Live: Alarm Will Sound Cracks Open John Cage’s Song Books


Alarm Will Sound
Michael Schimmel Center for the Arts
Sunday, July 15

Better than: Two hours’ silence.

John Cage’s Song Books looms large in the legend of Alarm Will Sound, which coalesced at the Eastman School of Music in 2000 following a student performance of the 1970 musical-theater tour de force. If he hadn’t died in 1992, Cage would have turned 100 on August 12, and Alarm is marking the occasion by also measuring its own distance traveled, hitting some of Cage’s high points amid a genial multimedia circus with anarchist overtones via Henry David Thoreau. Along with the Bang on a Can Marathon, Alarm’s Song Books book ended a particularly new-music friendly River to River Festival.

We appear to arrive mid-performance. One Alarm member sits at a table rolling dice projected onscreen; another stands in front of a chalkboard, writing and erasing maxims by Cage and others, including Eric Satie’s pre-Cage-ian credo, “We must bring about a music that is like furniture.” Few moments objectify sound more efficiently than pre-performance announcements concerning exit locations and cell phones. Tonight’s, though, asked us to turn our smartphones on in order to participate in some mild social networking, which, due to connectivity issues, I was able to avoid.

Cage’s score for Song Books consists of 89 “solos” for voice and a volume of performance “Instructions” both simple and complex. The musicians decide how many solos to perform and in what order, and they’re allowed to interpolate other Cage pieces. Cage himself characterized Song Books as more of a “brothel” than a work of art. That didn’t stop him from going ballistic when composer Julius Eastman undressed his boyfriend, and attempted to do the same to his sister, during a 1975 performance of Solo 8.

For better or worse, no such lewdness informed Alarm’s production, which was directed and designed by Nigel Maister and premiered at the Cork Opera House last month. The first part of the evening was an ever-morphing parade of often overlapping events. Soprano Mellissa Hughes interpreted a map with an astounding array of extended vocal techniques. Payton MacDonald sang “I have nothing to say/ and I am saying it” as he played tablas. Balloons, roller skates, and toy animals appeared. A flurry of swing dancing broke out on- and offscreen. And so on.

“I must find a way to let people be free without their becoming foolish,” Cage wrote in Indeterminacy. The dada hijinks were offset by the repeated performance of Solo 35, when Thoreau’s famous proclamation -“The best form of government is no government at all, and that is what men will have when they are ready for it”—was sung, anarchist flags unfurled, and musicians leafleted the audience with (mostly) blank sheets of paper.

During intermission, we were invited to participate in a version of Cage’s 33-1/3, with shuffled smartphone playlists replacing the dozen record players and hundreds of vinyl records stipulated in Cage’s score. Unlike the rest of the evening, it sounded kind of thin and tinny, I’m afraid, but the palette-cleansing rendition of Cage’s greatest hit—4’33”—soon introduced a more elegant and elegiac part two. If Satie and Thoreau sponsored part one, two arrived under the aegis of dada strategist Marcel Duchamp, with a centerpiece featuring three flamboyant vocalists and a deadpanning cellist.

A composer I spoke with following the performance seemed to suggest that all the Cage photographs, quotations, and clip from his remarkable 1960 appearance on the celebrity game show What’s My Line? in this rendition of Sound Books compromised the composer’s intent. Yet much of Cage’s most moving work involves elegy and memoria, including tonight’s unforgettable closing moments: As four performers holding a pair of long crossed strings slowly walked into the audience, Courtney Orlando followed them slowly, singing Cage’s “Mesostics Re and Not Re Duchamp” (altered electronically by sound designer Jason Price) while holding a lunch tray containing an apple, sandwich, milk, etc. Reaching the poem’s magnificent final lines—”the telegraM/ cAme/ i Read it./ death we expeCt,/ but all wE get/ is Life”—she placed the tray in the lap of the audience member sitting at the strings’ intersection. The moment of silence that followed was almost deafening.

Critical bias: I have suffered through some excruciatingly turgid Cage performances in my day. This was not one of them.

Overheard: “If we’d been celebrating Woody Guthrie’s birthday tonight, it would have been an entirely different thing.”—Lower Manhattan Cultural Council president Sam Miller

Random notebook dump: Audience vibe suggests it could have listened to 4’33” all night. Or perhaps it was the air conditioning.