John Cage’s 1958 work Aria for solo voice has quite a rich history of performance practice and has been recorded by countless important vocalists since its composition. The work was dedicated to and originally performed by Cathy Berberian and, as such, this premiere performance established many standards and common practices that have become accepted as “correct” in regards to this piece. My lecture will aim to compare Berberian’s performance with that of her contemporaries, noting any similarities or discrepancies between them, keeping in mind Berberian’s performance as the commonly accepted “standard.” I will draw from recordings and writings from Cage himself and other performers’ interpretations, making special use of Peabody Faculty Phyllis Bryn-Julson’s first-hand account with the piece, she having not only performed it multiple times but also being an acquaintance of Berberian as well as Cage. In doing this research, I will come to a conclusion on what is considered “correct” performance practice in John Cage’s Aria from a variety of interpreters (performers), hopefully giving my performance of the work the most “accurate” performance practice possible.
Upon viewing the score, the first thing many people notice is the amount of decision making which must be made on the part of the performer; this is uncommon to say the least from the perspective of many musicians. This is especially true of vocalists who, unless a specialist performer, rarely encounter or experience graphic works such as these, and not only the graphics, but works like Aria that make the performer decide upon a number of factors in the performance. The score consists of a series of different types of lines of various shades, these correspond to ten different “styles” of singing that are left up to the performer, with time being displayed horizontally and approximate pitch vertically; however, as a suggestion (help) to the singer, Cage includes what the original performer (Cathy Berberian) chose to do in the score, and not just in regards to these lines, but in all of the aspects of the performance that were left up to performer to decide.
Not only must “styles” of singing be decided upon, but duration too is left up to the performer. Cage suggests that “when composed [the piece] was considered sufficient for a ten minute performance,” with a page equating to thirty seconds; however, he then leaves it open to interpretation by indicating that “a page may be performed in a longer or shorter time period,” thus opening up an entire gamut of possible durational outcomes, in typically vague Cage fashion. Following the precedence set forth by Berberian, most recordings of the work hover around this suggested ten minute mark, but nothing bars the performer from taking an extreme durational approach on either end of the spectrum. After checking the timings of twelve recordings of the work, a mean performance length is about 9’12”, with the shortest performance being 3’33” and the longest clocking in at 21’41” taken from a performance at Mido-Kaikan in Osaka, Japan on October 17, 1962 with Aria, Solo for Piano, and Fontana Mix all being played simultaneously, featuring David Tutor playing piano, John Cage controlling the electronics, and Yoko Ono performing the vocal part. In all three of these works, Cage made each to be performed either alone or alongside one another (or alongside other works as well), and as such, each piece varies greatly in duration depending on circumstances of programming needs, venue, and whether performed alone or together.
Also included in the score are a total of sixteen black boxes which indicate any noises “unmusical use of the voice, auxiliary percussion, mechanical or electronic devices.” While Cage does not specify that each box must be a different sound, Berberian chose to utilize a unique noise for each of the sixteen boxes, never repeating a previous sound. Likewise, famed soprano and contemporary vocal expert Phyllis Byn-Julson elected to use the same approach in her many performances of the work, always employing sixteen unique noises. In fact, I have observed this practice in every recording I studied of Aria: not a single performer elected to repeat sounds with these boxes, despite no indication from Cage to do so. I believe this practice to be the most correct as it follows cages belief of sound independence and sound equality, i.e. the belief that “a sound is a sound and a man is a man,” and for the most “noble” performance possible of Cage’s works, we must, “give up illusions about the ideas of order, expressions of sentiment, and all of the rest of our inherited aesthetic claptrap” in regards to sound; Cage was very interested in getting rid of the baggage that comes along with every sound created.[i] Taking this non-repetitious approach works especially well when the work is performed with the tape version of Fontana Mix which is made up of assemblages of incongruent sounds spliced together. Cage specifies in the score that these two works may be performed together, and the premier with Berberian was actually alongside Fontana Mix.
