the cmrc blog

Words and Music 2 James Joyce

I was 21 when I first met Berio. My teacher Bernard Rands introduced me to him in the green room after a Queen Elizabeth Hall concert.   “This is my pupil Roger Marsh” he said. “He’s just written a piece on Joyce’s Ulysses. Berio looked interested. “Really?” he said. “Which part?” “The whole thing” I replied. Berio chuckled and said “You’re a brave man”. I didn’t get a chance to explain myself, but it didn’t matter. He had already forgotten me.

It was probably a stupid answer, but “odd bits of it” would have sounded careless and been inaccurate. The full answer would have been: “selected passages conveying stages of Leopold Bloom’s day and crafted into a four movement piece for singers, large ensemble and actor”. Did it sound to Berio as though I had set the entire 700 pages?   On the contrary my piece (Molly) was no more a ‘setting’ of Ulysses than the first movement of Sinfonia is a setting of Le Crut et le Cuit. Surely Berio of all people would have understood that. And yet the Maestro’s bemusement was perfectly understandable. Composers don’t make vocal pieces from novels.

Ulysses though is not just a novel. Its greatness, and its appeal, resides not simply in its perfectly coherent narrative and sympathetically drawn characters. It comes also from its virtuosic use of language, which runs almost in parallel with the narrative structure of the book. Chapters have their own literary flavour, and often the polystylism and playfulness of the language appear to obscure the simplicity of the narrative. The approach is sometimes more poetic than prosaic. The novel’s technical composition has much in common with musical composition, quite apart from the myriad musical references which provide an unheard soundtrack throughout. Berio himself created one of the early masterpieces of musique concrete from the opening of the twelfth chapter of Ulysses (Sirens), which aspires to be a literary fugue and which Joyce packed with musical techniques translated into literary equivalents. In Thema: Ommaggio a Joyce (1956) Berio further reduces Joyce’s own introductory abstraction, which comprises two pages of concrete poetry derived from the ensuing chapter. Berio uses the recorded voice of Cathy Berberian reading the passage in three languages, and then fragments and recomposes Joyce’s words into a musical fantasy infused with his sensual onomatopoeia.

In Molly I shamelessly combined the vocal sound world of Thema and the structural design of Sinfonia with some rather more literal extracts from Ulysses, including a reading of the final pages of Molly Bloom’s famous internal monologue which closes the novel, spoken quietly into a microphone by an Irish actress, above a pointillistic constellation of instrumental sound which finally envelopes her. In this I nailed my colours firmly to the mast, sending a message to Berio: playing on words is great, but let’s hear some of them. By the time I composed Molly I knew Sinfonia off by heart (but only the first four movements – the fifth had not been recorded at that point). I didn’t know most of the music quoted in the third movement. When I heard La Valse and Agon for the first time I was disappointed to find that Berio hadn’t invented that material. Nor had I read The Unnamable though I felt I knew enough about Beckett to get the idea. As for Levi Strauss I knew no more than Berio tells us in his brief programme note – something to do with Brazilian myths. The piece was mysterious and amazing, concealing a rich tapestry of interrelated but unfathomable references bound together in a powerful and moving musical experience. If I didn’t get it all, it didn’t matter to me; musically I got it.

Ulysses is a bit like that for most readers. Many don’t get beyond the first three chapters, because they are among the most difficult and most ‘literary’ in the novel. The fourth chapter introduces the principal character, Leopold Bloom, for whom the smell of mutton kidneys on the grill ‘gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.’ From that point on things get a bit easier for a while; the rich vein of humour at the novel’s heart is revealed and the semblance of a plot begins to emerge. But at regular intervals Joyce challenges the reader further, with erudite literary discussion, parodies of classical and modern literature, wild dream sequences in play form, a verbal fugue and a whole chapter written without punctuation. This last is the famous internal monologue of Molly Bloom. The longest chapter in the book, it follows the disjointed musings of Bloom’s young wife as she lies trying to get to sleep in the early hours of the morning, her husband at her side (though they sleep head to toe). The writing is by turns beautiful and crude. Recollections of happy former times are punctuated by detailed observations of her need to fart, her impending menstruation etc. These are the passages which got the book banned after its publication. But there is nothing more beautiful than the closing pages, in which Molly recalls her early days with Leopold and how he proposed to her on Howth Head, and how she thought ‘well as well him as another’ and ‘yes I said yes I will yes’

These were the lines with which I closed my student tribute piece to Berio and Joyce: a page and a half of the most famous lines in modern literature. At least one composer has set these lines to music. But I knew that they had to be heard exactly as I had always imagined them in my head. I worked with a young actress to get them just that way. The use of a microphone allowed her to speak them quietly and sleepily. However baffling the rest of the piece might have seemed to a listener, even a listener who knew Ulysses a bit, this closing passage made up for it. It was quite beautiful. The musical backdrop I provided for it was minimal, unobtrusive. After the final ‘yes’ it swelled a little and then faded to silence.

Why would a composer take a passage of beautifully crafted prose like this and ‘set it’?  My score included none of the standard composerly attempts to control speech – no rhythmic notation, no indication of vocal contour – just the words, allowing the actor freedom to pace and interpret the text. This is how plays work, after all; imagine Shakespeare with prescribed rhythmic notation. It had to be an actor too, and not a singer. There are singers, I know, who can do a convincing job when it comes to speaking in character. But there are many more that cannot. For me the sound of a trained singer declaiming text, especially a rhythmically notated text, is an abomination. For me there is nothing more absurd, more un-natural and more offensive than a text spoken with the full vocal production developed to project the singing voice into an auditorium. I don’t blame singers for this (well not entirely). The practice is accepted by composers as though there is no alternative. It’s even encouraged by them, when by writing rhythmically notated speech into a singer’s part (even if marked ‘flexibly in speech rhythm’) the composer is simply hoping that the performer’s acting ability matches their singing skills.   Yes, I’ve done it myself. Sometimes it works OK. But when it comes to extended passages which need to be communicated as the author might have intended, it is not the best way. With Molly I proved this to myself, and the preservation of narrative in a musical context became one of my principal creative challenges – one which I addressed in various ways over the next 40 years in pieces which I will go on to discuss in some detail forthwith.

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