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.”

He spent a month in Ireland recording sounds in the summer of 1979, followed by a month in the studios at IRCAM in Paris, and the complete piece was first broadcast the following October. Cage’s position on Finnegans Wake was anti-analytical. “I think,” he said “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 20th 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 analysed and known to be safe and law-abiding.”

So what, then, of Roaratorio in all its glory, with John Fullemann present to keep its original spirit alive? You can, of course, listen to it on CD. But you can’t experience it, as you could in Cork, as a kind of sonic weather, and walk around and within it, varying the sounds that will fall or shine on you, or the balances you can strike between them.

In its own way, Roaratorio might seem even more daunting than Finnegans Wake. You read a book at your own speed. You can backtrack and go over parts of it again, or again and again. The 60 minutes of the jumbled words and sounds of Roaratorio are in real-time. In a live performance there are no second chances and, with the freedom to wander around and about within the vertiginously rich and crowded sound-space, the differences between any two individual experiences are likely to be extreme – many of the listeners in Cork did eventually take to their feet and explore, some with cameras and phone-cameras in hand, the ever shape-shifting sound jungle that Cage created.

The centre was dominated by the composer’s sound-savouring reading voice, hypnotically dulcet, and intentionally sing-song in delivery. The four musicians were like strange, lifelike statues that periodically burst into toe-tapping life, as if working to an agenda that was known only to them. The audience were like distracted zombies, with many an empty distracted gaze to signify inner absorption. It was crazy. It was fascinating. It was meaningless. And yet it all felt really significant.

You couldn’t but remember one of Cage’s strongly-held tenets. “The purpose of music is to still the mind, and make it susceptible to divine influences.”

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