the verbs and nouns? Some performers choose them via some kind of chance procedure, for instance randomly selecting them from a dictionary or other book, or asking friends to give them words. Using chance would certainly be consistent with Cage’s predilection. But the words also may be chosen with some kind of theme or purpose in mind. For instance, a dancer might want to limit his words to those that have to do with choreography, direction, or movement. The number and variety of words probably would affect the variety or complexity available to the performer, although because none of the scores includes all 64 words, only a subset of the total list will end up being used.

Cage indicates that the plus and minus signs “may be given any significance that the performer finds useful.” Intuitively the signs encourage a binary distinction, for example start vs. stop, up vs. down, east vs. west, etc. Or they may indicate “the degree of emphasis with which something is done.” Or they may indicate something else, binary or not. What a performer “finds useful” may depend on the verbs and nouns, which may in turn depend on the medium. For instance, the word “apple” might indicate a subject to be drawn in animation, but what could it indicate in dance? In any case, once the meaning of the plus or minus signs is determined, that meaning probably should—though the score doesn’t explicitly state this—remain consistent throughout the interpretation of the piece. Changes of typeface may be interpreted similarly to the plus and minus signs, for example relating larger vs. smaller sizes to greater vs. lesser actions.

Exactly how to read the score to Solo 6 might not be obvious, especially to non-musicians. In other pieces by Cage, and for that matter in orthodox Western musical notation, performers read from left to right, system by system (systems are staves or groups of staves, essentially horizontal lines akin to sentences). It seems logical in Solo 6 to identify a certain number of systems per page, and assign a consistent time length to each system. Cage writes that time and individual actions are free, but sometimes he also indicates a maximum duration for an entire piece. The total duration of Solo 6, as well as the duration of individual actions, is free. Moreover, because each solo in Song Books maybe be performed in whole or in part, a performer need not necessarily interpret its entire printed score. 

The one remaining direction concerns nouns or verbs that indicate expressivity: Cage indicates that when this is the case, performing with expressivity is obligatory. “Otherwise perform impassively,” he writes. Cage wished performers of Song Books to go about their planned activities ordinarily, as in their everyday lives, rather than dramatically, “on stage.” Indeed, performing impassively and independently—coexisting with one’s fellow performers and not trying to garner an audience’s attention or approval—is a social or political aspect central to Song Books, one that many performers, especially singers and actors accustomed to theatrical gestures, find challenging.

By this point it should be evident that the interpreter of such a score must make so many decisions that the interpretive process amounts practically to composition (creation) as much as performance (re-creation). Some would assert that the process is as important, if not more so, than its result, which is largely unforeseeable. To some extent, the process is the result. Compositional processes, their purposes, and the rigor with which they’re followed continue to be a major subject in modern music—and not just in esoteric or academic branches thereof.

Having reviewed the instructions for Solo 6, the next steps toward realizing it might be to dive in and see what happens. Just for the sake of example, let’s suppose one of our “action” words is “move.” But move what? Where? How? When?  Plus or minus signs, or typefaces, might help us answer this question. For instance, supposing we assign such directions as left vs. right for plus vs. minus, we might now “move to the left.” But how far? For how long?

Obviously we need to make some more decisions. Having introduced the idea of an interpretive compositional process, let’s try to design one that helps us make decisions. Certainly there are many ways to do this, including simply according to our taste, which in the end may be evident anyway. But as tempting as it may be to make decisions arbitrarily, one reason to work on such a score in the first place is to not rely on our familiar habits. An approach closer to the spirit of Cage’s aesthetic—one of not injecting too much of one’s ego into one’s art—is to devise a process that helps us make decisions and follow it rigorously enough to see what it will produce. 

One way to design a potentially fruitful process is to ask a series of questions. Some questions one might ask when realizing Solo 6 might be:

•       What will the medium be?

•       What materials or parameters will be involved?

•       How will the verbs or nouns (or some of both) be chosen?

•       How relevant, or directly applicable to the medium, should the words be?

•       How many words will be chosen?

•       How will the plus and minus signs be interpreted?

•       How will the typefaces (large or small, bold or italic, etc.) be interpreted?

•       How much of the piece will be realized?

•       How will timing (length, duration) be determined?

•       If an unforeseen problem arises, how will it be solved?

Constructing a more formalized process from such questions might result in a series of if–then statements or a flow chart, like a sketch for the design of a computer program. For this we can adopt the term “algorithm,” borrowed from computer science. An algorithm is basically a sequence of instructions, a step-by-step procedure for accomplishing a task or solving a problem. The term “algorithmic composition,” central to certain kinds of computer music, typically refers to using various formalized procedures to generate scores or sounds. Of course, it’s useful to keep in mind some sort of overall compositional goal when framing one’s questions, and also that the entire compositional process may need to be revised, sometimes many times, until its goal is achieved. How rigorously to follow an algorithm is a subject of some debate, but it’s worth noting that many composers assert that if it fails to produce an acceptable result, it’s better to change the algorithm rather than arbitrarily adjust its output. It’s also worth noting that Cage himself revised his compositional methods—including those that featured chance operations—depending on the kinds of tasks he was trying to accomplish, until they produced results he found acceptable.

Working on a piece of art as though it’s some sort of problem to be solved may be an alien or dispiriting concept to many artists. But to a significant extent, such pieces as Solo 6 are about solving problems, about asking questions and finding interesting ways of obtaining answers. While working on them tends to be time-consuming, the results are most often delightful, and sharing questions and working methods with colleagues nearly always proves invigorating.

