John Cage's Roaratorio
Roaratorio, Cage's 1979 composition, is a work of staggering complexity. To put it simply, it involves several elements all working together at once to create a soundscape of Finnegans Wake. Basically, there are three simultaneous elements:
(1) John Cage reading lines from the text, selected so as to form the mesostic "JAMESJOYCE" over and over again. (A mesostic is when several horizontal lines of poetry are written, one on top of the other, and a word is spelled vertically through a strategic placement of letters.) The actual excerpts from the Wake were selected by a process that combined arbitrary rules with elements of artistic preferece, creating a unique overview of the entire novel. The "libretto" is not read straightforwardly, but is alternately spoken, sung, hissed, shouted, muttered, whispered....
(2) A barrage of sound effects, all inspired from the text, many recorded in Ireland and other geographical locations mentioned in the novel. This adds up to literally hundreds of sound effects: thunder, explosions, breaking glass, birds, bells...! Limited to a manageable amount through chance operations, the effects were then keyed into the work at the places where they appeared in the Wake itself.
(3) Irish traditional music, played at various times at various intensities: jigs, reels, airs and songs, forming an ambient presence like music drifting from a Dublin pub into a busy street.
The overall effect of the compostion is quite striking and certainly unique. The elements are not intended to work harmoniously, nor are they intended to relate to each other; but they are all linked to the master plan of the novel itself, conspicuous by its very absence. Hence the term "An Irish Circus," which brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation to the idea of cycles, or rather several competing cycles each with their own center of attention -- a circus to reflect our environment itself.
So how does it all sound?
Ok, bear with me now. You are standing still, with a pastoral scene behind you (a waterfall, laughing children, a couple of ducks) and a very busy street in front of you. Occasionally a door opens up and you hear snatches of music or conversation; or a few buskers pass by playing the fiddle; and once in awhile something really weird happens somewhere irritatingly just out of sight. And -- this is important -- all the time, there is this old pensioner standing next to you, rocking back and forth, sing-speaking to himself in phrases of strangely familiar nonsense. Sometimes he is loud and insistent, sometimes you can barely hear him, and once in a great while he ducks into a pub for a quick pint and leaves you the hell alone.
Needless to say, this is not for everybody! But, to be quite honest, it sort of grows on you after awhile -- it reminds me of being in Dublin. Well...almost. Maybe paralytic drunk in Dublin, with a head full of poisonous mushrooms that some Scotsman just off the boat from Amsterdam passed off as genuine fairy toadstools guaranteed to make you see Queen Maeve, Cuchulainn, and the ghost of Molly What's-Her-Name and her cartload of leprechauns, but now you're just sick and insanely baffled, not to mention maybe a bit paranoid, and he's laughing his ass off in some pub counting your Yankee dollars. Come to think of it, probably the same pub that's supplying that old pensioner with his certainly bottomless pints. But then again, that could just be me. Charles Cave, my friend and fellow Joycean, remarked that Roaratorio would be the perfect background music for a Joycean art exhibition; which is probably true, if you didn't mind scaring off half your visitors. Another friend, a non-Joycean, thinks it would be the perfect tool to drive a roommate to near-suicidal states of hostile confusion. Regardless of what you think of this wheeling Babelogue, however, you are not soon likely to forget it!
Two interesting notes: It does include Matt Malloy of the Chieftains, and it may be the only piece of "respectable" music to actually score a fart.
| Excerpts from the liner notes from the Mode Compact Disc, written by John Cage:
On Having Received the Carl Sczuka Prize for Roaratorio; Speech given by John Cage at Donnaueschingen, October 20, 1979
Klaus Schoening has asked me to tell what Roaratorio means to me. Everything we do is done by invitation. That invitation comes from oneself or from another person. It was Klaus Schoening who asked whether I was willing to make some music to go with my reading of Writing for the Second Time through Finnegans Wake. I said I would. The text itself was written because J.R. De la Torre Bueno, my editor at Wesleyan University Press, found my first Writing through Finnegans Wake unreadable. He said it was too long and boring. It was around 120 pages and is a series of 862 mesostics on the name of James Joyce starting at the beginning of Finnegans Wake and going to the end. This text I wrote because I decided to (the invitation came from me) even though the project seemed somewhat idiotic and very time consuming. What got me interested was a request from Elliott Anderson, editor of TriQuarterly, a magazine published at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. He was preparing an issue to be called In the Wake of the Wake and he very persistently asked me to make a contribution, music, text, or whatever. I refused over and over again because I was busy writing Renga with Apartment House 1776 for Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Finally, in order to bring a halt to our correspondence which was interrupting my work, I opened Finnegans Wake at random and began writing mesostics on Joyce's name to the end of that chapter. The result was 7 out of 23. (Seven mesostics in no way altered the original; the rest, since I followed my rule of first finding a work with J that didn't have an A, and then a word with A that didn't have an M, and then and M that didn't have and E, etc., -- the rest did bring about substantial changes in the original, further deviations from ordinary sense and syntax that those Joyce himself wrote.) Writing this short text for Elliott Anderson was decisive. I was caught in the Wake. Everything about it is endless and attractive. By keeping an index of the syllables used to represent a given letter of the name and by not permitting repetition of such a syllable, I was able to satisfy Bueno's request. Instead of 120, Writing for the Second Time through Finnegans Wake has only 41 pages.
