Working on Song Books

Workshops and seminars were significant components of Vir2Ual Cage. The diverse musical and theatrical pieces in Song Books, as well as the work’s aesthetic and social implications, proved inspiring to the dozens of students and colleagues with whom we had the pleasure of collaborating. A chronicle of four workshops held by Vir2Ual Cage in Latvia, California, the Czech Republic, and Ohio may be found here. Since the texts from those workshops include ideas and suggestions that may be somewhat hard to find in the chronicle, selected passages are reprised below in a more directly accessible form. Perhaps other artists or teachers interested in performing Song Books will find this material useful


Song Books may involve singers, actors, composers, dancers, instrumentalists, visual artists, and, in some cases, practically anyone, with or without artistic training. Its 90 pieces, though they’re all titled “solo for voice,” range from directions for various actions (typing, entering or leaving the stage, playing games, projecting slides, producing feedback), to directions for creating and following scores, to virtuosic vocal compositions. There really is something that almost everyone can do, and hence anyone who’s willing to commit to following Cage’s directions—asking questions and following their answers in a disciplined manner—can participate in a performance.

How to explain the incredibly diverse, complex collection that is Song Books to those who may be totally unfamiliar with it? In our workshops, we've found that exploring Song Books offers an excellent introduction to Cage's work in general. It's as though certain issues arise all by themselves, often as a series of questions that have to be answered somehow in order to construct a realization of a piece or mount a performance. In a nutshell, we invite prospective performers to proceed by reading Cage's directions, asking questions, determining a method for obtaining answers, acting on those answers in a disciplined manner, and repeating this process for as long as they’ve determined to do so.

Asking Questions

There’s a saying that finding the right answers may depend on asking the right questions. The following steps offer an example of how to approach Song Books. Often such steps are not linear; you might find yourself going back and forth among them, refining them, adding additional steps based on the pieces you’ve chosen, etc. The point is to develop a process, a system of rules—essentially an algorithm—and follow it with discipline.

1) Read through the score and determine which pieces you’re able and willing to perform.

2) Determine which pieces will be practical for you to prepare, given your resources and the amount of time available. Then, possibly via chance operations (see the end of this section for more about that), determine which pieces you’ll actually prepare.

3) Begin constructing your realizations of pieces. Except for pieces that already are fully notated, every realization will be unique. In fact, different realizations of some pieces often will be unrecognizable as instances of the same piece. Each piece may generate its own questions. In some complex pieces, the number of questions easily could run into the dozens or even hundreds. Just keep asking the questions that seem necessary, such as the following:

• Should you perform this piece in whole or in part? Cage allows the performer to perform any amount of any piece. The entire rendition will last 33 minutes, but that doesn't mean you have to fill that entire duration!

• How will you determine the duration of various actions or parts of the piece? Sometimes, in order to figure this out, it’s necessary to determine how fast you can do something.

• How long will this piece be?

• Will you perform this piece at once from start to finish, or will you allow interruptions?

• If the duration of individual actions is free, how will you determine the length of any action? Will you decide during the performance or set a specific time in advance, perhaps via a chance operation?

• For certain theater pieces that call for choosing nouns or verbs, how will you choose the words?

• For certain theater pieces notated with plus or minus signs, how will you interpret these signs, as well as typefaces, or sizes of words or numbers?

• In pieces that require vocalization, what vocal style(s) will you use, especially if a piece calls for several different styles?

• If a piece calls for unspecified electronics, how will you determine what electronics to use? We'll bring an assortment of electronic gear for our own use, and the venue will have a full sound system, video projector, and lighting. But since it's hard to predict anyone else's needs for technology, we haven't requested any additional equipment besides a few vocal or all-purpose microphones and spare mixer channels. Due to constraints of time and resources, it's best if performers who want additional equipment provide it themselves.

• If a piece calls for technology that seems outdated (for example, knobs and dials for electronic settings on analog equipment), what will you substitute that would remain true to the spirit of Cage’s original directions?

• Will your performance be accompanied by other indeterminate music, as is allowed in Song Books? If so, what music? For how long? When will it begin and end?

• If you get stuck, what will you do? What process will you use to “get out of whatever cage you find yourself in,” to paraphrase Cage? Might you consult the I Ching, as he often did?

What to Avoid

It can be confusing or overwhelming to deal with so many possibilities. Moreover, occasionally Cage’s directions seem cryptic, inconsistent, or even obtuse; in such cases performers must make their best guess as to what to do. Keep in mind that so long as you follow the directions honestly and to the best of your ability, mistakes are unlikely, and easily forgiven. In fact, apart from technical errors in some pieces (for example, singing wrong notes in pieces that specify notes), most “mistakes” in performing Song Books stem from injecting too much of one’s ego, or taking an attitude of “anything goes” at the expense of disciplined action. It’s best to:

• Be faithful to your own plan; avoid departing from your planned activities or improvising. Arbitrary, spur-of-the-moment actions tend to undermine the non-attachment to personal tastes and habits that’s central to Cage’s aesthetic. Though disciplined improvisation can occur within your planned activities, Cage warned against it.

