John Cage's Song Books

While the Number Pieces of John Cage offer some very tangible clues about how they were composed and the aesthetic rules for their performance—clues that make it possible to discuss what defines the series from the rest of the composer’s oeuvre—the Song Books, compiled by Cage in 1970, present the performer with such diverse information that a lucid description is almost impossible to set on paper. 

As the title suggests, the Song Books are a series of works for voice….generally speaking. The work itself consists of 89 Solos for Voice numbered 3-92 that are grouped into three volumes: 

Volume I consisting of solos 3-58 
Volume II consisting of solos 59-92 
Volume III consisting of instructions, which include a series of tables and materials to guide the performance of the different songs. 

Within each volume, the solos are grouped into the following four subdivisions: 

Songs with Electronics 
Directions for a Theatrical Performance 
Directions for a Theatrical Performance with Electronics 

These categorizations in the score may be the closest thing we can find in Song Books to a formal aesthetic. There are also two main figures that recur throughout the solos and inform them, even in their absence: composer Erik Satie and writer/philosopher Henry David Thoreau. 

The first determination for Cage in composing each of the solos (which, like the Number Pieces, relied heavily on the use of chance operations like manipulation of the I Ching) was whether that solo would reference Satie or Thoreau, or not. If he received an affirmative answer, the solo might refer to Thoreau’s journal, to pictures of Thoreau, etc. or the cheap imitations (see definition below) of Satie’s Socrate. If neither the author or composer were to be referenced, Cage would instead draw upon other thinkers of his own time: Norman O. Brown, Duchamp, Buckminster Fuller, Merce Cunningham, and Marshall McLuhan, to name a few examples. 

The abstract, sometimes contradictory and frequently anarchic result of this creative approach make the Number Pieces difficult to describe, and a challenge to perform. This complexity lies less in the instrumental requirements of the score than in successful execution of Cage's creative intent: to engage the performer and audience with himself in an act of collaborative expression. This intent is communicated in the way Cage prepared the individual pieces, in their style, notation, and performance aesthetic. 

Compositional Style

In his concert notes to a recent performance of the Song Books, Rob Haskins makes the comparison between this period of Cage’s work and Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, a work for piano that is often seen as the culmination of the composer’s complete creative powers at the end of his life. Cage’s Song Books were written more than 20 years before his death and far before he was done being a creative force, but the comparison hangs on the fact that both works show the many different ways in which a single composer might approach the same musical form. 

In the case of Song Books, this is exemplified by solos that encompass many of Cage’s signature compositional methods. These include the use of “cheap imitations”, which strip the work of another composer—usually Erik Satie—of everything but rhythm and replace the pitches through chance operations; text pieces; performative (i.e. staged movement) works; and a variety of Fluxus-style events. 

The pieces therefore seldom conform to the standard audience expectation of how a contemporary art song should “sound”. A performance from the Song Books might for example incorporate such disparate and simultaneous elements as a recitation from Henry David Thoreau’s journal, pure vocal sound, the playing of chess onstage, someone taking a nap, etc., all elements set forth in the score but governed to a degree by chance or through conscious decisions made within the performing group.


Within the myriad kinds of composition found in Song Books, Cage’s forms of notation vary widely. A solo for voice involving no stage direction (one of the songs or songs with electronics, for example) may be notated traditionally—meant to be either sung traditionally or using extended or non-traditional vocal techniques, but using a recognizable “notes on staff” form. But another solo might be notated through a series of drawn lines that give the performer a general sense of pitch and shape of line; by the drawn representation of Henry David Thoreau’s profile; through a series of numbers corresponding to a table in Volume III (instructions); as a text in which some of the letters are capitalized; or simply limited to the phrase “Perform a disciplined action”. These are all equally valid systems of notation, but with inherent qualities that equally invite input from the individual performer. This is very important when you consider putting all the solos together to create a performance. 

Artistic Intent

To simply perform the solos for voice from 3-92 in order would be missing the point entirely. In this, Cage breaks decisively from the tradition of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier. The decision regarding which solos to perform, in what order and how, is in many cases left completely up to the soloist or ensemble. They are invited to choose the length of the performance and then populate it with the solos they feel work best: in any order or at the same time, even in combination with other Cage works like Winter Music and Concert for Piano and Orchestra. Presentation is especially effective when multiple musical works are presented in tandem with Cage’s stage-oriented instructions. The overall aesthetic of the performance, then, can vary wildly depending on the performers. An austere presentation of a single solo for voice in recital is just as valid as staging all 92 simultaneously in the manner of a “happening”. This is not to say “anything goes” – the piece does not give absolute free reign to the performers. Rather, Cage constructed a work that asks a series of decisions be made by the performers, using their own artistic judgment, to create an one-of-a-kind stage experience that is personal while at the same time retaining the spectre of Cage as a composer and thinker.