All this work began in 1976. In 1976 I was introduced by Wendell Berry, the Kentucky poet, to the Journal of Henry David Thoreau which so fascinated me (and still does) that I wrote many texts derived from it: Mureau, Empty words, Song and just a few weeks ago, Another Song.
I was therefore at home with another person's work and involvement with Joyce and Finnegans Wake added dimension to my experience of life not provided by Thoreau and his Journal, though to my delight I discovered one correspondence, namely that Joyce like Thoreau and myself was involved in oriental thought.
It was therefore not difficult to say Yes when Klaus Schoening asked me to make some music to go with my second Writing through Finnegans Wake. Of course at first I hadn't the slightest notion what I would write. I merely knew that I was willing to work.
My first idea was to read through the book again, this time not to write mesostics but to make a list of the sounds I noticed mentioned in it. Recording those it seemed to me would bring the book to music. This resulted in a very long text called Listing through Finnegans Wake. Many of the sounds I found were difficult to imagine. How would they be made? I began to have doubts about the work which by this time was called Roaratorio. I had read the title each time I went through Finnegans Wake. It is on page 41 ("with their priggish mouths all open for the larger appraisiation of this longawaited Messiagh of Roaratorios, were only halfpast atsweeeep and after a brisk pause at a pawnbroking establishment for the prothetic purpose of redeeming the songster's truly admirable false teeth"). As I say, I had read this many times but had forgotten it. When I thought of calling the horspiel Roaratorio I thought I was making up a Joyce-like title. Joyce had gotten into me without my knowing it.
My doubts had to do with he relation between the work to be done and the available time and personal energy, mine and that of John Fullemann who had agreed to do the sound engineering for the project. To realize the Listing through Finnegans Wake on tape in a reasonable amount of time obviously couldn't be done. If I remember correctly there are between four and five thousand items in this list. However, my father, the inventor, used to say, "If somebody says can't, that shows you what remains for you to do."
About this time a book was published by the Indiana State University Press, A Finnegans Wake Gazetteer by Louis Mink who teaches philosophy at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. Mink's book lists the places mentioned in Finnegans Wake. These are all over the world and out into space, physical space and that of the imagination. Half are in Ireland, and half of these are in Dublin. Since I had earlier connected the notion of place with sound, first probably in Variations IV which was written for the Merce Cunnigham Dance company, a piece that was not concerned with sounds but only with the places in which they would be produced, and later, at he invitation of Nam June Paik, in a filmed variation of 4' 33", my silent piece in which having subjected a map of Manhattan to change operations, we went to I-Ching determined place to simply hear what there was to hear, it was a natural to decide to add recordings of ambient sound from places mentioned in the Wake to the sounds already listed. This of course enormously increased the work to be done and my doubts about whether the project could be completed. Furthermore all along I had in the back of my mind the plan to make a circus of Irish traditional music. Ballads, at least. After all, Joyce himself had sung in the streets of Dublin. And some scholars say the nearly everything in the Wake can be traced back to texts and melodies of Irish songs.
When following Helen Schneyer's advice (she had represented the Protestants in Apartment House 1776) I tried to get in touch with Joe Heaney, "the King", as she said, "of Irish singers," I found that he was not in Brooklyn as I had hoped but on tour in England and Ireland. John Fullemann and his wife Monika and I went to Norwich in England in late April of this year to hear him sing in a pub. It was a delightful experience. He is a marvelous and excellent for the part of HCE, the aging father in Finnegans Wake. I tried to explain my project to him though I knew very little about it and happily he agreed to come later to Paris, to IRCAM, to be a part of it with his singing of songs, many of them in Gaelic. He also advised me to include music for fiddle, flute, uillean pipes, and bodhran drum and gave me the name of Seamus Ennis, a pipes player, who lives in a trailer on the outskirts of a village north of Dublin.