Next we offer a concrete example of how Solo 6 can be utilized as an algorithm—a sequence of steps, a set of instructions—that generates a simple sketch. As described above, the performer of this type of piece is to make a numbered list of verbs or nouns, not to exceed 64 items, with which he would be willing or able to be involved. The score’s plus and minus signs, as well as changes of typeface, “may be given any significance that the performer finds useful,” including “the degree of emphasis with which something is done.” The duration of any individual action, and hence of the entire piece, is unspecified.

The medium in this example is rudimentary drawing via a computer program, made in the programming environment Max, that emulates the classic Etch-A-Sketch toy, a sort of mechanical plotter that was popular in the 1960s and is still available today. One of the toy’s two knobs controls vertical drawing, the other horizontal; both knobs can be turned simultaneously. The computer program duplicates these parameters while adding those for color and line thickness. For simplicity’s sake, the only action in this interpretation—the sole item in the list that could range from 1 to 64—is “draw.” The numbers, plus or minus signs, and typefaces are used to determine where (in what direction, and how far?), how (with what line thickness, and how fast?), and in what color to draw. The score is interpreted as follows:

•  Each number indicates a single line to be drawn. While sometimes numbers occur in groups of two or three, here all numbers are treated singly, even though groups of them could be interpreted somehow differently (for example, to indicate simultaneous horizontal and vertical movements that would create diagonal lines or curves).

•  The numbers and plus or minus signs indicate movement in pixels, or some multiple of pixels, along horizontal (x) or vertical (y) axes. Positive values indicate movement up or to the right, negative values down or to the left. The initial line begins from the center of the screen. Once drawing begins from this point of origin, the “pen” cannot leave the “canvas,” allowing only connected lines akin to the original Etch-A-Sketch. Backtracking, or retracing a line, is possible. The first number will apply to the “x” axis, though it could apply just as well to “y.”

•  If a line were to extend beyond the screen, its direction is to be reversed, either from wherever it begins or wherever it would exceed the screen.

•  Since the drawing can be watched while it’s in progress, we might as well determine the rate at which each line is drawn. We could simply multiply each number by one second, but that would mean the highest possible number, 64, would create a line that took over a minute to draw, and that drawing all 23 lines could take quite a while. To both accelerate the drawing and illustrate another way to interpret the numbers, we’ll map their range of 1–64 linearly onto a time range of a half-second to five seconds. For instance, the number 28, which lies just below the middle of the range, maps to a value of 2429 milliseconds, just shorter than the two-and-a-half-second median. This method results in a convenient total duration of about 1’20 for all 23 lines.

•  The physical height of a number—not its value—indicates line thickness. In Solo 6, the numbers range in height from about 2 to 14 millimeters. These values can be multiplied by some constant to generate reasonable minimum and maximum line thicknesses. Thus the lines drawn are commensurate with the score’s appearance: the smaller the number, the thinner the line.

•  The typeface indicates color, though the original Etch-A-Sketch was limited to black lines on a light gray background. In the score to Solo 6, there happen to be two different plain typefaces, three kinds of italics, and two kinds of boldface type. Seven different colors (black, red, green, blue, white, yellow, and magenta) are assigned to these typefaces. A more complex approach might, for example, interpret adjacent numbers as RGB values, perhaps mapping their range of 1–64 to color values of 0–255.

The technical details of the program are somewhat arcane and beside the point. In fact, the foregoing instructions could just as well be followed manually. But using a computer improves consistency, facilitates experimentation via repeated renditions with different variables, and allows the drawing to be observed conveniently while in progress. Once again, the first line of Solo 6 is shown below (the whole score occupies one page; copyright restrictions prevent posting it in its entirety):


A movie of the drawing, realizing the entire score, can be viewed below:



Just for retro-style fun, a faster, simpler version with all thin black lines, quite like the original Etch-A-Sketch, can be viewed below:


Of course, these examples are geared toward simplicity rather than artistic sophistication. More elaborate drawings might include diagonals or curves, variable line thicknesses or colors, different “brush” styles or pressures, geometric shapes, etc. And, recalling that this score comes from a collection of music, it’s certainly possible to design an algorithm to somehow include sound. The intent here is to illustrate how to create a compositional process from Solo 6, to utilize its score to make decisions that, consistent with Cage’s aesthetic, avoid relying on familiar habits in favor of a rather experimental approach, the outcome of which may not be entirely foreseen. In other words, we’re devising a process that we hope will be fruitful, and following it rigorously, without adjusting it along the way, to see what it will produce. Herein lies a significant but somewhat controversial aesthetic point:  If we're dissatisfied with the product, we should change the process that gave rise to it, instead of making arbitrary corrections.

And what about what this process produced? A drawing that vaguely resembles some sort of alien plumbing diagram? An important aspect of employing compositional algorithms—one that applies also to chance procedures or other extrinsic methods—is establishing a framework in which they’re likely to produce useful or interesting results. After all, most any data can be interpreted artistically somehow. In some compositions Cage employed star charts, or traced imperfections in a sheet of paper to determine musical notes. But he did modify and refine his compositional methods until they produced results he found acceptable. Deciding whether this particular result was useful or interesting is left as an exercise for the reader.