Roaratorio, Cage's 1979 composition, is a work of staggering complexity. To put it simply, it involves several elements all working together at once to create a soundscape of Finnegans Wake. Basically, there are three simultaneous elements:
(1) John Cage reading lines from the text, selected so as to form the mesostic "JAMESJOYCE" over and over again. (A mesostic is when several horizontal lines of poetry are written, one on top of the other, and a word is spelled vertically through a strategic placement of letters.) The actual excerpts from the Wake were selected by a process that combined arbitrary rules with elements of artistic preferece, creating a unique overview of the entire novel. The "libretto" is not read straightforwardly, but is alternately spoken, sung, hissed, shouted, muttered, whispered....
(2) A barrage of sound effects, all inspired from the text, many recorded in Ireland and other geographical locations mentioned in the novel. This adds up to literally hundreds of sound effects: thunder, explosions, breaking glass, birds, bells...! Limited to a manageable amount through chance operations, the effects were then keyed into the work at the places where they appeared in the Wake itself.
(3) Irish traditional music, played at various times at various intensities: jigs, reels, airs and songs, forming an ambient presence like music drifting from a Dublin pub into a busy street.
The overall effect of the compostion is quite striking and certainly unique. The elements are not intended to work harmoniously, nor are they intended to relate to each other; but they are all linked to the master plan of the novel itself, conspicuous by its very absence. Hence the term "An Irish Circus," which brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation to the idea of cycles, or rather several competing cycles each with their own center of attention -- a circus to reflect our environment itself.
So how does it all sound?
Ok, bear with me now. You are standing still, with a pastoral scene behind you (a waterfall, laughing children, a couple of ducks) and a very busy street in front of you. Occasionally a door opens up and you hear snatches of music or conversation; or a few buskers pass by playing the fiddle; and once in awhile something really weird happens somewhere irritatingly just out of sight. And -- this is important -- all the time, there is this old pensioner standing next to you, rocking back and forth, sing-speaking to himself in phrases of strangely familiar nonsense. Sometimes he is loud and insistent, sometimes you can barely hear him, and once in a great while he ducks into a pub for a quick pint and leaves you the hell alone.
Needless to say, this is not for everybody! But, to be quite honest, it sort of grows on you after awhile -- it reminds me of being in Dublin. Well...almost. Maybe paralytic drunk in Dublin, with a head full of poisonous mushrooms that some Scotsman just off the boat from Amsterdam passed off as genuine fairy toadstools guaranteed to make you see Queen Maeve, Cuchulainn, and the ghost of Molly What's-Her-Name and her cartload of leprechauns, but now you're just sick and insanely baffled, not to mention maybe a bit paranoid, and he's laughing his ass off in some pub counting your Yankee dollars.
Dated: Edinburgh, September 1979
John Cage - Roaratorio - 01 - Part One (to Line 220).mp3
John Cage - Roaratorio - 02 - Part Two (to Line 406).mp3
John Cage - Roaratorio - 03 - Part Three (to Line 594).mp3
John Cage - Roaratorio - 04 - Part Four (to End).mp3