In regards to the various shades and styles of lines that indicate “styles of singing” which must be decided upon by the performer, Berberian’s original choices, as previously mentioned, are included in the score. Below is a table outlining her choices in regards to line color and “singing style” alongside my own (those that are bolded are retained from Berberian’s premiere):
I’ve chosen to retain three of the original choices of Berberian’s: the dark blue line for “Jazz,” the black-dotted line for “Sprechstimme,” and the light blue line for “Baby.” These were the three most common “styles” retained from her performance that I observed in the twelve recordings I examined. The opening motive in particular, sung in Berberian’s crooning “Jazz” style is one of the most iconic points in the piece, retaining this seems integral in regards to “historical” performance. Many performers, including Bryn-Julson, often elect to retain all of the “style” choices taken by Berberian (even the sixteen noises associated with the black boxes are often in line with Berberian’s originals). In doing so, three camps arise in regards to “types” of performances of this work: those that incorporate all of Berberian’s original performance choices included in the score, those that incorporate some of the original, and those that use none. Per Cage’s instructions in the score, all three are valid methods of performance; however, like all Cage works, despite giving a fair amount of freedom to the performer, there is still a great deal of correct performance practice that is involved, as Cage prefers the performer to be “free without their becoming foolish. So that their freedom will make them noble.”[ii]
The “nobility” of performers was something Cage struggled with all his life, this idea of giving performers enough guidance through the score (or lack thereof) so as to give them direction of some sort, but not so clear-cut and strict as not to leave room for a great deal of freedom; vagueness and Cage go hand in hand, a certain type of vague freedom that is constantly uncertain but must be “noble.” Within this so-called “freedom” Cage consistently demands “nobility” which he often did not get in his performances while he was living. A famous, or rather infamous, example frequently cited is the disastrous 1964 performance of Cage’s Atlas Eclipticalis with the New York Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein conducting. During this performance, the orchestra freely improvised, quoted sections from other classical pieces, talked, and generally paid no attention to Cage’s score and the instructions therein; the piece was met with much disdain from not only the apathetic performers on stage, but the audience as well, with raucous jeering and booing ensuing upon the work’s conclusion. This sort of “ignobility” within the performers given “freedom” is exactly what Cage consistently tries to avoid and circumvent in all of his works. Cage readily admitted that this “ignobility” in performance “remain[ed] a problem” all his life; however, as he aged, and performers and audiences alike became more accustomed to his work, he noted that, “musicians [were] getting better,” and that it was “fortunate that musicians at last devote themselves to music.” He attributes this more positive and serious attitude toward his music to the rise of collegiate education in the arts, saying, “many of them [musicians] have met in universities…and this has entailed group activity.” [iii] This fact holds true still today, with a bulk of Cage supporters, performers and performances, scholars, and experts coming from and congregating around university affiliated events and settings.
Within the score, above each of these ten types of lines, are various vowels, consonants, words, and phrases in five different languages: Armenian, Russian, English, French and Italian; these serve as the piece’s text throughout. Below is a link to a table by Walter Ciancius of all the text(s) that appear throughout the work:
In this chart, among all of the excerpts, you will scattered consonants and vowels, in the score, there are little dots separating these letters from each other; Cage never explains in his notes what exactly to do with the letters or the dots, and as such, a number of approaches have been taken. Bryn-Julson elects to say each letter aloud and interpret the dots as snaps; however, Berberian chooses to interpret the letters as consonant and vowel sounds, with the dots simply acting as separators for clarity’s sake. Also in the score, there is a noticeable difference in the boldness of certain letters throughout. Berberian seems to make no discernible difference between these bolder characters; however, Bryn-Julson distinctly noted that these specific syllables were to be accented over others in performance. From my research, I have found that most seem to make no performance change in regards to text boldness; however, I feel that making this boldness text-stress is particularly Cagian in performance practice, as it furthers this idea of the words and syllables as just sounds independent of their sources, since many of the bolded characters do not necessarily correlate to the natural text stresses. The text(s) is simply a vehicle for sound.
With these texts, Cage splices together various shades of language, phrasing, sounds, etc. in an attempt to divorce these amassed sounds from their sources, and to achieve this sound independence and equality that Cage is so passionate about in his output. The texts do not tell a story outright, but rather are sounds and noises produced by the performer that our minds, as an audience, will automatically attempt to rationalize and make coherent since the performer is “speaking” to us. In doing so, Cage creates a pseudo-language, an amalgamation of all of the sources, one that is between all of them, and as listeners, we are able to pick up on various shades of language, but never really feel like the performer is speaking any one language. Thus, an in-between state is achieved in which we are aware that the performer is communicating something, but are unsure of what exactly that something is. Because of this, the theatrical nature of the work is extremely integral to a successful performance of Aria.