The reason the work was to be done at IRCAM was that Max Matthews and Pierre Boulez of the organization had asked me to accomplish a project there. Furthermore the Paris Festival d'Automne had a project Autour de Merce Cunningham at Beauborg for which I had been asked to provide an evening of music. Knowing full well that Roaratorio was all I could do, I tried to have this one project to which I was first of all committed to satisfy also all the other requests for work. Some of the projects were given up but the work was done at IRCAM and for WDR in Koln, KRO in Hilversum, and SDR in Stuttgart.
In May Klaus Schoening and I met in Lyon in France. I was on tour with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. Schoening had agreed to write to radio stations all over the world in order to ask for sounds from places mentioned in the Wake. The vast library of sounds at WDR was of course also available. But the amount of work to be done was alarming. Schoening began to have his doubts. He said: "Don't you think this project should be postponed to another year?" Two negatives make a positive. I said: "Let us just do what we can. We can't do more."
We went through my Listing through Finnegans Wake several times extracting categories, for instance, various kinds of music, instrumental and vocal, various kinds of humanly produced noise, shouts, laughter, tears, various birds and animals, sounds of nature, water, wind, etc. We made a schedule: June 15 to July 15, a trip by the Fullemanns and me to Ireland to collect sounds and record music; July 15 to August 15: work in the studio at IRCAM to ut everything together. While we were in Ireland, Peter Behrendsen in Koln would be going through he WDR sound library extracting useful materials.
I had long before (in the late forties) come to the conclusion that the purpose of music (and I trust of horspiel too) is to sober and quiet the mind thus making it susceptible to divine influences. This is the traditional reason for making music which since I came to know it I have always accepted. Having my doubts about our ability to accomplish all the work we had to do, and having decided to go ahead in spite of them, I needed to find a way to proceed without becoming frantic or nervous. I began to think of the Venus de Milo who had managed to get along so well down through the ages without arms. The de Mile situation in reverse: a work could be incomplete to begin with. One could work on the whole work from the beginning in such a way that from the moment the work began it was at all times and at anytime finished. This concept was specifically modified through conversation with John Fullemann about our work procedure. We would work on 16 track tapes. These are around 30 minutes in length. The horspiel would be an hour long. We had the Listing to realize and the places to realize (626 of them, the number of pages in Finnegans Wake, chosen from Mink's book by I-Ching chance operations), not to mention my reading of the mesostics and the circus of Irish music. I would do the reading and since all parts of it could be identified by page and line of Finnegans Wake it would be used as a ruler to determine the proper placing of all the other sounds (which could also be identified by page and line). The circus of traditional music would be independent. The remaining studio time would be divided into four periods so that all parts of the work, the first thirty minutes, the second thirty minutes, theListing, and the places, would receive equal attention. Our minds were at ease. The work would be finished on August 15.
We went to Ireland and enjoyed every minute of it. Like the rest of the world it is magnificent and the people are a pleasure. What distinguishes Ireland is the Guinness and 'Guinness is good for you.'
Ciaran MacMathuna, in charge of traditional music for the Irish Radio, gave us a list of Irish musicians and his first, second and third choices. He agreed with Joe Heaney's choice of Seamus Ennis for the pipes. He suggested Paddy Glackin for the fiddle and Matt Malloy for the flute, and Peadher Mercier and his son Mell for the drumming. All of these I contacted and they were all delighted to make recordings to us.
We worked long hours and drove thousands of miles. "Frederick the second" was the name of John and Monika's old Swedish Volvo that carried us. Frederick finally broke down in Donegal but the necessary parts at the last minute were gotten in Dublin by John. During the breakdown I practiced reciting my text. I gave up any thought of an Irish accent and began to slightly sing, sprechstimme. When the car was fixed I was still not sure of myself.
When we got to Paris we set immediately to work. In one day the recording of my reading was made and edited. It was done chapter by chapter. I listened to each before going on to the next. There are seventeen chapters in all. I was fortunate. Something carried me through. All the rest of the month we were obliged to listen over and over again to this tape because it was the ruler by means of which we were able to tell where each sound was to go. Somehow we were able to put up with it without losing our minds. The repetition of it took the place of musical theory.