• Focus on your own performance; avoid competing or interacting spontaneously with your fellow performers. Keep in mind that each piece in Song Books is titled “solo,” Even though some solos may at least in theory be realized by more than one person, they really are supposed to be solos in the sense of independent entities. Thus each performer is an independent “soloist” in the performance at large. This, and the next points listed, are important social or political aspects of Song Books.

• Pay no particular attention to the audience; proceed without trying to get noticed or gain approval. In general, Cage wished performers of Song Books to “be themselves,” going about their activities ordinarily, as in their everyday lives, rather than dramatically, “on stage.” Many performers, especially singers and actors accustomed to theatrical gestures, find it quite challenging and counterintuitive to perform impassively.

• A central concern in Song Books is one’s relationship to other people. Rehearsals of Song Books often focus on “traffic control” as much as interpretive refinement, in case multiple performers want to occupy the same space at the same time, akin to pedestrians in a potentially crowded intersection. In performance as in real life, participants are expected to compromise, exercise good judgement, and resolve conflicts amicably.

• Prepare your score (detailed plan of your activities) carefully and with discipline. The process of preparing your performance is, in effect, part of the performance.

• Resist the common temptation to automatically fill silence or “empty” space. Cage embraced both emptiness and abundance. If you ask a question and receive an answer to “do nothing,” that answer is as relevant as any other. If this happens to result, for example, in a performance with several minutes of silence or inactivity, then so be it.

A further point is that all solos in Song Books are supposed to coexist on an equal footing, not compete for attention. They need not be equal in terms of volume or space, but in theoretical or potential significance. Cage was critical of egocentric performers who tried to dominate a performance of Song Books. Performers are not to try to upstage their colleagues or inject themselves into others’ situations. Yet in many solos, especially those involving theater, the choices performers can make may well place their actions in unforeseen contexts, perhaps inadvertently dominating their environment, at least temporarily. Even when performers choose their actions carefully, imagining their potential impact on stage in a way that may parallel decisions in everyday life, there may be a fine line between coexistence and interference. Indeed, the belief that one’s actions are intended in a spirit appropriate to a given situation is one of the many issues that Song Books elicits both on and off stage.

Taking Chances

What are “Chance Operations,” associated so inextricably with Cage? They’re actions in which you ask a question without knowing the answer and use a method that determines the answer based essentially on randomness. You accept the result of whatever operation you performed. If for some reason you can’t accept an answer you’ve received, then ask another, different question, or change the framework in which you’re using chance. As mentioned earlier, how you frame your questions—which can be surprisingly difficult to decide—can make answers more productive. Obviously, repeating a chance operation over and over until you get a desired result would defeat the purpose of this entire process.

Chance operations may include throwing dice, tossing coins, drawing straws, pulling pieces of paper out of a hat, opening a book to a random page and letting your eye land on a random word, designing a computer program to produce unpredictable values, or using the I Ching, Cage’s favorite method. The I Ching, also known in English as the Book of Changes, is an influential ancient Chinese book of divination composed of 64 hexagrams. This oracle has been consulted for centuries to make decisions both basic and complex. Cage used the I Ching primarily as a way of generating numbers to which he assigned musical parameters or, for example, determining settings for "dials" in pieces that call for electronics.

Cage’s interest in chance operations paralleled his interest in freeing his art from his ego. Chance operations allowed him to remove much of the element of personal choice and desire from his works (though, notably, not all of them). Also, since he was interested in chaos, and especially in "art imitating nature in its manner of operation," chance operations allowed him to lessen his own control and thus free himself.

The use of randomness in art is widely misunderstood. Randomness is probably at the root of criticisms of Cage’s music as inherently unmusical. In fact, Cage refined his uses of chance operations depending on the kinds of tasks he was trying to accomplish, and revised his compositional methods until they produced results he found acceptable. Not just any random choices would do. (For a good example, drawn from how Cage created his composition Apartment House 1776, see the Introduction to James Pritchett’s excellent book The Music of John Cage.) While a thorough discussion of chance lies beyond the scope of this post, it’s worth emphasizing that the context in which randomness is used—akin to “asking the right question”—is important. Of course, not every question is amenable to being answered via chance operations. It seems best to use chance to make decisions where the results will be unpredictable, yet fall within an acceptable range. For a prosaic example, if in a restaurant with a vast menu you’re hungry but can’t decide what to eat, you might consider choosing at random, yet you’d certainly want to exclude foods that you strongly dislike or to which you’re allergic.

Anyway, in Song Books you can employ nearly any kind of chance operation, so long as you follow it with discipline. For instance, you could choose a number by asking yourself how many steps it takes to travel from point A to point B. You could choose a word by opening a randomly chosen book to a randomly chosen page. You could even ask a friend or stranger to make a decision for you. Or you could consult the I Ching about how to obtain answers or what kind of procedure to use. Chances are you’ll get an interesting and useful answer.

“Devote myself/to asKing/queStions/Chance/determIned/answers’ll oPen/my mind to World around/at the same Time/chaNging my music/sElf-alteration not self-expression.” —John Cage