In my interview with Bryn-Julson, she consistently stressed the importance of the theatrical aspect of the work, as well as deciding on a dramatic path for Aria ahead of time, saying, “You [have to] know what you’re talking about, and they [are going to] think you’re absolutely nuts, but you have to convince them [that you know what you’re talking about].”5[v] She also emphasized the need for movement in all facets of the performance: in the arms, in the legs, in the torso, on the face, everywhere. When asked about what separates a successful and unsuccessful performance of the work, Bryn-Julson simply stated, “movement.” A narrative of some sort, decided before hand and rehearsed, with definite and precise actions of the body and face, coalesce into a successful performance of the work according to Bryn-Julson; for her, this is the “nobility” Cage describes in his writings. When all of these texts, sounds, and fragments, amalgamated by Cage, are brought together with the human body, face, and voice of the performer, a deep pool of possibilities is uncovered. Some take the mad approach, as if the speaker is afflicted with glossolalia, others make the performance more conversational with the audience, just in a language understood only by the performer; the limits of interpretation are boundless. Just like a successful performance of any other work, what is most important is devoting yourself to the piece, investing time and energy into it, and becoming a different character on the stage.
Intertwined in the theatrical aspect of the work is the interaction of the performer with the audience at hand. In my talks with Bryn-Julson, she emphasized the importance of not simply performing for or at the audience, but conversing or sharing with the audience, as if this “happening” were simply an every discussion between friends, albeit friends who speak different languages entirely. Thus, using Bryn-Julson’s approach is quite well-suited for a chamber performance in which direct contact with the audience is possible, and every person in the room is able to see each face, facial expression, body movement, and physical gesture extremely clearly. This sort of performance and chamber venue demand a certain type of intimacy and vulnerability from not only the performer but the audience as well. Both parties have to be willing to contribute a suspension of disbelief to this piece, as if both are communicating effectively and ideas are being exchanged and understood despite the nonsense barrier. It is this same suspension of disbelief that is found in every performance of any opera: each member of any theatrical operatic work, the composer, conductor, the chorus members, the lead role singers, the supporting role singers, the members of the orchestra, the audience, etc. all come together into one space, one area, to create a scene of some sort. Within the space that the scene is created, each actively engaged member of the performance (the “ensemble,” including the audience) participates in a type of controlled doublethink, in which each member of the “ensemble” is readily aware that what is happening in this space is untrue and not real, but for the success of the performance and for the greater “good” of the “ensemble,” each engaged member suspends their disbeliefs, and is, at the same time, simultaneously aware that the spectacle occurring is a fantastical conception formed to rouse an emotion or reaction of some sort from the “ensemble,” and accepting the events at hand as reality for the duration of the “happening” or performance, so as to better the “ensemble” as a whole and, if successful, effectively bring about these reactions and emotions from each participant. Thus, the title of Aria is very fitting of this work, hearkening back to the very roots of what makes the theatrical sport of opera so wonderful, and one its most important facets: a moment when a character pours out his or her soul to the rest of the members of the “ensemble,” using different kinds of sounds of various dynamics which we have come to know and love as operatic singing, that display a wide spectrum of emotion; is this not exactly what Cage is after in this work? a spectacle in which the performer seemingly communicates to us a wide variety of sounds and emotions, hoping to arise a genuine reaction from the ensemble, and create this palpable suspension of disbelief amongst all those involved.
