4 Solos for Voice is available on Prima Facie CD122, 4 Solos for Voice – Solos for Voice 93-96, compositions by John Cage performed by Electric Phoenix.
“I met John Cage twice, and was as beguiled by him personally as everyone who met him was. The first time was in Zagreb on 21st April 1985 when he attended a concert by Electric Phoenix; the second in London on 19th June 1988 at a rehearsal of the piece he wrote for us, 4 Solos for Voice. Both days happen to have been Sundays.
At the concert in Zagreb the news that Cage was in the audience sent a thrill through Electric Phoenix. We had programmed four pieces, including my own I Sing The Body Electric, and I can tell you I have never hoped and prayed it would go better than I did on that day. It did go well, but a catastrophe overtook the concert. Our sound man, John Whiting, was in the habit of sometimes wearing a kimono as his concert dress. Reaching across the mixing desk between pieces, the voluminous sleeves of the kimono caught the master volume fader and turned it full on. There was a deafening shriek of feedback — the ultimate shame in an electro-acoustic concert. From that day on John Whiting never wore a kimono again. Afterwards Cage was asked what his favourite piece in our concert was: I wasn’t present, but when I was told about it my heart stopped in case he had said I Sing The Body Electric. He said – of course – the feedback. Even at the time I laughed: after all, the feedback was a chance operation.
Despite, or because of this, Cage agreed to write us a piece. Due to the usual pressures, he said, he could not contemplate writing a complex work, but if we would be satisfied with a simpler one he would be delighted. Naturally we jumped at the opportunity. Actually Cage was no longer writing complex pieces by this time (1988): he had recently commenced the series of works which have come to be known as the Numbers Pieces, and I believe he did almost nothing but these simple scores from 1987 until his death in 1992. Except 4 Solos for Voice.
4 Solos for Voice presents us with a contradiction in our understanding of Cage. Although it has in its notation obvious parallels with the Numbers Pieces, actually the Solos continue the earlier series Solos for Voice, of which they are Nos. 93- 96. Cage, after all, titled them ‘Solos’ when he could have called them Four (whatever) as in the Numbers Pieces: but he called them Solos, and did so for a reason. This is connected to the fact that, going against a lifetime seemingly prejudiced against it, Cage in 4 Solos for Voice wrote an improvisation piece. (Actually he sanctioned a certain amount of improvisation in many of his pieces: we know that he did from his own writings, because he tells us he improvised them himself.)
The 4 Solos for Voice are clearly linked to the Numbers Pieces in date, layout, notation and the specific performance technique of time-bands: performers using stopwatches begin an event at any time during the notated period to the left and finish it at any time during the period to the right. But ultimately the differences with the Numbers Pieces are perhaps more marked than the similarities. 4 Solos for Voice has texts (chosen by chance operations). And to an enormously greater extent than anywhere else in his oeuvre, Cage here gives the performers freedom to invent melodically. This is crucial: the melodic nature of the invention is quite different from any of the indeterminacies Cage used elsewhere, even to the extent that actually it cannot be accurately described as indeterminacy. The performers have to make up tunes. This results in a work, and notations, that are quite different from the Numbers Pieces.
Cage came to Electric Phoenix’s rehearsal studio at the October Gallery in London on the morning of Sunday 19th June 1988 from 11-12 in the morning and coached us in advance of the world première at Merkin Hall in New York on Wednesday 29th June. The rehearsal was recorded on cassette by John Whiting, who also took photographs of the event. (This recording is available to stream at http://www.darylrunswick.net/cage4solos.html)
Needless to say this rehearsal was fascinating and instructive. In the course of putting the piece together I asked Cage some questions. One question was, having chosen a time to begin an event, may one change one’s mind (for instance if one’s event is soft, and if the other singers happen to be screaming, might it be better to postpone one’s event in order to have it be audible?) The answer to this question, to my surprise at the time, was no, and Cage gave this as his reason (and now I quote from memory, but I’m pretty sure these were Cage’s actual words:) ‘Something that happens by chance is always more interesting than something a human being thinks might be interesting’.”