John Cage performs Cage - The Text Pieces 1: The Artists Pieces
Series re Morris Graves (1973) 80:05
Art is Either a Complaint or Do Something Else 32:38
What You Say (1979) 10:34
John Cage was a “renaissance man”: composer, musician, visual artist and a writer/poet. Unfortunately, until now, Cage’s special text pieces have not been available on CD. Now, in conjunction with The John Cage Trust, a series of archival recordings will be issued.
Cage’s readings of his text are legend-as recited with his unique, gentle voice, they often had a “musical” quality. Even now, several years after his death, no one else can recite them as well; few even try. Cage’s declamations give his texts an aural signature-so strong is his voice, even on records, that you hear it in your head when you read his text alone.
These are not stories in the traditional sense with a linear plot. Series re Morris Graves began as a text to accompany an exhibition of drawings by the painter who had been Cage’s friend since the 1930s. Recited as a fond relating of his experience and recollections, it consists of remarks by Cage himself, conversation with Graves, and with some of his friends: Dan Johnson and Marian Willard, Nancy Wilson Ross, Dorothy Norman, Xenia Cage, Merce Cunningham, and Alvin Friedman-Klein. The text is leavened with “brief, unidentified quotations” from writings about spiritual experience.
Cage befriended the painter Jasper Johns, a generation younger than both Cage and Graves, in the early 1950s. Formally, both Art is Either a Complaint. and What You Say adopt his favorite literary form of the 1980s, a mesostic, where remarks would be made in short horizontal lines which contain key letters that are arrayed vertically. Whereas other mesostics may repeat string words, here Cage chooses statements by Johns that accounts for his predisposition for esthetic puzzle.
This deluxe set, packaged in a slipcase with the complete spoken texts and an essay by Richard Kostelanetz, is released to coincide with the opening of Graves’ first public showing of his sculptures which he began in the 1960s-Instruments for a New Navigation-at the Schmidt-Bingham Gallery in New York City (to be followed by a museum tour). Cage mentions these “instruments” in his Series re Morris Graves, and a photo of one graces the cover.
The Text Pieces, Volume 1
Series re Morris Graves. What You Said. Art is Either a Complaint
or Do Something Else.
John Cage, speaker
(123 minutes, ADD)
Cage was a composer, a writer and an artist. This series is devoted to his writings, where he often works in the tradition of Gertrude Stein by using words as compositional material regardless of their accepted sense. The literary establishment still resists both Stein and Cage, but as Cage’s music is gaining ground – look at the catalogue now – it is natural that attention should be given to his work in other areas.
This is often based on identical chance routines. However, the first and longest piece here, Series re Morris Graves, is largely conventional. It was published in 1974 in a book about the drawings of Morris Graves, whom Cage first met in Seattle in 1937. Cage draws on stories and recollections to build up a picture of Graves himself in the act of painting. These sometimes amusing slices of life are punctuated by nonsense refrains based on the Gospel of Ramakrishna. This is a live recording, where Cage charmingly warns his audience that his reading might take well over an hour. It does, and his lectern creaks, providing periodic percussive interjections.
The Graves text is prose, but the other two are abstract poems inspired by another painter, Jasper Johns. What You Said is based on a statement by Johns. Cage then reconfigured the text by using computerised chance operations, and the outcome is printed on the page as a mesostic (like an acrostic but with the letters going down the middle), a technique Cage used widely in his later writings.
Art is Either a Complaint or Do Something Else is another work based on remarks by Johns, and in both cases Cage reads the original statements first. His charismatic voice adds to one’s enjoyment, and the text can be followed since (very sensibly) it’s supplied with the CDs. Cage compared this to listening to music with the score. The whole release (with more to follow) is a valuable addition to Mode’s excellently produced ‘Roaratorio’ (10/94).