When the piece is performed in a larger space for a larger audience, all of the aforementioned facets of a successful chamber performance apply here as well; however, the intimate aspect of the performance is far less effective and apparent, as connecting intimately with a large sea of barely visible faces in a cavernous hall is difficult. In this way, it would seem that a more introspective sort of performance suits bigger spaces. In this format, audience interaction is less accessible; however, that is not to say that the performer is unable to interact with a larger crowd, rather that a sizable audience creates more of an amassed body that is performed to rather than a collected group that is conversed with. Because of this, a more personal type of realization is very effective by the performer; one where the audience is witnessing a conversation of sorts with the performer and his/herself, rather than a performer- audience dialogue. The stage in this set up also becomes much more integral than in chamber performances, as there is much more real estate to work with and cover. Because of this, as Bryn-Julson indicated in my interview, a set pathway of actions must be planned out according to each space and stage the performer uses, so as to complete the suspension of disbelief that is so integral to the success of this work; the audience must believe you know what you are talking about, you know where you are going, and you know what you are feeling and conveying as an empathetic body; it is this empathy that must be palpable in the air for any truly successful performance.
Finally, in regards to the sixteen black boxes which indicate a noise of some sort that must be decided on by the singer, a great deal of variance occurs in this section, and it is the most open to interpretation part of the work (of the notation given by Cage, not taking into account the parameters of the work that are absent from the score). As mentioned before, nowhere in the score does Cage indicate that these must be sixteen different noises, in fact he only includes fifteen examples from Berberian’s performance, leaving one out seemingly (unless the “clap” part of the “Snap, Snap (Fingers), Clap” direction is taken to mean “Snap, Snap (Fingers),” and “Clap” as two different directions, despite them being within the same semicolon in his directions). Despite this fact, every performance of the work I studied elected to produce sixteen unique sounds instead of repeating ones, including both Berberian and Bryn-Julson. This seems to be the most “noble” interpretation of the score, as it furthers the independence and equality of sound concept that Cage is emphatic about in his output. Below is a chart comparing my choices of noises in the order that they appear as compared to Berberian’s choices, similarities are bolded:
|“Bird Roll”||“Mouth Pop”|
|“Snap, Snap (Fingers), Clap”||“Tongue+Lips Smack”|
|“Bark (Dog)”||“Drop Phone”|
|“Pained Inhalation”||“Vibrate Phone”|
|“Peaceful Exhalation”||“Air Horn”|
|“Hoot of Disdain”||“Hoot of Disdain”|
|“Tongue Click”||“Tongue Click”|
|“Exclamation of Disgust”||“Reverse Hum+Whistle”|
|“Of Anger”||“Hum Whistle”|
|“Scream (Having seen a mouse)”||“Eat/Drink Something Loudly”|
|“Ugh (As suggesting an American Indian)”||“Catcall/Whistle”|
|“Ha, Ha” (Laughter)”||“Ha, Ha” (Laughter)”|
|(NO INSTRUCTION GIVEN)||“Slap Face”|
|“Expression of Sexual Pleasure”||“Expression of Sexual Pleasure”|
As compared to my choices with the line-styles, I have elected to preserve more of Berberian’s originals, as I feel these six are most interesting and integral to Aria and keep the performance most historically informed; however, these choices vary greatly amongst performers and choosing either just a few or none seems to be just as common amongst interpreters of the piece.
In John Cage’s Aria, the performer must be as much an actor as they are a vocalist. A constant deliberateness of action must be achieved by the performer, in movement, phonation, and communication. A connection must be made intimately between the performer and his/herself and the audience who is either witnessing or interacting with the performer depending on the space. Taking into account Cage’s inclusion of Berberian’s performance choices is also integral, and deciding how to incorporate, or not, these historical, original choices. Above all, the performer must be noble in their actions so as to achieve the suspension of disbelief, for everyone involved in the performance, which is so integral to this work. In doing so, an effective performance is completed, and in this freedom, nobility is achieved.
-Daniel Sabzghabaei (2015)
[i] Cage, John, and Kyle Gann. Silence Lectures and Writings, 50th Anniversary Edition. 2nd ed. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2011. 82.
[ii] Cage, John. “How to Pass, Kick, Fall and Run (1967).” In A Year from Monday; New Lectures and Writings., 136. Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1967.
[iii] Kostelanetz, Richard. Conversing with Cage. New York, New York: Limelight Editions, 1988. 120-121.
[iv] Cianciusi, Walter. “John Cage “Aria” (1958).” 2005. Accessed December 6, 2015. http://www.mnt-aq.it/english/cianciusi_aria.htm.
[v] Bryn-Julson, Phylis. “A Conversation on Cage’s Aria with Phyllis Bryn-Julson” Interview by author. November 10, 2015.