Loré Lixenberg / Gregory Rose / Robert Worby

John Cage: Song Books

by John Garratt

8 November 2012

John Cage challenged many things, especially on paper. Does it still challenge us in the digital age?
cover art

Loré Lixenberg / Gregory Rose / Robert Worby

John Cage: Song Books

(Sub Rosa)
US: 25 Sep 2012
UK: 15 Oct 2012

I owe John Cage some debt of thanks. One of the few A’s I received in college was for an oral presentation I gave during my junior year on the iconic experimental composer, briefly allowing my transcript to depict me as a slightly brighter student than I really was. Looking back, I really can’t take any of the credit. Just standing up in front of the class and talking about Cage made for some great discussion - the guy’s history practically wrote itself. And I was able to pull this all off without playing a note of the guy’s music because I didn’t have to. If people take time out of their busy schedule to sit down and listen to Cage, it’s a means to an end. It’s to provide context, inspiration and/or historical perspective. Of “Song Books”, one of Cage’s earliest of his ambitious works, the author said “to consider [it] as a work of art is nearly impossible. Who would dare? It resembles a brothel, doesn’t it?” I’m pretty sure a class room fits somewhere between the two.

Cage would have turned 100 this year and Sub Rosa has agreed to press a condensed version of Song Books onto two CDs with voice and electronic performances by Loré Lixenberg, Gregory Rose, and Robert Worby. The original work is made up of 90 individual pieces, with a few of them being mixed into giant, conglomerate monster tracks so that it could all fit onto two CDs. The 90 recordings are available individually from Sub Rosa’s website. Sources for these pieces fly in from different angles, even though Cage, in his diary, isolates them to just Henry David Thoreau and Erik Satie. In what can only be described as a pure John Cage fashion, the path of the music is left to chance and often performed non-musically. Instead of reading standard notation, the performers look to maps of the area surrounding Walden. Board games are amplified and microphone feedback is requested. A Mozart aria is spliced and words by Duchamp are vocalized with electronics “either on or off”.

Song Books is a package where the liner notes provide you with more than half the picture of what is going on. The academic nature of John Cage’s work guarantees that it will put less emphasis on an affable performance and more on practically everything else. And despite the many, many bizarre things that go into determining the size and shape of Song Books, it comes through predominantly as a vocal work. These vocals are digital chopped and blended, be they operatic lines or hysterical laughter. And don’t forget coughing, gargling and Lixenberg flattening her vowels into one terrific scream.

Purely speaking as a listening experience, Song Books travels through fewer dimensions than it lets on. This isn’t to say it lacks any value, it just happens to inhabit a space akin to the specialized articles found in social science periodicals. These 90 works were pivotal for Cage’s career and experimental/manipulated music in general back in 1970, but I can’t let go of the feeling that recording it is like reading a written transcript of a performance by a improvisational physical comedy troupe.

John Cage: Song Books


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