Boston Sound Collective (BSC) on Song Books

The following is something extraordinary. This conversation with four members of the monumental improvising large group the BSC (see the Networking Issue of Sound American for more info) could be summed up by the phrase "lightning in a bottle" along with an equally apt phrase, "be careful what you wish for". 

Initially, I approached the BSC, along with Ne(x)tworks, and invited them to have something of an email interview, or more appropriately an email conversation, about how they were approaching their upcoming performance of John Cage's Songbooks at Bowerbird's Cage: Beyond Silence Festival. When things finally came to a rest near the deadline of the issue, I straightened myself from the fetal position and opened my eyes to find that what had actually occurred was a fascinating and humorous discussion of not only the Songbooks, but Cage as an idea, the ideal of improvisation, what constitutes a proper performance, the development and protection of a musical syntax, and a quickly disappearing hegemony. 

More explanation than that will only detract from the conversation, but I will add this bit of housekeeping. You'll be reading the bulk of the emails, in the order they came in, and as they came in (saving a little capitalization on my part). I haven't excised anything, with the exception of a handful of one sentence emails that weren't pertinent to the topic, as I think it's most interesting to experience the lengthy discussion on its own terms as it unfolded. Included in the discussion are saxophonist Bhob Rainey, vocalist Liz Tonne, bassist and electronicist Mike Bullock, and cellist and electronicist Vic Rawlings.

From: Nate Wooley August 10, 2012

Hi Bhob, Liz, Vic, and Mike, I'm dropping you all a line on behalf of a quarterly online journal I edit called Sound American ( As you'll see if you go there right now, we're already featuring the BSC in Issue #2 and by happenstance it works out that I can feature you all in Issue #3 as well. 

Issue #3 is dealing, like every other piece of music media right now, with John Cage. We're partnering with Dustin Hurt, Bowerbird, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art to create a discussion around the composer that will coincide with the Cage festival in which you'll be performing his Songbooks. I feel as if there are more than enough festschrifts to Cage the composer/thinker/oddball, etc. going around that we're trying to concentrate less on the man himself and more on the overlooked role of the performer/interpreter of his works with a special emphasis on the Songbooks and Number Pieces, both of which show not only his most mature thought on music as social construct, but require a very unique mixture of rigor and freedom in interpretation. 

I would like to open up a dialogue with the four of you about how you are approaching the performance of the solos for voice, especially in terms of your backgrounds as improvisors and as part of a long-standing performing ensemble like the BSC. This will be paired with a similar discussion with members of Joan LaBarbara's ensemble, Ne(x)tworks, who are also preparing the Songbooks for the festival. 

If you're open to the idea, I will send a preliminary set of questions next week. The deadline gives us some time, but I would like the opportunity for us to get beyond the typical question/answer/done format and into more of a discussion, so I may push things along slightly, although there's no need for anyone to feel rushed. 

let me know what you think. I hope to get your voices as part of this issue. I think it will be an important contrast to a certain hegemony amongst Cage-ists. 

best, Nate 

From: Mike Bullock August 10, 2012

Hi Nate, This definitely sounds interesting Nate - I am in favor. This is a good time since there's been some email chatter in the last few days among BSC members to get us ramped up for the festival. Mike 

From: Liz Tonne August 10, 2012

flurry of Cage based emails and are somewhat more together on this thing than we were a week ago. Hmmm, perhaps another flurry is in order? Could someone tell me more about the "hegemony of Cage-ists"? Maybe I am one and don't even know it. 


From: Vic Rawlings August 10, 2012

Hi Everyone, 

Consider me in. 

I, too, like an ongoing dialog sort of format, rather than the q/a situation. Ideas will develop more that way. The discussion will definitely push us. 

nate- please do send the starting points and push as we go. And as for the hegemony, I don't think any of us focus on cage enough to embody the center. I will join Liz in professing my ignorance. 

In short, I'm hoping to be faithful to the meaning and intent of the pieces, vainly retain some aspect of my sound, and produce music that matters today- as opposed to playing an old quaint composition. 


From: Mike Bullock: August 11, 2012

Hi everyone, I'm an Art Doctor®, dammit, so I am totally the hegemony! 

One of the things that bothered Cage the most about performances of his pieces, and which still unfortunately can happen in the (relatively) conservative versions of his works, is too much humor/vaudeville and the use of his open-endedness as some kind of license to freak out. He kind of opens himself up to the potential for abuse, because clearly in these Songs and in other of his grand pieces, he definitely doesn't want it to be hyper serious either. But in terms of some kind of Cage orthodoxy, the only danger there I think is that a lot of people toss his name around as lip service to anything “non-conservatory” without actually doing any homework or real listening. It's way too easy for people just to read some of Cage's writings and not listen to/play his music, and thereby claim they 'get it.' 

Which leads into what Nate wants us to talk about, which is not the philosophical back-n-forth but the practicalities of actually making Cage happen. I agree that would be a more interesting topic! 

Cage made some famous statements about not liking improvised music etc. that can make him sound like the "typical" western-style composer who doesn't trust musicians. I don't think that was really what was going on with him though, given his propensity to write pieces for specific musicians who certainly had their own agency in a lot of ways. Which leads me back to David Tudor, who is as much a godfather as anyone else when it comes to "our scene" of electro-acoustic improvisation. 


