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CD Review

John Cage


An Irish Circus on "Finnegans Wake"
John Cage, voice
Joe Heaney, voice
Matt Malloy, flute
Paddy Glackin, violin
Seamus Ennis, uillean pipes
Peadar Mercier, bodrhan
Mel Mercier, bodrhan
Ars Acustica
Wergo WER6303-2
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One of the more remarkable things about John Cage's Roaratorio is its Irishness. An essentially "local" verbal collage is created; albeit with universal meanings. Amongst the many other things it does, Joyce's written style lilts. It's already musical; it relies on pitch and inflection in immediately recognizable ways. So one of the tasks of John Cage, whose centenary we celebrate in 2012, was to take us further, in Roaratorio, than Joyce had done. To that end, he assembled a huge battery of sounds, from babies crying to natural sounds to highly-crafted literary passages. There's a sense that we're overhearing a gentle and self-confident group of people living their daily lives. Yet knowing there's much of wider significance about how they let us know they're sentient and sensitive.

At the same time, Roaratorio (newly made available again by Wergo on their Ars Acustica imprint) relies in so many ways on the total sound, the total world implied by "Finnegans Wake": Roaratorio has another defining attribute: comprehensiveness. Multiple musical and sonic ideas co-exist. Cage's achievement – unlike that of those exploring musique concrète, one could argue, – was immense. He forged something where the whole is so much more than the sum of its parts. This is due to his use of rhythm, pace, the selection of the raw material, cross-currents, changes in dynamic and the fact that Roaratorio plays constantly and consistently on and against the source of its own inspiration.

Most extraordinary, perhaps, is the way in which Roaratorio uses the very poetic, the inescapably lyrical nature of combinations of sounds – the consonances, resonances and overlaying, as well as the felicitousness of clashes between, associations of what we hear in the work – to make that sum. Not for nothing is the piece subtitled "An Irish Circus on Finnegans Wake". Cage himself, long interested in Joyce and his work and world, recorded the ballads, jigs and other instrumental music in Ireland. His aim was to present literature in such a way that it can be appreciated without needing to know the language in which it was written. What Roaratorio says to the listener proves that this can be done. The very satisfying "Performance" on this CD demonstrates as much. The half dozen other musicians and performers blend seamlessly into and create Cage's conception admirably.

Written in 1982, Roaratorio was produced by Cage at WDR (the Studio of Acoustic Art in Cologne) as part of their invitation to him to realize a series of the poetical-philosophical pieces which Cage had been working. This ADD CD is the outcome. The earlier self-standing prose work was awarded the Karl Sczuka Prize in 1979 for its "endlessly rich acoustic world". Indeed it is – rich and deep. Drawing on the sense of wholeness and inter-relatedness which underpins Zen, Roaratorio works both as a linear unfolding; and a vertical monolith, which almost makes sense as listened to as slices. This is in some part due to the media employed… tape montage, oral recitation, quotation and noises from the environment: each of these necessarily has its own logic. Think about Cage's mesostic techniques and you will see how this can be so. The Writing for the second time through "Finnegans Wake", the second item on the CD and a quarter of Roaratorio's length, consists of Cage reading the purely verbal excerpts from Joyce which form Roaratorio.

The essay that forms the booklet with the CD (Cage's speech on accepting the prize is also reproduced and makes equally informative reading – particularly in explaining these works' origins, development and relation one to the other) goes some way towards setting the scene and providing the context for Cage's use of Joyce. Key to understanding how Cage saw Roaratorio, and key to assessing how successful it was, is this from his own words: "I had long before (in the late 'forties) come to the conclusion that the purpose of music… is to sober and quiet the mind thus making it susceptible to divine influences." A mere couple of listenings to Roaratorio on this CD are likely to show how effective it is if approached that way.

There is a recording of the same production available (on Mode 28-29) in a two-CD set that also contains the longer rendition of Writing for the second time. This recording has the added advantage that the original analog tapes of Roaratorio have been remastered. And very effectively so: the difference is perceptible. There is a greater immediacy of the sound… voices, the music and sound collage. The bass register of the bodrhan, for example, is clear and makes a greater impact.

The acoustics of Roaratorio are important if we are to appreciate the nuance of, for example, the musical extracts playing quietly in the background while the intricacies of Joyce's wonderfully lyrical language play away. This is where the Mode recording is to be preferred. The Mode set also contains the illuminating Laughtears: Conversation on Roaratorio from 1979 with Cage and Klaus Schöning. The Mode CD set comes with two well-produced booklets giving as much background and analytical material on the works as you are likely to want… the first, for example, has a table of the categories and corresponding numbers of sounds to be heard in Roaratorio; over 2,000 in all, laughing and crying, musical instruments, animals and birds, and singing being the most heard. The second book contains the text of Writing for the second time. This material rightly focuses our attention on the primacy of sound in its own right.

Roaratorio is a classic of twentieth century musical literature; the new Wergo CD should be investigated by anyone seriously interested in its most successful experimental trends. If having the other items appeals to you and/or you welcome the enhanced acoustic, then look seriously at the Mode release as well.

Copyright © 2012, Mark Sealey.