CD review: John Cage: Song Books

Loré Lixenberg, Gregory Rose, Robert Worby | John Cage: Song Books | Sub Rosa SR344

Cage’s centenary year has seen a number of ambitious recording projects. Ranked highly among them must be this first complete recording of the Song Books, released on Sub Rosa. Cage’s two books contain 90 “songs” for solo voice – a total of at least six and a half hours of music, or 317 pages of score. For this 2-CD release the decision has been taken, probably wisely, to accept Cage’s permission to superimpose songs, and a total of seven Song Books Mixes have been made. These are presented alongside 14 individual songs.

It is a gargantuan effort for the three performers involved, Loré Lixenberg and Gregory Rose (voice), and Robert Worby (electronics). Better still, all 90 individual solos are apparently available for download through the Sub Rosa website (although at the time of writing I could not find these).

Presentation-wise, this is an exemplary release. The 24-page booklet includes not one but four essays: two by Cage scholars James Pritchett and Rebecca Y. Kim; two by Rose and Worby providing performers’ perspectives. There are lots of extracts from the scores, in all their variety, and some nice photos of Cage that I hadn’t seen before. The packaging is lovely.

But, ah, Cage. What about the music?

First to say: this is a studio recording, prepared as such. So, for example, the electronic processing was carried out in post-production, not live. The recording acoustic (the Edward Boyle auditorium, St Hilda’s College, Oxford) is dry and silent. Facts like this give the set a polished feel that seems at first far removed from Cage’s chaotic carnival of the voice (“it’s like a brothel” was his own description). There are no glitches, no extraneous noises, and a frankly disconcerting sense of equilibrium, even when several songs are running at once. It sounds distinctly un-Cagelike; except that while listening I began to wonder where that notion originated anyway, and who’s to say they have ownership of it today. In his essay, in fact, Pritchett offers the advice (contrarian for a CD note) that “This is not music to sit down and listen to from start to finish … wandering and exploring is more in order.” Perhaps one needs to listen to the CD as though it is a live performance, so that life can still seep in.

The Song Books themselves are among Cage’s most remarkable achievements. Composed in 1970 in answer to a commission for two sets of songs from Cathy Berberian and Simone Rist, they began with an I ching consultation that stipulated that 56 and 34 songs for each book – 90 in total. Cage had just three months to meet his deadline. The measures he took to deal with the pressure of time lead to the songs’ diversity, and helped him unlock a range of new compositional methods. Pritchett calls it “one of the most intensely creative periods in Cage’s life.”

You’d be hard pressed to find two better singers than Rose, and especially Lixenberg, to perform this music with the required dedication. The virtuosity on show in, for example, Solo no.47 or Solo no.90 is impressive; to have sustained this across a total of 90 separate recordings is staggering. For my taste I had trouble with the electronics, which work closely with the grain of the voices – a legacy of modern-day technology; one for the HIP movement? – rather than against it, rather dulling the expressive edge.

Having said all that, when it works it works very well.  Song Books Mix 2 (actually the final track of the CD 2) keeps 17 songs in a state of pleasing mutual sabotage for 23 minutes. It’s not as abrasive or as extrovert as some Cage performances, but neither does it allow gentleness and elegance to fade into mush.

In an interesting comparison of two recent-ish live performances of Song Books Ben Harper writes, “the closer [Cage’s music] comes to life the better it works as art”. Some will find too little “life” in these recordings, certainly. Nevertheless, this is a remarkable achievement, and one that may take some time to be repeated.

Note: the penultimate paragraph of this review was added shortly after its first publication.

Note 2: The artist Sam Belinfante has made a video of clips from the sessions for this album, which hints at the theatrical authenticity of the recording.

4 thoughts on “CD review: John Cage: Song Books

  1. Any luck yet finding those promised individual Solos for Voice downloads at My own hunting has turned nothing up…

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