John Cage's Snape Song Books

Song Books (Solos for Voice 3–92) is a collection of short works by John Cage, written and compiled by the composer in 1970.

It contains pieces of four kinds: songs, songs with electronics, directions for a theatrical performance, and directions for a theatrical performance with electronics. Any may be performed by one or more singers.

Song Books was published by Cage in 1970 as three volumes: volume one contained Solos for Voice 3–58, volume two contained Solos for Voice 59–92, and the third volume, titled "Instructions", contains various tables and other materials necessary for performance of some of the pieces.

The work explores a very wide variety of notation systems. Some Solos are given in standard notation, others employ a special brand of notation with circles of different sizes and lines instead of notes, still others are systems of dots and lines, etc. Some are not notated at all: the text is given using different fonts and font sizes for different words, or sometimes changing in mid-sentence.

Certain Solos consist only of instructions to the performer, ie. what he or she should do and how, although these instructions may be rather free (for instance, "Perform a disciplined action" may be an instruction, and according to Cage it does not mean "Do whatever you want", but rather a request to discipline oneself and/or free oneself of one's likes and dislikes.

Most of the texts are from Henry David Thoreau's journals (Volume 3 contains a photograph of Thoreau as material for one of the Solos); other authors whose texts Cage used include Norman O. Brown, Marcel Duchamp, Buckminster Fuller and Marshall McLuhan. For Solo for Voice 91 Cage wrote his own text.

Pictures taken at Britten Studio, Snape on Feb 4 with text from Wikipedia. John Cage's Song Books were performed by Exaudi directed by James Weeks in an open session electronically moderated by students from the University of East Anglia's Music and Electronics degree course and sound artist Bill Thompson. During the sixty minute performance the Song Books were performed simultaneously at different "sound docks" around the Britten Studio with the audience free to move around during the performance in Jonathan Harvey approved fashion. We live in an age where friction-free music (aka smooth classics and smooth jazz) flows effortlessly from composer to performer and then, via various digital networks, to listener and on further into equally effortless oblivion. So what a revelation to hear a live performance of sticky music that forces the listener, as John Cage intended, to discipline themself and/or free themself of their likes and dislikes. Repeated at King's Place, London on March 28th and not to be missed. More on Aldeburgh Music's Britten Studio here.

All photos (c) On An Overgrown Path 2011. Our tickets for John Cage's Song Books were bought at the Snape box office. Report broken links, missing images and errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dot uk Also on Facebook and Twitter.


Pliable said…
Amusing to see this on Twitter at -

Well fancy seeing this at King's Place RT @overgrownpath: On An Overgrown Path: John Cage's Snape Song Books
Pliable said…
The Song Books repeatedly use the Thoreau quote of "The best form of government is no government at all."

On reflection that probably would have been a better, but less search engine friendly, title for the post.
John Bickley said…
I did the lighting for a performance of Songbooks by Singcircle at the Round House once, way back. The design was deliberately perverse, of course. Achieved a memorable review in The Times: 'The lighting would have disgraced a Yeovil discotheque.' Any other connections between Cage and Yeovil?
natasha said…
Hello, thanks for noticing my Tweet! I've posted my review of last night's Kings Place performance here:

I wondered if I might be able to use some of your pictures of the workshops alongside the review - can't pay I'm afraid, but I've already linked back to your blog...

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