Interview by Bret McCabe
On Tuesday night, faculty artist Tony Arnold and 34 other Peabody artists will realize one of contemporary American music’s more daft and dazzling works, John Cage’s Song Books, a 1970 collection of 90 solos for two or more singers. The score for each solo includes instructions for song and/or theater and/or electronics. What the score doesn’t contain are those things typically associated with sheet music: notes arranged on a musical staff, time signatures, etc. A few such notations appear in unconventional ways, but the score itself is mostly a set of text instructions written in simple, declarative sentences, with a brief 14-sentence set of general instructions that provide some guidance for thinking about the entire piece. The two sentences that say anything about thematic content or concert duration read: “Each [solo] is relevant or irrelevant to the subject: ‘We connect Satie with Thoreau.’ Given a total performance time-length, each singer may make a program that will fill it.”
“This is a piece that oftentimes makes people go, Oh,” says Arnold during a recent interview in her Peabody studio, her masked face assuming a politely surprised look. “That’s not happening here at all—exactly the opposite. It’s like, How can we make this cool thing happen?”
Arnold, eight dancers, and 26 singers (in including three faculty performers and one staff member) will perform in 38 locations around campus facing the facing the DLA Piper Plaza, turning the outdoor area into a musical courtyard. The above description of the work, and its anarchic score/instructions, may suggest a chaotic free for all, but as with all things in Cage’s indeterminate works, there’s frequently a sublime method to the superficial madness, and the work creates these disarmingly musical moments that are difficult to describe because you’re not always sure exactly how they arose.
Arnold was first exposed to the Song Books when she was studying to be an orchestra conductor as a graduate student at Northwestern University in 1991. Composer William Brooks was directing the production, and Debbie Campana, Cage’s archivist, was the associate director of a Northwestern library and invited Cage. “It was in the last year of his life,” Arnold says. “He was wonderful and engaging, very kind. He didn’t direct the performance but he was there to kind of consult and inspire.”
Peabody Magazine spoke with Arnold about realizing this Song Books, working with contemporary composers, and what students learn through projects such as this one.
What did you take away from that early exposure to both performing the Song Books and John Cage at Northwestern?
The scope of the project was really fascinating to me, also the idea of parallel play and that we’re in a space making something together. We don’t know what it is that we’re going to make—but you can’t just do anything, you have to do these things—and in so doing there are these moments that are created where you are attuned to what everybody else is doing. And as a performer, there are these moments that are created that can be astonishing and beautiful and unexpected and really, really interesting—and you’ll never recreate the bread crumb trail that gets you there but you know that you couldn’t have gotten there if you hadn’t engaged this material deeply to begin with.
That’s that whole experience—I can’t say it was my first introduction to that idea, but it was the one that really kind of catalyzed for me that idea of every moment of a performance being pregnant with possibility.
You’ve worked with composers closely on ambitious song cycles that aren’t only technically challenging but emotionally and intellectually demanding as well. How does that work as a performer inform your own teaching process to help students through that process?
There are two things in that. One is that the vocal instrument is all about motivation and the effect of that motivation. We harvest from experience in that any vocal sound that any composer ever asked for we’ve already made in our lives. We have to remember the circumstances under which we made a sound. When we were a little kid hollering like an ambulance, we didn’t imitate an ambulance sound. We believed that we were the siren, we embodied that sound. So that’s the first, our voices are observable by experience.
The other side of that is about composers. Even in Mozart, there was a concept of sound that arises from character, and that’s where those two things are aligned. When we’re looking at any piece of music, you have to put yourself in the position of the creator. What inspired them to write this thing in this way? Was it a text? Was it a character? Was it an experience?
For a singer, for any performer, to imagine themselves in the position of the composer, what would inspire them to write anything—that gets a singer closer to executing these things that might otherwise feel very alien.
Could you talk a bit about the approach for this Song Books? How have you chosen to connect Satie to Thoreau?
Of course, the more you know about either of these characters, the deeper that can go. But even just on the surface of it, both Satie and Thoreau embodied this idea a return to something essential, returning to something simple—and with that, there’s a political philosophy, an aversion to organization on the grand scheme of things. You can call that government or whatever, but that large-scale structures imposed upon people are a problem in some way, yet they’re necessary. It’s understood that there’s a certain amount that’s necessary.
Here is also where that idea of parallel play enters. There’s music that’s happening, and it may be coordinated by an idea, but it’s under the philosophy of, “You do you.” And then you are also aware of the others who are playing in the sandbox with you, and the harmony arises from individual narratives intersecting, and there’s great joy when those narratives intersect in unexpected ways.
When working with a score like Song Books that leave musical decisions such as pitch or duration and more up to the performer, do you find yourself building a vocabulary that works in those specific situations? Or are those decisions more project-based?
It’s amazing the degree to which, when a student comes in here and is working with a piece, how often they will give me a new idea about what to do with something. It’s dependent on the people who are doing the piece, much of it is dependent on the location in which that piece is done. So the Peabody plaza is huge in this.
That being said, I have a pretty wide vocabulary of styles that I’m always drawing from, but I don’t seek to impose any of those so much as to draw forth something from the student that is somehow native to them. And then to amplify that and get them to question: Why do I do it that way? What if I took a different approach? What if I looked at this vowel and consonant combination, how does that affect everything else? [Rehearsing a piece such as Song Books] is so much about pointing their awareness to things that they might not have noticed before and then seeing where that leads them—not to give them a way of doing something, but have them discover many ways that they could approach it themselves.
What does a singer learn about text settings by working on pieces such as Song Books?
A few of the texts are quotes from Thoreau, but there are several pieces where the texts have all been cut up. So are you supposed to make a continuity of those things or not? That starts to make us question the assumed continuity of normal text, syntax and structure. You begin to question continuity and what makes continuity.
If you think about it, every night we go to sleep. And when we wake up, we have this story that we wake up the same person as we fell asleep, but are we really sure that that’s what happens? I mean, our story connects those things through, but if we look at our experience, our experience of life is discontinuous all the time. And I think that this approach to text, with text being deliberately interrupted, actually forces us to examine the experience of discontinuity in our lives and draw lessons from it.
Is Cage’s Song Books a piece that conservatory students run into that often?
Not really—occasionally it comes up in a musicology or music history class. Over the years, I’ve probably done not even 10 performances of it, and I’ve led a whole bunch of them at festivals. We even did it at Tanglewood a few years back.
I’m so excited that Peabody is game to do this piece and that along the way I have met absolutely no resistance from people in facilities, teachers, students, anything. There is such an open mindedness in this place in this time, so I’m happily drinking in that whole spirit of Peabody through this piece. I’m not usually here at night, and the last couple of weeks I’ve been walking around at night to observe the spaces that we’re going to be using. It’s so beautiful.