In the early 1960s, a good friend of mine joined a mushroom-collecting club that included the composer John Cage (1912–1992) as a member. Years later, my friend recalled a foraging trip they took together. It seems the club members stayed overnight at an old inn, one of those atmospheric lodges for which Vermont is so justly famous. The building’s ancient hot-water heating system had aging radiators that often trapped pockets of air, resulting in a lot of loud [End Page 196] clanging and banging of the pipes at night. After a largely sleepless experience, my bleary-eyed friend appeared at breakfast the following morning. Turning to her tablemate Cage, she asked if he too had been kept awake by the constant racket. “Yes,” he told her, and then added “Wasn’t it beautiful?”
In Cage’s mature work, noises of many kinds (and even silence) frequently served as the music in his compositions. The sounds in James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake are one of the reasons that Joyce was Cage’s favorite writer.1 Cage experimented with Joyce’s work repeatedly, over many years, in his own written and theatrical productions. In fact, it may confidently be argued that Cage adapted Joyce’s writing more often within his own work than any other creative artist, past, present, or for the foreseeable future. But that’s the good news.
On 11–12 November 2011, the handsome Frank Gehry-designed Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, hosted Cage’s James Joyce, Marcel Duchamp, Erik Satie: An Alphabet in the eight-hundred-seat Sosnoff Theater. This seventy-five-minute show (performed without pause) began life as a radio play in 1982 and, in its original, unscripted form, was first published in John Cage: X, Writings ′79–′82.2 It premiered as a live performance in Cologne, Germany, on 14 February 1987, and was first performed in America, on 29 April 1990, at New York’s Whitney Museum, when Cage himself played the part of Joyce.
The current performance was preceded by a five-minute audio recording of Cage speaking about his early interest in Joyce (1882–1941), Duchamp (1887–1968), and Satie (1866–1925), a writer, an artist, and a composer. Cage’s remarks about Joyce began with his admitted lack of enthusiasm for A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. He went on to say that, like “the night sky with stars and moon in it,” he did not understand Dubliners (really?) nor Ulysses, but he instantly loved parts of Finnegans Wake, reading portions to friends when they first appeared in transition in the late 1920s and early 1930s.3
On the tape, Cage spoke about purchasing a copy of the Wake when it was first published in 1939, but he claims he was too busy writing music and did not have much time to read it. As a result, he said he had to be “punished. I have gone to Joyce as to a jail” (“Introduction” 4). He then began reading Joyce more intently and indicated that subsequently he enjoyed the writings of Adaline Glasheen and Louis O. Mink about Joyce.4 He also mentioned at least five versions of his Writings Through “Finnegans Wake,” as well as his Roaratorio: An Irish Circus on “Finnegans Wake.”5 In Cage’s closing recorded remark, he described a 1979 trip he took to Ireland to collect sounds for Roaratorio. Irishmen told him that they did not understand Finnegans Wake, so they did not read it. Cage said, “I asked them if they understood their own dreams. They confessed they didn’t. I have the feeling some of [End Page 197] them may now be reading Joyce, or at least dreaming they’re reading Joyce” (“Introduction” 4). So we all hope!
As the curtain rose on James Joyce, Marcel Duchamp, Erik Satie: An...