the cmrc blog
Words and Music 4 Not a soul but ourselves……
In 2000 I was invited to give a presentation of music and readings at the annual International James Joyce Symposium in London. A few weeks before the event, I returned to my office one afternoon to find a message on my ansafone from Stephen Joyce, the author’s grandson. “Mr Marsh” he growled into my machine “This is Stephen Joyce. I understand that you are planning to present some musical settings of my grandfather’s work in London. I believe that the music you are planning to play is by …..…(he mentioned the name of a composer I had never heard of at that time). My wife and I detest this composer’s work, and what is more my grandfather – my grandfather – would have detested it too. I forbid you to play this music and if you go ahead with this event you will be sued.” I must admit I panicked a little and sought advice, but it quickly became clear that it was unlikely he had any legal case. For a start, the music I planned to play had full permission, granted by the Joyce Estate before Stephen Joyce got his Philistine hands on it. John Cage’s The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs was the first setting of words from Finnegans Wake by a mile (1942), and my own Not a soul but ourselves… was given the go ahead in 1977. On the other hand Stephen Joyce had, in recent years, stopped readings of Joyce’s work, and we were planning to be quite creative with an abridged dramatization of scenes from the Night Town chapter of Ulysses. We went ahead, of course, and as the hall filled up before the presentation it was pointed out to me that Sean Sweeney, the Trustee of the Joyce Estate, was sitting in the centre of the front row. This did nothing to calm the nerves I was already experiencing as I prepared to present Joyce to a room full of the world’s leading Joyce scholars. Sweeney sat with his arms folded and a smile on his face that was difficult to interpret. After the event, which went very well and was warmly applauded, Sweeney made his way towards me and said how much he had enjoyed it.
In the seventies many composers were drawn to Joyce’s work and especially to Finnegans Wake. Stephen Joyce, when he became executor of the estate, put a stop to that. But in 2011 Joyce came out of copyright (in the UK but not in the USA) and now his work is fair game. So far, however, I am not aware of a new rush of composers turning to Joyce, and I wonder why this is. In the sixties and seventies, the avant-garde pre-occupation with the deconstruction of language and the quest for more abstract (or universal) vocal music was perfectly aligned with Joyce’s writing, especially in Finnegans Wake. There have always been those who like to claim that Finnegans Wake is, or approaches the state of, music. The Wake, they argue, has to be heard to be understood. Because it departs considerably from the norms of conventional prose and even from the English language, it transcends ‘writing’ and becomes some kind of aural composition. Both assertions hold true for some passages in the book, but taken overall neither statement is accurate. The book is a novel. It has characters, albeit characters whose identities shift and morph disconcertingly throughout; and it has narratives, albeit narratives which loop and cycle and sometimes disappear from view. The language is predominantly English, but words are liberally modified, often through partial substitution or modulation with words from other languages. The result is that passages sometimes resemble concrete poetry, in some respects, although not formally, for the sentences, paragraphs and chapters are long and continuous. There is one real song in Finnegans Wake, as there is in Ulysses, complete with musical notation; but this is a minor aspect of the book’s ‘musicality’. However poetic and musical, however, this is a prose novel; it is not music. All the same, for a composer, a glance at any page immediately sets the juices flowing: the writing looks as though it wants to become music. But how do you go about adapting a 600 page novel for a 15 minute vocal piece?
John Cage made several raids on Finnegans Wake including in his idiosyncratic Writings Through Finnegans Wake. But in The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs he demonstrated a way of creating a song text which I often use as a model of instruction for student composers. He tells us in the preface to the score that the text is taken from page 556 of Finnegans Wake. Close inspection of this page (which is dense and moderately difficult, though delightful) reveals that Cage has freely selected a few non-consecutive phrases from the page, phrases which describe ‘Sister Isobel’ in gentle alliterative nature imagery, to form a ‘lyric’ which looks as though it might have been created for song. It has associations with Joyce’s narrative and retains the flavour of Joyce’s language. But it has become a new, rather enigmatic, text for which no prior knowledge of Joyce or his labyrinthine narrative is required.
In Not a soul but ourselves… my approach was similar. I focussed on one character – Anna Livia Plurabelle, the wife/mother of the novel – and selected passages written about her or spoken by her, most of which in some way reflect her primary associations of water and time (continuity).
While Cage’s piece sets the words conventionally, but to a simple melody containing only three pitches so that words are clearly audible throughout, my piece uses spoken words alongside sung material in which text is fragmented or reduced to isolated phonemes. The name ‘Anna Livia Plurabelle’ provides a lot of the musical fabric, including the framing choruses which simply intone her name. Most of the text is spoken, including the gossipy opening of the ‘Anna Livia’ chapter which begins ‘O tell me all about Anna Livia, I want to hear all about Anna Livia…..’. This chapter is written as a conversation between two washer women, beating their clothes against a rock at the edge of the River Liffey. They exchange scandalous news about Anna in continuous chatter which manages to incorporate almost all of the world’s rivers sneaked into the writing (‘the dneepers of wet and the gangres of sin in it…..’). At the end of the chapter dusk falls and as the light fades the women turn into a tree and a stone beside the river. Beautiful. My piece ends with a long pattering chorus on the name ‘Anna’ which fades out gently. A student in San Diego wrote an essay on the piece a couple of years after the first performance, and pointed out that this ending imitates the final pages of the chapter. I liked that idea – although it hadn’t occurred to me at the time of writing.
Post script (or should that be post post?).
A week after I had the call from Stephen Joyce I had a phone message from another member of the Joyce family. This person introduced himself and said he had heard that I had ‘been having some trouble with Stephen’. My heart sank – not more pressure? But then he said “Just tell him to f*** off! That’s what we all do.”