John Cage

Bird Cage, for 12 tapes & 1 performer in a space with freely moving people and birds

    Description by "Blue" Gene Tyranny

    Cage: "Did you have a good breakfast?"

    Parrot: "What's your name?"

    Cage: "My name is John. What's your name?"

    P: "What's your name?"

    C: "I told you. My name is John."

    P: "My name is Harvey"

    C: "That's what I thought. That's what it says up here. It says your name is Harvey."

    P: "What's your name?"

    C: "My name is John."

    This conversation between human and avian takes place at the beginning of one of the many tapes that are played through eight loudspeakers during the course of the entire evening that constitutes the "live electronics" performance of Bird Cage in a open space with people coming and going (the setup is similar to those of his pieces Musiccircus, certain performances of his Variations IV, and other works).

    The tapes for the live performance are played according to a score. The original tapes were made from three masters which consisted of one tape of bird sounds recorded by the composer in 1972 at various aviaries, one master tape of the composer singing and chanting his work Mureau, based on Thoreau's writings, and one master tape of environmental sounds (brushing teeth, water sounds, etc.). These three masters were then placed on eight "source" tape recorders according to a complex timing score -- "Put tape C3 on tape recorder 7 after 72 seconds," and so on. And then the eight sources were then mixed and matrixed at various quasi-random time intervals. This resulted in 12 sub-masters, which were in turn mixed and processed through various signal modifying devices, such as ring modulators, according to another chance procedure, so that the signal processing and the original sounds were independent in timing from each other. The surprising results were independent of the "taste" of any of the participants.

    Chanting, singing, and birds processed and unmodified appear all over the fantastical space, along with water sounds, squeezing electronic sounds, granular ring modulations.

    There were several influences that inspired the title of the piece: Cage remarked once that "When people who don't know me telephone and ask how I spell my name, I never spell C-A-G-E, I simply say Cage like a bird cage. So it was a title ready at hand."

    Shortly before he conceived of the piece, says Cage, "I got very interested in birds ... I was returning from the Carolinas. And choosing to drive on a back road ... went along a beautiful highway, I think it's number 9 in Delaware and came to one of the national wildlife refuges called Bombay Hook. There weren't any people in charge there; it was the weekend of course. But there were no rules either. There was nothing about doing this or doing that. There was simply dirt roads so that you couldn't go very fast. And you went by pools of all sizes. I was many different kinds of birds, it was an extraordinary experience and I also found some mushrooms."

    One final "coincidence" was reported by author-musician Don Gillespie of C.F. Peters. Cage appeared at the publishers one day in 1972, excited that he had found a colorful orange, black and white beer coaster with the image of a singing dove in a bird cage from a working-class bar in Philadelphia called "The Bird Cage." Eventually permission was obtained from the owners of the bar to use the image on the published score.

    Appears On

    Year Title Label Catalog #
    2000 EMF (Electronic Music Foundation) 113