From: Nate Wooley August 13, 2012

Hi everyone, I'm glad you're on board, and I think we're already headed in a direction that is more interesting than it any I would have imposed on the discussion with predetermined questions so, for the time being, let's just follow this idea of hegemony and philosophy versus performance practice. 

Using the term hegemony was a slip on my part and is definitely too strong a word for what I'm trying to describe. Really what I'm trying to do is distinguish between two sets of performance practices for Cage's music (especially these later pieces) that are at opposite ends of a spectrum. I think Mike starts talking about this when he describes the danger of people mistaking the openness of Cage's compositions with free license to play unmusically. In my experience, though, it's not just that musicians think of playing Cage's music as an "anything goes" proposition (although that certainly happens a lot) that is part of the orthodoxy. There also seem to be another side of the debate that puts more limits on Cage's work than would necessarily be imposed by the composer himself in an attempt to create a "common practice" or dogma, and I think that this is just as dangerous as the "license to freak out" to the intent of the music. 

So, bringing it back to the pragmatic "how the fuck do you play this" question do you sit with a piece of music (like Cage's) that gives you certain limitations to live within but not necessarily a strict, inviolable score, and find a musical way to interpret it that rides that thin line between dogma and anarchy? I am interested in your answer to this specifically because of the way the four of you seem to view improvising. To my ears, you all are consistently riding that thin line in a discipline that often is on one side of that coin or the other (either the anarchy of free jazz squall or the dogma that can be inherent in minimalist eai improvisation). Do you feel like because of that experience (undr quartet, bsc, nmperign, etc) that you are equipped in a different way to interpret Cage or do you think it adds a different level of information that gets in the way of the composer's intent? 

best, Nate 

From: Vic Rawlings August 15, 2012

I can say a coupla things (as a witch doctor/chiropractor of music/art)- 

I don't claim to know mountains of cage's specific statements or to have deeply studied him. I'm pretty much going on the aggregate vibe of all of the things I've read/seen by and about him, including many awful performances of his works. 

In February I spoke with a librarian at Oberlin who had interviewed and hung with cage some amount and she said that in their conversations cage was outspoken about being very into getting performers to improvise outside of their standard approach (I add that this is understandable given that most of the improvisation that he saw was probably either genre-specific or pretty bad). This tells me that he was into improvisation, but not crappy improvisation done by overly trained unimaginative virtuosos or 'freedom' junkies running scales and hitting their hit lixxx. 

She also spoke of his dislike of repeating themes (and his reprimanding Gordon Mumma for doing this) and his being not into a piano player (she forgot who this was specifically) who brought focus to himself over the band by using game calls and generally being ultra-interesting as a soloist/spectacle. 

It seems that the idea is just to not sound bad or step into concerto mode, and that these pieces are attempts to put up enough obstacles to get players to a place that they can play without hitting their defaults; defaults they arrived at as orchestra players or jazzers or hippies. At the risk of sounding like an egomaniac for the scene, I think cage was writing his instructions so that much less imaginative musicians than us would have a shot at reaching music that we routinely produce- enough time has gone by. Most of his dictates/statements seem to generally describe a good performance by us or the improvisers we appreciate in the scene. 

Taking all of these ideas into account, my guess is that he would be into a lot of what goes on in the scene we occupy and would want us to play the pieces and would also want the pieces to stay out of our way. I am also thinking of Christian Wolff's acceptance of us as a band and his smile and his 'just play' statement when we asked him about some specific aspects of Edges. By extension, I don't imagine Cage would feel the need to strictly dictate to us- we have grown up and matured in a slurry of ideas that he set in motion. He'd be psyched we are here. 

As for myself, anytime I encounter a piece I am trying to figure out a way that I can play my instruments in a way that remains specific to me and also satisfies the intent of the piece- in that order. There is no point in doing a piece that I can't be fully present in or that calls me into a place of inauthenticity. I'm wanting to present great music- music that is as good as our improvisations. Some pieces will allow this, and others won't. 

I'm not gonna dedicate the time to do this, but I imagine it would be very possible to take a recording of the BSC or another group and to find a Cage score (after the fact) that it is a faithful realization of. It seems this would be particularly good with the pieces that use transparencies. 

I also think it would be fun to play 'name that tune' with the audience by playing a cage piece that we don't tell them the name of. 

As for some earlier questions, the hegemony thing: There are a lot of goofballs falling back on Cage as a legitimizer of doing whatever- Obviously. I'm thinking of the amount of vomiting at high school and college parties when people begin to exercise the freedom to drink alcohol. Likewise, Cage is a bit of a projective test. Contradicting accepted wisdom, I'll say that freedom is as free as claiming it- and it can be dangerous. If people are not used to (or capable of) responsibly using freedom, they tend to play a type of improvisation that we have generally moved away from. 

And while I'm on my high horse: 

At the risk of sounding like a guest on - I'm Tom Ashbrook- This Is On Point - people want heroes and leaders. It's natural that cage attracts this, but it's not cool. I'm not thinking of what he would want or any of that- I'm saying it's not cool. I have always appreciated art/music in general and the scene in specific as a place that people can do things that are specific to themselves and their time. Cage is an old thing now by any standard of art-time in the 20th or 21st century. I see grasping at Cage or any avant-garde hero (including, but not limited to Jasper Johns and Lou Reed) as a bullshit move. By bullshit I mean missing the point. For his 100th birthday it's a very good thing to throw the guy a party and play some of his jams, but people who make a life and career out of expressing their version of his intent have lost me already by the time they have glued themselves to their god/hero/leader.