Cage’s Song Books

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John Cage
Song Books
BELGIUM SUB ROSA SR344 2 x CD (2012)

An initial, ostensibly reasonable thought when confronted with reviewing this CD might be what can there be left to meaningfully add about a giant like John Cage? Perhaps one helpful comfort is that anyone coming to this particular body of work is likely to be sufficiently well-acquainted with Cage, but perhaps, constructively, less so with these vocal works made during his later period.

One is immediately struck by the lavish, well-appointed feel of this double CD package; with its twenty-four page booklet, including learned essays, by Rebecca Y. Kim and James Pritchett, and, usefully, by featured vocalists, Loré Lixenberg and Gregory Rose. These writings offer a pleasing breadth of perspectives on the music contained. Photographs and illustrations adorn, also, including excerpts of the original scores. The latter serve to illustrate the wide range of methods and approaches Cage uses here; mining everything from standard notation, through various eclectic hybrids, not least the use of typography, all the way to Fluxus-like worded instructions.

Characteristically, Cage encourages personal interpretation by performers, together with the mixing and matching of elements – all gleaned, of course, from chance procedures; and the twenty-one songs on offer are duly assembled from an array of ninety plus constituent parts, totalling over six-and-a-half hours, offered either raw, as relatively short solos, or by superimposing multiples of these, forming longer, what are called, mixes. Still further variety is delivered via Cage’s use of impressionistic passages of text – drawn from Buckminster Fuller, Merce Cunningham, Erik Satie, Marcel Duchamp, Marshall McLuhan and especially Henry David Thoreau, as well as the composer himself. The album is as much an exploration of these differing conditions, ingredients and starting points as it is of the possibilities of the voice itself. Obviously, with these techniques, there is an almost infinite variety of other possible Song Books albums or performances waiting to be made.

I took Pritchett’s advice to ‘not sit down’, to rather ‘wander and explore’, whilst listening. No doubt Cage would not be perturbed by this, nor the sounds I added myself by cooking a meal.

Lixenberg and Rose conjure everything from frail sweeping tenderness to pneumatic, quasi-operatic intensity, during which elegant timbres of arabesque circularity might fall in clusters or tail off poignantly into icy soundlessness. Wordless, abstract expulsions are interpolated by broken narrative; the passages of text often feel somewhat pensive, introspective, translating as a kind of truncated soliloquy, whilst at other times delivery seems idle, almost comic.

The pure voice is intermittently complemented by electronic treatments, bombastic, clattering percussion, field recordings and the amplified coarse movement of resonant objects – metal on stone, and so on. This imbues the proceedings with a kind of staged theatricality; perceived at face-value as the audible part of unseen incidental actions. Such layers were in fact tastefully added during post-production by soundartist Robert Worby. Clever micro-detail is introduced here, afforded by applications of ring-modulation and something that would now be attributed to bit-crushing, wherein fidelity is intentionally degraded and fragmented, forming short-duration syncopations as the sound stutters quickly in and out, off and on. These disturbed surfaces are further animated by instantaneous, often brutal shifts from restful, even soulful passages of delicate fragility to shrill excess from Lixenberg and menacing animalistic cries and moans from Rose. This results in an overall mix which is truly dynamic.

These pieces meaningfully extend the notion of the song form; all grist for the mill for vocalists such as Meredith Monk and, say, Trevor Wishart, right through to newer artists like Sharon Gal, as well as those many musicians using objects as instruments, notably Adam Bohman. Released to mark the 100th anniversary of Cage’s birth, this is a serious, well-thought-through document; and noted Belgian label SubRosa are certainly to be congratulated for bringing this delightful package together.

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