Cage’s Imitation Game: Cheap Imitation and Song Books through the Sketches

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Jeff Perry


The theme of John Cage’s Song Books (1970), according to Cage, is contained in the statement “We connect Satie with Thoreau” (Cage 1970, 1). Previous studies of Cage’s Song Books have not asked what I feel to be obvious questions: how, precisely, does Cage connect Satie with Thoreau? To what end?  And how does Cage connect to Satie and Thoreau (and to the other sources from which he borrows)? I make use of Cage’s sketch materials to seek answers. I examine three of the Solos for Voice from Song Books that make use of the cheap imitation procedure that Cage had devised for his work of that name in 1969.

Because Song Books is a work for vocalists while Cheap Imitation is a work for solo piano, Cage needed to apply analogous processes of textual “imitation” and mixture to the words of Thoreau to accompany the cheap imitations of the music of Satie. This article explores the persistence of compositional choice in Song Books as revealed by the sketches, in so doing exploring themes of duality in Cage’s pursuit of “poetry as I need it” in the music of Erik Satie, the words of Henry David Thoreau, and in the imitation game that he devises to connect them with one another.


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