Stilling the mind to let in Cage's divine influence
Surprise number one: the doors of the Cork Opera House were closed when I arrived for Saturday’s performance of John Cage’s Roaratorio, an Irish circus on Finnegans Wake. Entrance was through the stage door.
Surprise number two: the performance was to take place with performers and listeners all on the stage. The four traditional musicians involved – Paddy Glackin (fiddle), Liam O’Flynn (pipes), Seamus Tansey (flute) and Mel Mercier (bodhrán) – were seated on podiums, two each side, on the long axis of the space.
Surprise number three: the limited seating was all at the perimeter of the performing space, and everyone who was standing or sitting on the floor was crowded along that perimeter, too, facing an empty spotlit chair and table, with the score of Roaratorio laid open and flat on it, like an exhibit in a museum.
Surprise number four: when the piece started, everyone stayed in their place, in spite of the fact that the rows of suspended loudspeakers carrying the sounds of the award-winning radio play Cage wrote for West German Radio in 1979, were all inside the perimeter.
Scratch all that. Begin again. Surprise number one is the fact that Roaratorio was being performed in full in Ireland at all, more than 30 years after its composition, and exactly 30 years after the National Concert Hall declined an opportunity to put it on for the Joyce celebrations of 1982. And no, I’m not forgetting that in 1997, when Seán Doran was director of the Belfast Festival, Michael Alcorn filled the foyer of the Waterfront Hall with what you might call the soundtrack of the piece (but with no live musicians). Nor that just last month the Belfast Festival featured Owenvarragh, A Belfast Circus on the Star Factory, Ciaran Carson’s realisation of Cage’s ———, Circus On ———, the after-the-event score that unveiled the rules of Roaratorio and can be used to convert other texts into works of Roaratorio-like music.
Is this all getting too complicated? Well, what would you expect when you’re dealing with a piece that deals with Finnegans Wake? The radio commission was for music to go with Cage’s Writing for the Second Time through Finnegans Wake, which Cage had created by writing mesostics on Joyce’s name on random selections from the book. As the composer himself put it, some of these “did bring about substantial changes in the original, further deviations from ordinary sense and syntax than those Joyce himself wrote”.
He started out with the idea of creating a collage of all the sounds mentioned in the book, and after an encounter with Louis O Mink’s A Finnegans Wake Gazetteer he also wanted to make recordings at the locations mentioned. With thousands of sounds, and locations extending out into space, the task was obviously impossible.
The composer roped in sound engineer John Fullemann, got introduced to sean-nós singer Joe Heaney, who in turn sent him on to Seamus Ennis, and RTÉ producer Ciarán Mac Mathúna made further suggestions, leading him to Paddy Glackin, Matt Molloy, and Peader and Mel Mercier.
“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,” explained Cage. “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 Milo 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.”