An Epic John Cage Work Tests the Chaos Theory in Holland


America’s government, having turned 225 years old on Wednesday, satisfies us as a success story. But that doesn’t exactly mean we know just how much of it is a good thing. If an administration is elected because it pushes for more government, voters will next probably turn to one that espouses less, and so on. Political parties restlessly shift positions, depending on immediate wants and needs. Even anarchists are divided into feuding factions.

Such ambivalence is the realm of not just politics but also the arts, and Saturday night, the Holland Festival offered a curious example of the tensions between our urge for government and our resistance to it. The occasion was the festival’s closing event, a gala performance of John Cage’s complete “Song Books,” in Amsterdam’s famed, hallowed concert space, the Concertgebouw.

“Song Books,” a collection of 90 individual solos (some songs, some theater pieces), was written in 1970 and reflects the political activism of that era. Cage had become enthusiastic about Henry David Thoreau, and his aim was to connect Thoreau’s hearty endorsement of the motto, “That government is best which governs least,” with an earlier passion for rule-breaking, irreverent French composer Erik Satie.


It is an epic collection. The solos range from relatively standard songs to conceptual art. A singer might be asked to follow conventional notation or treat the contours of Thoreau’s face as a melodic line. Another solo might require a performer to eat a meal or write a letter, with a microphone amplifying the sounds. Along with direct references to Satie and Thoreau (principally “Civil Disobedience” and the journals), “Song Books” invokes James Joyce, Marcel Duchamp and even Schubert and Mozart.

Cage never suggested that all the solos be performed together. His instructions called for any number of solos “used” by any number of performers. Each makes an independent program and doesn’t worry about what anyone else is doing. But completeness (and then some, with other Cage works added as well) was the intention of the Holland Festival, which turned “Song Books” into a full-scale theatrical event, with a vast and diverse array of performers, and the hope of creating a model that could be reproduced at other festivals.

The Concertgebouw was transformed. The stage could not hold all the performers, props (a chaise longue, one table with typewriter, another set up for a chess game, a small kitchen and much more) and electronics, so several rows of seats in front of the theater were removed. Two large video screens were placed on either side of the theater. The small rear balcony also held performers, as did the aisles and rear of the hall.

About 40 soloists were involved, and they included Joan LaBarbara and Susan Naruki (two well-known American specialists in modern vocal music), Ars Nova (an exquisite Danish vocal ensemble), Louis Andriessen (Holland’s most important composer), Bambie (a tasteless Dutch mime troupe), 100% Isis (two feisty female DJs), Merzbow (an electronica group) and Greetje Bijma (a stunning Dutch improvising singer). Others participated on film, among them the rock band Sonic Youth and Dutch Fluxus artist Willem de Ridder, and there were films of Cage himself, adding a spooky presence. Gail Zappa created a solo over the Internet from Los Angeles.

Given such a complex array of performers, and the sheer density of sound when many were performing simultaneously, more government than Cage called for proved necessary. Dutch filmmaker Frank Scheffer, who produced the event with American composer Ron Ford and American musicologist Benedict Weisser, imposed structure. He needed to make sure that every solo was assigned and that the entire program would last exactly 90 minutes (a limitation imposed by the Concertgebouw). A complex road map, using Cagean chance procedures, was produced.

A less ambitious performance of “Song Books,” in which the soloists are simply individuals acting on their own, can be a profound social exercise. A musical society convenes onstage and demonstrates that unrelated music and activities--the singing of a virtuoso coloratura soprano number, say, and the typing of a letter, the coming and going of performers--need not interfere with one another and can even lead to interesting combinations and counterpoints that no one had ever thought of before. That, however, is not quite what happened at the Concertgebouw.


A note in the program encouraged listeners to sample the performance from various places in the theater. But rather than move from one seat to another, the audience invaded the stage, intrusively peering over the shoulders or directly into the faces of singers and actors. The entire hall was a mob scene. Carefully choreographed movement was blocked. A convention atmosphere ensued. The mime troupe and the DJs began to play to the crowd, stealing attention from others. No longer was there a situation in which individuals responsibly replaced government, but rather a blur of the various lines of responsibility and a temptation to revolt.

Still, the performance did not totally fall apart. Nearly all the soloists kept their professional cool. The singing was in many cases extremely beautiful, often wafting over the crowd like the voice of reason calling from afar.


And the audience seemed to have a very good time. The performance had become a happening, and one that may prove important to musical life in Amsterdam. In recent years, the Holland Festival has moved away from music to theater, but this June it made an effort to return more music to its schedule with a series of programs (focusing on Cage and Elliott Carter) designed by Scheffer. The upbeat note of the “Song Books” performance may encourage the trend.

But it also may have missed accomplishing something more valuable. Watching the performance from the balcony (infected by the rule-breaking mass psychology, I wandered upstairs where the audience wasn’t allowed), I sensed a mood of condescension. The Dutch can be among the most sophisticated and intent audiences found anywhere. But once the strictures of concert hall etiquette were removed, they became (with the encouragement of a couple of irresponsible performers) a garishly gawking mob and treated “Song Books” as little more than an amusing American spectacle.

Cage’s score empowers the performer to illuminate the audience. At the Concertgebouw, everything was reversed. Too many rules constrained the soloists while the audience felt entitled to do as it wished. And the example from Holland was not that of the responsible individual thriving without government, but a warning about the dangers of too much government.