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. Nevertheless, recordings are useful. Below are four videos that document some of Vir2Ual Cage’s work: three from live performances, and one assembled in a studio for demonstration purposes.
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. This brief demo rendition, produced in June 2008 as a work sample for a grant application before Vir2Ual Cage coalesced as such, 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. Various passages from Mureau continued to appear in most of Vir2Ual Cage’s subsequent performances, reminding listeners of Cage’s own voice and amounting to a sort of secondary theme.
To see a list and description of the twelve solos from Song Books performed in this rendition, click on the link below. In some cases, the descriptions include comments about notation and how the performers chose to interpret the solos.
Solos and Descriptions
The following twelve solos for voice, listed in order of appearance, are performed in this recording. Some solos are performed more than once. Often two or more solos overlap. Only parts of most solos appear, usually starting from their beginnings.
No. 6: Theater: Theatrical actions are chosen from a list of up to 64 verbs or nouns made by the performer. Notated as series of numbers from 1–64, with plus or minus signs to be interpreted as desired. Among the words chosen here were sit, cry, ball, toast, and hat.
No. 20: Song with electronics: A fragment of text from Thoreau’s Journal (“so is it with our minds”) is sung to a melodic line determined by the performer by following a path between two locations on a given map of Concord, Massachussetts. Electronic changes are made when the mode of transportation changes—traveling on land vs. on water. The electronic processing on the voice was inspired by Thoreau’s mention of hearing echoes while traveling down a river in a canyon.
No. 5: Song with electronics: A piece created by wandering over a portrait of Thoreau in a way that suggests a melodic line. Notated as a series of texts consisting of randomly mixed letters and syllables from Thoreau’s Journal. Electronics change when moving on the portrait, for instance, from the eyebrows to the nose. The vocalization is accompanied optionally by a recording of a thunderstorm.
No. 30: Song: One of several “cheap imitations,” pieces created by using chance procedures to alter a pre-existing piece, in this case Satie’s symphonic drama Socrate; its rhythms are maintained but its pitches are changed. The text is a collage from Thoreau’s Journal. Notated conventionally.
No. 17: Song with electronics: Thoreau’s Journal includes several references to a “telegraph harp” whose strings resonate when vibrated by the wind. In this solo Cage sets a text in which Thoreau describes the mesmerizing effect. The singer’s voice is electronically processed per Cage’s instruction to make it resemble “singing wires,” and is accompanied by a synthetic drone inspired by the characteristics of an Aeolian harp. Notated proportionally, with space indicating time; pitch in the score is differentiated approximately by high, middle, and low registers, and dynamics are indicated by sizes of notes.
No. 35: Song with electronics: A setting of a text about “the best form of government” from Thoreau’s Essay on Civil Disobedience, set in an AABA form consisting of 32 interchangeable variant parts. To be sung in an “untrained” vocal style as a refrain in Song Books, accompanied by raising either the black flag of anarchy or, in this case, the “whole earth” flag. Electronics are to be used to “exaggerate the rhythm” (hence the cymbal crashes). Notated conventionally, but with “A” and “B” parts on separate pages.
No. 81: Theater with electronics (technology): The only direction is to project four slides relevant to Thoreau. Here the images are drawn from among the many sketches Thoreau made in his Journal, along with photographs of nature in New England, especially by H. W. Gleason (used courtesy of the Thoreau Institute at Walden Woods). A similar solo, projecting 22 images, appears later in this rendition.
No. 42: The only direction in this solo is to “produce feedback twice.” Here two tones are generated randomly using a feedback oscillator.
No. 56: Song with electronics: A “melody” created by interpreting a symmetrical graphic notation, jumping optionally between upper and lower lines at given structural points, with horizontal space indicating time. A gradual electronic change—in this case an emerging resynthesized “mirror image” of the actual voice—occurs during the song’s brief duration.
No. 27: Song: Another “cheap imitation,” created as in Solo 30 by using chance procedures to alter one of Satie’s pieces (this time the Mass for the Poor), again with passages from Thoreau’s Journal as a text. Notated conventionally, though with numbers indicating seconds of silence between phrases.
