John Cage

Forever and Sunsmell, for voice & 2 percussion

    Description by Joseph Stevenson

    This early song by American avant-garde leader John Cage, besides being a dramatic and attractive vocal work in its own right, also shows the composer systematically exploring and isolating such elements of pitch organization, sonority, and rhythm.

    John Cage (1912 - 1992) had, it seems, one small gap in his outstanding mental abilities -- he excelled at every academic subject he ever took except harmony. Unaccountably unable to come to terms with that basic element of Western music, he went on to consider all aspects of the musical experience and to try out new organizing principles, including the idea of unorganized music, using various random devices to produce music of "indeterminacy." That idea was still a few years in the future when he composed this five-minute song for voice and percussion duet. His principal musical activity in these years was to write pieces for progressive and modern dance companies. The need to keep performing forces small for budget reasons yet to provide firm rhythms for the dance had led him to emphasize percussion in his compositions -- which had the additional advantage of not requiring him to think harmonically.

    Cage wrote Forever and Sunsmell for dancer Jean Erdman. The work is for singer and two percussionists. The singer is instructed to sing in a non-operatic manner, particularly to avoid using vibrato, but otherwise to have a "forced intense quality." The percussionists play two Chinese tom-toms and one large suspended Chinese cymbal with the two players often each playing on a different portion of it.

    There are five sections to this song despite its brevity, each calling for different registers or combinations of sounds and a different basis for pitch organization of the singing part. The pitches of the song are relative; that is, since the accompaniment has no definite pitch, the singer is free to raise or lower the whole voice part to a range that feels comfortable.

    The text is from e.e. cummings' 1940 published collection called 50 Poems, using the poem designated as 26. Cage did not use the whole poem, nor did he use the lines he chose in the same order as the original. In addition to the poem, there are two wordless sections -- a vocalise and an interlude of humming.

    The opening and closing sections are soft and high, for voice unaccompanied, using only three notes. The other three sections are a high loud section that is almost entirely on just one pitch and accompanied by both percussionists, an a cappella section including humming, and an almost ritualistic section accompanied by the tom-toms.

    Appears On

    Year Title Label Catalog #
    2008 Brilliant Classics 8850
    2003 Tomato TOM 2020
    2003 Albedo / Norway Music 021
    1994 Tomato 2696172
    1994 New Albion 035
    Tomato 70695