Roaratorio: An Irish Circus on Finnegans Wake (1976-79)
Alla fine degli anni Sessanta John Cage (Los Angeles 1912 – New York 1992) è considerato uno dei più importanti compositori dell’avanguardia musicale. Il suo lavoro è basato principalmente sulla commistioni di discipline, sull’aggiunta di altre arti alla musica. Si dedica alla pittura e alla scrittura. Alcuni suoi lavori si basano sull’esplorazione della parola scritta, dall’esempio del Finnegan’s Wake. Comincia a utilizzare i mesostici, dei versi in cui una frase verticale interseca il testo orizzontale. A differenza degli acrostici, la frase verticale si interseca con lettere nel mezzo del testo e non con le lettere iniziali dei versi. Questi versi possono essere destinati al canto, come nel caso di quello scritto per Demetrio Stratos.
In questo contesto Cage incontra la poesia tropicalista/concreta brasiliana, trovando spiriti affini alla sua ricerca nel cosiddetto Grupo Noigares e le figure di Augusto de Campos e Decio Pignatari. L’interesse che suscita in lui l’uso sonoro della lingua da parte dei brasiliani lo porta a delineare una serie di composizioni/performance, da lui nominate “mesostics”, che fanno dell’uso di uno strumento particolare – la voce umana – e di un mezzo espressivo particolare – il linguaggio – il loro punto di partenza. Differentemente dalla poesia concreta, dove è l’immagine del testo sul foglio che domina così che durante una perfomance la specificità dell’estetica viene in gran parte persa, Cage fa della dimensione acustica e uditiva la parte predominante dei suoi lavori linguistici (anche se l’immagine del testo è comunque curata come si vede dalla scrittura performativa resa nell’antologia degli scritti M). La densità poetica, tanto da fare di questi lavori linguistici dei veri e propri lavori di produzione sonora, trova la propria espressione maggiore nel suono, capace di venire attualizzato soltanto durante l’esecuzione.
Denominati “mesostici”, i lavori partono da un nome proprio o da una frase estratta dalle più svariate fonti e lavorano la propria costruzione sonora partendo da questi. Il mesostico (dal greco mesóstichon, composto di mesos, «medio» e stíchos, «verso») è una variante dell’acrostico, in cui, a differenza di quest’ultimo, sono le lettere o le sillabe o le parole centrali di ciascun verso, e non quelle iniziali, che formano un nome o una frase. E’ un tipo di componimento poetico classico in cui le iniziali delle parole a metà verso, lette successivamente in senso verticale dall’alto in basso, formano una parola o una frase. Se ne hanno esempi in epigrammi dell’Antologia Palatina e nei carmi di Porfirio.
Roaratorio: An Irish Circus on Finnegans Wake (1976-79) è forse il più conosciuto dei lavori linguistici di Cage, strutturato sulla lettura di brani del capolavoro di Joyce e puntuato da registrazioni di suoni effettuate nei luoghi descritti nel lavoro che vengono sovrapposte in un collage mastodontico di 62 tracce, il tutto accompagnato da una strumentazione irlandese tradizionale. Attraverso questo lavoro Cage riesce ad illuminare non solo la propria estetica e il proprio metodo di lavoro ma rende la sua personale (ri)lettura di Finnegans Wake una fermata obbligatoria per chiunque fosse interessato ad analizzare e comprendere lo status di questo romanzo nella nostra cultura.
Speech 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