No. 51: Theater with electronics: The only direction in the score is to “play a recording of a forest fire.” It is said that Cage included this piece because Thoreau accidentally started a forest fire.
No. 86: Theater with electronics (technology): Project twenty-two slides relevant to Thoreau. As in Solo 81, images are drawn from sketches Thoreau made in his Journal, along with photographs of nature. In this performance, most of the images appear simultaneously.
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 is a seven-minute video clip from our afternoon performance. Seen or heard on the video are dancer Kathy Carbone; singers Jacqueline Bobak, Paul Berkolds, Nina Eidsheim, and Carmina Escobar; and performance artists Danielle Julian-Norton and Tim Rietenbach. Other participants (not shown in the video) included 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. Simultaneously performing in Ghent (not shown in the video, but present in the soundscape) were William Brooks, Alessandro Cervino, Kathleen Coessens, Darla Crispin, Paulo de Assis, Tido Dejan, Alex Harker, Mieko Kanno, Marja Kay, Catherine Laws, Maria Lettberg, Juan Parra Cancino, and Joost Vanmaele. To hear a few short audio clips from the evening performance, click here.
Note the hanging box and scores posted on chalkboards. In the box were “runes,” symbols from a font based on Cage’s manuscript, that invited audience members to perform certain solos that could easily be realized without preparation. Appearing in these “public participation” solos are Dean of Media Studies Ron Saks, President Dennison Griffith, and several students or other members of the community. Among the more popular solos were those that called for typing a given sentence on an amplified typewriter, playing a game, and interpreting Cage’s Solo 78, the score to which reads “What can you do? I can take off my shoes and put them on.” The large winged sculpture in the center of the performance space is Michelle Lach’s Oracle, which seemed an appropriate addition to this environment where chance played a major role. Thanks to Dave Egan for editing this video from over an hour’s worth of footage.
The Long Books, 2012
This short video documents a tiny fraction 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. Edited by Scott Groller, the video is a compilation from footage taken by two videographers who roamed casually through the several performance spaces, just as an observer might have done. As such it amounts to a quick survey, not necessarily focusing on any particular performers, solos from Song Books, or other pieces that were performed along with them.
For more information, including a list of performers, click on the link below. To hear a two-hour audio recording from 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.
An Occasion with Merce, 2010
Among the highlights of Vir2Ual Cage was accompanying the renowned Merce Cunningham Dance Company and Mikhail Baryshnikov at REDCAT in Los Angeles. On 7 June 2010, Paul Berkolds, Jacqueline Bobak, and Mark Bobak performed a rendition of Song Books while the dancers performed Cunningham’s Occasion Piece 2. The Cunningham Dance Foundation, which supported Cunningham’s creative work from 1964 until his death in 2009, had developed a plan to preserve his artistic legacy and address the future of his dance company. This special benefit performance was part of the company’s Legacy Tour, which ran from February 2010 until December 2011 in over 40 cities worldwide, offering audiences a final chance to see Cunningham’s visionary choreography performed by the troupe he personally trained.
Cage’s experimental aesthetic had a significant influence on Cunningham, fostering a remarkable body of work that expanded the frontiers of modern dance. Their decades-long collaboration began in the 1940s with Cage composing pieces for Cunningham on the prepared piano, which he invented as a sort of one-man percussion ensemble to accompany dancers. When Cunningham formed his own dance company in 1953, Cage became its music director, a position he held until his death in 1992. Chief among their radical innovations was the performance of dance and music created independently of each other, often via chance operations. The dance and music coexisted autonomously; both choreographer and composer were free to let movement and sound be themselves. This was in fact the case in our performance—neither the musicians nor dancers knew in advance what the others would do.
The video below, produced by the Merce Cunningham Trust, is an 11-minute compilation that alternates between footage of the dancers’ rehearsals in New York and excerpts from our 35-minute performance in Los Angeles.