John Cage

Bird Cage.

Twelve Tapes To Be Distributed By a Single Performer

In a Space Where People Are Free To Move and Birds To Fly.

~~~~~~~~~By John Cage.

“Bird Cage” was composed over a span of three days in 1972 at the SUNY Albany Electronic Music Studio. During the 70s, prominent composers, such as Cage and David Tudor, visited the campus to work with composer and Professor Emeritus, Joel Chadabe, who founded the studio in 1966. Cage was also drawn to the SUNY Albany campus by the CEMS System synthesizer, which was housed in the Electronic Music Studio. The CEMS System, which was used in the making of “Bird Cage,” was designed by Chadabe and built by Robert Moog, who invented the earliest modular analog synthesizer systems. The piece was written for 12 tapes to be played, 4, 6, or 8 at a time, through 4, 6, or 8 speakers respectively. The 12 tapes were mixed from 3 types of masters that Cage brought with him to Albany: recordings of the sounds of birds in cages, recordings of himself singing pieces of his Mureau (1970), and recordings of miscellaneous sounds from his daily life. With the help of Chadabe, all of the tapes from the three groupings were passed, according to an aleatoric procedure, through an 8 in/8 out matrix mixer that Cage designed for the piece, and routed to a single reel-to-reel tape recorder. This process was repeated until 12 submasters had been created. According to a different aleatoric procedure, the submasters were later played back, one after the other, through the CEMS System’s low pass filters, ring modulators, and other processing devices, into a single tape recorder, until 12 tapes for performance had been created from each of the twelve submasters.

Using the I-Ching again, Cage wrote a Score of “distribution programs” for the performance of “Bird Cage,” describing how sound produced from the tapes was to be routed to 8 speakers dispersed in a space in which “people are free to move and birds to fly.” The Score instructs its users to play back the 12 processed tapes, either, 4, 6, or 8 at a time, into, respectively, 4, 6, or 8 monitors, which are dispersed throughout the performance setting. Per his instructions, performers may follow the Score in total or in part, they may consult the I-Ching, and they may make random choices in order to determine the number of tapes that will play and the speakers to which they are routed; for instance, 4 tapes and 1 speaker, then 2 tapes and 2 speakers, and so on. As is true of most of Cage’s work, “Bird Cage” leaves performers free to make their own intuitive decisions during performance including: what tapes should be used, and when; how sound is to be distributed throughout the performance space; and how long the performance should last (the piece is ideally performed over the course of an evening or for any length of time).

Cage, Tudor, and Chadabe delivered the first public performance of “Bird Cage” at SUNY Albany, in 1973. According to Chadabe, the three played the 12 tapes for performance through Cage’s mixer, randomly selecting when which tapes would be routed to which speakers. In 1998, William Blakeney adapted this method so that the 12 tapes were passed through only one output, leading to a single tape recorder. He also included pieces of a soundtrack that had been recorded by Hans Helm, for a film documenting the making of “Bird Cage.” The sound track includes pieces of a discussion shared between Cage, Tudor, and Chadabe at the 1973 performance of “Bird Cage.” A recording of Blakeney’s actualization of the modified piece can be found below, along with excerpts from Cage’s Score and his Realization.

-Chad Lowther

Special Thanks to Joel Chadabe and Robert Gluck for their help in assembling information for this narrative.
For more on John Cage and “Bird Cage” see the Issue 5 Editorial.

Photo of Chadabe next to CEMS Synth by Warren Burt

Composer Warren Burt on the history of music
at SUNY Albany during Joel Chadabe’s Tenure


Bird Cage Score
Special thanks to the John Cage Trust, The New York Public Library, and Henmar Press.

Realization of Bird Cage
Special thanks to the John Cage Trust, The New York Public Library, and Henmar Press.

William Blakeney’s actualization of Bird Cage