Possessing Nothing: John Cage Songbooks – A review and poetic response

By Tim Edwards

The Songbooks of John Cage are a manual for improvisation and interpretation, offering a multitude of textual fragments and instructions whose overall approach derives from the chance procedures embodied in the Taoist Book of Changes, the Tao Te Ching.  The June performance took certain of those texts as a springboard for an exhilarating, multi-media event incorporating song, dance, performance art, visual and physical theatre, soundscape to variously absurd, eerie or acutely ironic effect.  This was Dada for the 21C, complete with moments of lyrical beauty and political comment.  Oh, and a game of chess in which the rules never stood a chance.

Let’s start with the chess.  One of the implicit themes of the performance was ‘breaking the frame’, the rules of chess not so much suspended as made subject to performance-rules, this itself subjected to the rule of chance.  And so the chessboard was balanced on the back of a performer on hands and knees while the vocalist and the sound-mixer negotiated the placing of the pieces, the precariousness highlighted when the vocalist had to tell the kneeling performer, “Don’t arch!”  Meanwhile, another performer was unravelling a billowing length of white cloth from inside his jumper like ectoplasm binding audience members together while a third performer prepared a large bowl of vegetable salad amidst bemused spectators.  A semiotician would have had a field day.  The frame was also broken when the performance space was extended beyond itself, the vocalist tapping away on a typewriter balanced on the back of a performer kneeling on a small, flatbed trolley, the pair heading out of the Exit door into the foyer.  Balanced precision never looked (or sounded) more open to the contingent.

Typewriters were just one element in a soundscape that included a variety of ‘found’ objects that were made to clatter, rustle or squelch – or, when a mic fell off a typewriter stand, pop/boom, which the sound-engineer promptly sampled (I checked afterwards, this was a genuine accident.  Cage would have applauded).  The original ‘found’ object, at once the most primitive and the most sophisticated, is of course the human voice, and in two respects the use made of the voice provided some of the most striking and effective moments in the event.  First, the voice was sampled live throughout, with delay and other kinds of sound-manipulation building a sonic environment by turns haunting, abrasive, eerie, nervy, always apt for the visual or dramatic moment; and second, the singing itself was quite simply virtuosic, the vocalist, Elaine Mitchener, using extended vocal technique that included phrasing of fugitive cantilena-like beauty, fractured coloratura, the grunts, trills and aspirates of pure sound, the odd singspiel.  One of the most telling moments came at the end when, to a recitation of the anarchist-inspired mantra, “The best form of government is no government at all”, the black flag of Anarchy was handed to various members of the audience, who proceeded to first wave then slash the air with the flags as modelled by the performers, the audience readily falling into line, as it were, behind the ‘leaders’.  The mantra continues, “We will have such a government when we are ready” – the irony was made crystal clear: we are not yet ready enough, it seems.

Individual components of the performance could be picked out almost ad infinitum – the vocal acrobatics matched by the physical gymnastics of members of the Dam Van Huynh Dance Company; the steely absurdity of Brenda Mayo’s near-parallel performance-art, a constant thread throughout everything else going on.  Was there narrative continuity to the performance?  Not in any obvious sense – any overall consistency or integrity came from the realisation in dramatic form of the Songbook texts (which were vocalised sporadically as part of the performance) and from a multitude of visual and auditory cross-references repeated throughout the performance.  What emerged in the end was a structure that in different ways thematised and embodied its own subjection to contingency, true to both the spirit and the letter of its source in a performance that provoked, baffled and entertained in almost equal measure throughout in exemplary fashion.  This was one event where the Festival’s theme of ‘Poetry and Lyrics’ was both celebrated and hilariously, pointedly transcended in virtuoso style.


The following two poems constitute a response to certain elements in the thought and practice of John Cage.  ‘Ideogram’ realises a chance encounter between two gardens – a Zen stone-garden in Kyoto and a domestic back garden in Clapham, London – in a quizzical affirmation of contingency, while ‘. . . notes . . .’ dramatises the enfolding within one another of nature and artifice, the combination rendered as a performative act, at once brimming with and empty of content.



“. . . notes written inside one another”




A bird scrabbles and
beats against an inner window.
Beyond the scratch, the flutter,
beyond music lies a world
given to sense.

Scratch, flutter and beat:
she cannot get her children to go to school –
how will they ever escape?

My name is Guano
scrawled across the drift
of another life:
O! Sforzando – you’re welcome
just as long as that which can be
usefully understood
remains, remains.


No bird beats out against
a window, yet an arcing sorrow
has ingrained itself upon the air
Does this world care?

Oh, you flutter and scratch
but the architecture will
in the end be torn down
and reassembled in a room
for the sake of those
already gone.

And you care
but do not know how to:
this, what we construct,
the sound, to escape.




onto the garden’s
infinite curve of raked gravel
a pigeon walks – ash, ash –

I think of you
your life’s solitary curve
your death

leaf / character

our willow sapling leans
over your resting place –
ashes and earth –
I represent
those who in your life were absent
who in your death attended you
strangers acting as friends

a leaf brushes your face –
brushed leaf, a wry smile
as a pigeon lands

infinite curve of raked gravel
ash from a willow leaf

I think of you
as a pigeon brushes a page

infinite curve of willow leaf
a wry smile – ash –

I am and think of you
alone, not alone

here once and now gone
the pencil that drew the line
old man in the rain

© T.Edwards, 2017

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