"I think a good voice is something we should be grateful for," remarked composer John Cage following a retrospective of his vocal works last night at the French Embassy.

This was in answer to an audience member's question as to whether he preferred male or female voices; his reply is typical of the diplomatic sidestepping and spontaneous whimsy that have frustrated generations of detractors, while endearing him to avant-gardists, who look benevolently upon the soft-spoken Cage as their father figure.

His statement was specifically directed toward Marilyn Boyd DeReggi, whose impressive singing, wailing, chirping and assorted vocal abnormalities, demanded by Cage, made for a stimulating evening, in which surprises and absurdities quickly became the norm.

In a preconcert lecture, Jill Anderson, a specialist in Cage's music, said that no matter how well we think we know his art, the composer cannot be pegged. The program proved her correct. DeReggi, cloaked in fashionable rain gear, opened with "Aria," transforming herself into a sort of Saks Fifth Avenue bag lady, possessor of more personality quirks than days in the month. Italian operatic flourishes, snatches of French, maniacal laughter -- not to mention dog barks -- were set off and accentuated by dramatic gestures, including DeReggi's brandishing of her umbrella like a machine gun to spray the onlookers with imaginary bullets.

A pair of instrumental pieces, "Suite for Toy Piano" (played on a concert toy by Jutta Eigen) and "Living Room Music," for table-tapping percussionists, acted as a strange interlude for the vocal-percussion duet "Forever Sunsmell," set to e.e. cummings verses. DeReggi was joined by vocalist Kathleen Arecchi in "Litany for the Whale." Performing with their backs to the audience, they gave the lament a distant feeling like the open sea.

"A Brief Meeting of the Satie Society," a theoretical linking of two similar creative minds and free spirits, found Cage reading some from his own stream-of-consciousness texts, interspersed by DeReggi (now costumed in turn-of-the-century French finery) singing three Satie cabaret songs. At one point the composer advised a student to choose a teacher who has a child's joy of discovery. Satie certainly did and Cage, still going strong at 73, undoubtedly does.

The concert will be repeated tonight.