— Peter Dickinson, Gramophone, September 2000
John Cage – Text Pieces
John Cage expressed himself in words as clearly as in music. Given that he believed all sound (including speech) to be potential material for music, and that his writings “[employ] means of composing analogous to my composing means in the field of music” (as he noted in the foreword to his landmark book Silence), the distinction between his writing and his music is often difficult to maintain. His speeches were sometimes music, and his music was, as in the famously amusing Indeterminacy (Smithsonian Folkways SF40804/5, *****), sometimes speech.
Three new CD releases explore that territory where Cage’s writing and his music blur together. Mode Records’ latest volume in its Complete John Cage Edition, The Text Pieces 1: The Artist Pieces (Mode 84/85, ***), gathers tapes of Cage reading texts written for or in response to the visual artists Morris Graves and Jasper Johns. These are pieces that Cage wrote as poems; it is Mode’s conceit that his public reading of them constitutes a form of musical performance (in the liner notes, Richard Kostelanetz refers to them as “contemporary lied”). These “text pieces” may be musical on many counts – by virtue of Cage’s beautiful vocal delivery, by the hypnotic effect that Cage’s fractured texts exert when listened to aloud, as well as by the manner of their composition – but they were not transformed into music by Cage himself. Tellingly, the quality of these recordings is by and large what you would expect from lecture tapes, captured haphazardly on cassette.
— Damon Krukowski, PULSE!, May 2000
John CAGE: Reads Cage – The Text Pieces 1
Mode 84/85 (2-CDs)
Series re Morris Graves (a); What You Say (b); Art is Either a Complaint or Do Something Else (c).John Cage (reader).
(full-price, two discs, 2 hours 5 minutes, ADD). Texts included. Producer: Brian Brandt. Remastering Engineer: Steve Puntolillo. Date: Live performances in (a) Washington, DC, on April 19th, 1990. (b) Hessischer Rundfunk, Germany on November 1st, 1987. (c) Philadelphia Museum of Art on November 6th, 1988.
The text pieces of John Cage are often as unconventional and meticulously fashioned as his musical compositions. He’d manipulate sentences, words and even individual letters of the alphabet via chance procedure, graphic parameters, clock-time, or by that old standy, the I Ching. On paper, Cage’s literary concoctions sometimes make little immediate sense. When read aloud, however, they invariably acquire a different dimension. It’s fitting that the Mode label aims to seek out and publish archival recordings such as the three ‘artist pieces’ issued for the first time here, since no one read Cage like Cage. His disarming manner, soft-spoken clarity and slightly reedy intonation pull you in and maintain your attention. I was lucky enough to hear Cage read on several occasions, and even more fortunate to meet him, however casually. Even without his benign physical presence, seated in front of a microphone with a glass of water in hand, Cage oozes charisma.
The two shorter works, What You Say and Art Is Either a Complaint or Do Something Else derive from extended statements made by artist Jasper Johns. You can follow Cage’s use of mesostics by looking at the printed texts. A mesostic consists of horizontal lines which contain key letters that are arrayed vertically. The word layout on each page appears to have more than a little bearing upon Cage’s pacing. By contrast, the larger-scaled Series re Morris Graves covers less abstract territory. A tangible cast of characters, both real and imagined, emerge from a non-linear yet fluidly sequenced assemblage of stories, all off-the-cuff remarks, conversation snippets and spiritual texts. These, in turn, are demarcated by strange, chant-like syllables. The sound is only adequate and begins to waver near the conclusion, but it’s either this flawed recording or nothing. The Johns pieces fare better sonically, although What You Say is the only professional recording, stemming from a German Radio studio tape.
Cage’s Indeterminancy (Smithsonian Folkways) remains the composer’s touchstone opus in this genre, although some might opt for Roaratorio (mode 28/29). If you’re new to Cage’s text pieces, hear these first. Then buy this release. Mode’s annotations were provided by Richard Kostelanetz, a Cage scholar and text composer in his own right, and could not be more apt, informative and affectionate in tone.