For as far as music goes of Finnegans Wake for that matter, we didn't know what we were doing. From time to time we would stop and listen, say to a part of one of the 16 track tapes. And we were pleased. But what would 64 tracks together sound like? Clearly much that we liked would be covered up. My reading, parts of which no matter how many times we heard it had a certain charm, was already inaudible. Why go on? Though we didn't know what we were doing, that is, we didn't know what the result would be like, we knew what we had to do, the nature, that is, of the process we were involved in. In Zen Buddhism this is called purposeful purposelessness.
I have written a score called _______ , __ , ______ Circus On _______, the first blank being the title (in this case Roaratorio), the second and third an article and adjective (in this case an Irish), and the last the name of a book (in this case Finnegans Wake.) Thus another person could make another musical radio play on Finnegans Wake different from the one John Fullemann and I have made or such a play on some other book, and the resulting materials may be used in any combination for radio broadcast or live performance.
In his preface to A Finnegans Wake Gazetteer, Louis Mink says that the time for naive enjoyment of Finnegans Wake is past. He says that now we are obliged to continue the scholarly unraveling of its mysteries. And an editorial in a magazine published at the Centre Pompidou says that the most urgent and important art work to be done now is to come to an analytical understanding of the art of the twentieth century.
I don't agree. I think that we can still at unexpected moments be surprised by the beauty of the moon though now we can travel to it. And I think that the artists of the twentieth century who resist our understanding are the ones to whom we will continue to be grateful. Besides Joyce there is Duchamp. And Satie whose work, though seemingly simple, is no less difficult to understand than that of Webern. Somewhere in the Wake Joyce says "Confusium hold'em!" I hope that Roaratorio will act to introduce people to the pleasures of Finnegans Wake when it is still on the side of poetry and chaos rather than something analyzed and known to be safe and law-abiding.
I am now busy writing another text: Writing for the Third Time through Finnegans Wake. Louis Mink wrote and excellent letter last January saying that having been reading my first Writing he noticed that I had invented the impure mesostic. A pure mesostic, he said, would not permit the appearance of either letter between two of the name. This criticism fascinated me and I am profiting by it. A Fourth Writing will resemble the Second and follow the rule of the Third. And I plan a Fifth, one like Mureau, not linear but moving through chance operations from one part of the Wake to another. I am therefore involved, as Joyce was, in a Work in Progress, and Roaratorio for me is a part of that.
I hope that some day it can be heard with separate channels for each track between sixty and seventy of them, with live musicians and myself reading and the Cunnigham Dance Company performing. Merce Cunnigham is half Irish and one of the characters in Finnegans Wake is poor Merkyn Corningwham.
Off in the future is another work, Atlas Borealis, with The Ten Thunderclaps, the ten thunderclaps of Finnegans Wake. Hearing it, I hope, will be like going to a storm more that like going to a concert.
Let me thank members of the Jury for having given Roaratorio the Carl Sczuka Prize. When I heard of this award I was pleased and as Joyce might say, surepriced! I still am. Thank you.
20 October 1979
Roaratorio is available on CD from both Mode Records and Wergo's "Ars Acoustica."
The Mode CD comes on a two-disc set, which includes "Laughtears," a half-hour interview with John Cage regarding the work, and Writing for the Second Time Through Finnegans Wake, which is just the Cage vocal part -- the actual reading of the text -- without all the music and sound effects. The serial number is: mode 28/29. The set is only available directly through Mode records:
Cage Volume 6: Roaratorio
John Cage (Composer) / Mode / Released 2002
The Wergo edition has only one CD, with Roaratorio followed by excerpts from Writing for the Second Time Through Finnegans Wake.
You may listen to sound samples and/or purchase the Wergo disc online from Amazon.com below:
John Cage (Composer) / Wergo / Released 1994
Postmodern Genres is a book with a large chapter on John Cage's Roaratorio. The chapter is an essay by Marjorie Perloff entitled "Music for Words Perhaps: Reading/Hearing/Seeing John Cage's Roaratorio." It is both a defense of the work as a piece of original avant-garde art as well as an explanation of the work itself. The book, which contains some other excellent essays on subjects such as Cubism, Laurie Anderson, and metafiction, may be ordered online from Amazon.com here:
Edited by Marjorie Perloff. (Roaratorio Essay by M. Perloff.)
"The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs" -- (1942) A song adapted from the "Isobel" passage from Finnegans Wake.
Marcel Duchamp, James Joyce, Eric Satie: An Alphabet -- (1982) A radio play featuring James Joyce as a character.
"Nowth Upon Nacht" -- (1984) A song with lyics directly adapted from Finnegans Wake.