“It is possible to imagine that the artists whose work we live with constitute not a vocabulary but an alphabet by means of which to spell our lives.”—John Cage
We begin our festival, appropriately enough, with a radio play. Appropriately enough as, although his formal work for the medium of radio wouldn’t begin until the late 1970s, much of Cage’s music in the preceding decades makes use of either the medium’s technology or its dramatic scenario: the producer and his precisely timed manipulation of previously created materials. Imaginary Landscape No. 1 (1939), for instance, incorporates “two variable-speed turntables” playing discs whose only contents were steady or sliding sine tones, published by Victor Records for the purpose of testing audio systems. Further along in this series of percussion works, Cage makes a more direct turn to radio technology in Imaginary Landscape No. 4 (1951). Scored for twelve radios operated by twenty-four performers who manipulate their volume and frequency knobs, the piece results in a musical bouquet of station broadcasts and white-noise static—a bouquet which will be performed September 9th on the Festival's final National Gallery concert.
It was not until 1978, well after his initial flirtations with the medium, that Cage finally began to work directly with radio broadcasting, at the invitation of West Germany’s national station in Cologne, Westdeutscher Rudfunk (WDR). The invitation did not come from WDR’s music department, however, but rather from its Hörspiel division at the suggestion of staff producer Klaus Schöning. A distinctly German phenomenon, Hörspiel (literally “ear-play”) stood distinct from the American radio play in its emphasis not on aural theatrics and drama, but on the mixture of literature, music, and sound art. Here in North America, we might find the genre more akin to Glenn Gould’s multifaceted and collage-like The Idea of North than Garrison Keillor’s vignettes from A Prairie Home Companion. Rather than seeking out playwrights or comedians, Schöning commissioned composers, experimental poets, and sound engineers for his Hörspielen—such artists as Dadaist poet Ernst Jandl, Argentine composer Mauricio Kagel, and electroacoustician Clarence Barlow. Familiar with Cage’s work, Schöning initially invited him to read one of his adaptations—as Cage put it, a “writing through”—of James Joyce’s novel Finnegans Wake. The reading was so well-received that it spawned a number of collaborations with WDR over the following years including the sonic smorgasbord Roaratorio (1979); a collage of uncharacteristically recognizable folk songs honoring the Olympics in HMCIEX (1984); the compelling Writing through the Essay “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience” (1988), and tonight’s radio play James Joyce, Erik Satie, Marcel Duchamp: An Alphabet (1982).
The text of An Alphabet centers on three of Cage’s heroes: James Joyce, Marcel Duchamp, and Erik Satie. These three “ghosts,” as Cage put it, are joined by a motley cast of characters from Buckminster Fuller and Mao Tse Tung to the inanimate Vocoder (a voice synthesizer) or the fictional Rrose Sélavy (one of Duchamp’s many pseudonyms, a pun on the French expression c’est la vie). To begin writing, Cage used chance operations to determine which characters would be present throughout each of the radio play’s thirty-seven scenes. Although toward the end of his life Cage’s chance procedures were largely automated using software developed by Andrew Culver, at the time he wrote An Alphabet his process still consisted of flipping coins to select different compositional choices from the I Ching. Cage describes how this process was applied to the radio play and its ensemble of characters in his preface to the script (first published in his 1983 volume of writings dubbed merely X):
There were twenty-six different possibilities: the three ghosts alone, each in combination with one to four different beings, the ghosts in pairs with one to three different beings, all three with one or two. I used the twenty-six letters of the alphabet and chance operations to locate facing pages of an unabridged dictionary upon which I found the nonsentient beings which are the stage properties of the various scenes…that follow. For the sentient beings, the other actors, I also used the alphabet, but only rarely as a means of finding a person I didn’t know in an encyclopedia.
The text of the play itself is written as a mesostic, one of Cage’s preferred poetic forms in which lines of text are aligned to spell out a name vertically. For example, the capital letters from the Narrator’s closing lines of Scene XVII spell out the name James Joyce:
as thOugh they’d never left
in exchange for the feathers beuYs gives the birds
nEsts that can be plugged in anywhere
Thus, the play consists of scenes in which different combinations of actors speak words conforming to these mesostic structures, broken up by prose soliloquies from each of the three title characters.
As source material for An Alphabet, Cage selected passages from the writings of Joyce, Duchamp, and Satie, quotations from the other characters, his own writings in Silence, and vague recollections and alterations of all the above. Cage admits to taking liberties with the entire gamut of authors living and dead, “ascribing to them imaginary works they never made,” in order to craft a dramatic scenario that flows through each scene. In this way, An Alphabet is unique among his literary works (radio or otherwise), which are in general marked by non-climacticism and lack of closure. One gets the sense that there is in fact some kind of story unfolding—albeit one arrived at through glimpses rather than large swaths of action—opening with a narrated introduction of the play’s characters and theatrical devices characteristic of Thornton Wilder or Bertolt Brecht, and ultimately ending with a line from Duchamp that seems as if straight out of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.
When performing An Alphabet himself, Cage (in his characteristically high-pitched and endearingly droll voice) always chose to read the part of Joyce. This is all the more curious, due to Cage’s self-professed inability to grasp the meaning of Joyce’s writing. “I don’t understand any of it. Nor,” Cage is quick to point out, “do I understand the night sky with stars and moon in it.” In the end, perhaps it is precisely this ambivalence toward understanding that he admired most about Joyce, and which cuts to the very heart of An Alphabet. For Cage, the unifying thread of his ghosts (Joyce, Duchamp, and Satie) was that their work “resisted the march of understanding and so are as fresh now as when they first were made.” Cage’s work has created its own beguiling freshness by allowing both its sound and meaning to emerge organically through its embrace of spontaneity, contradiction, and above all a playful variety.
And so, in our attempt to piece together meaning from the words in An Alphabet, we would do well to heed Cage’s tale about the Irish in his preface:
When I was in Ireland for a month last summer…many Irishmen told me they couldn’t understand Finnegans Wake and so didn’t read it. I asked them if they understood their own dreams. They confessed they didn’t. I have the feeling some of them may now be reading Joyce or at least dreaming they’re reading Joyce.