CalPerformances Special Event:  Merce Cunningham, David Vaughan, Brian Collins

'James Joyce, Marcel Duchamp, Erik Satie: An Alphabet'

by Mary Ellen Hunt

February 5, 2002 -- Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley, California.

In a complement to the performances of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company last week, Cal Performances scored a coup by presenting the master himself in John Cage’s radio play "James Joyce, Marcel Duchamp, Erik Satie: An Alphabet" at Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall. It was an evening that held a lot of possibilities, but ultimately frustrations as well.

Conceived originally in 1979, and then revamped in 1982 as a radio play for a German station, "An Alphabet" consists of thirteen live actors and two who have been pre-recorded in monologue-dialogues that Cage cobbled together in a kind of tribute to artists and thinkers who had inspired him over the years. Cage considered his influences to be the "alphabet" from which he constructed his own language. Besides the title characters of Joyce (Brian Collins), Duchamp (David Vaughan), and Satie (Cunningham); Thoreau, Chairman Mao, Buckminster Fuller, Thorstein Veblen, Jonathan Albert, Brigham Young, Oppian and Robert Rauschenberg all have their say, in a convening of intelligentsia across time and space. "An Alphabet" is a sprawl of ideas juxtaposed into what could be a fascinating collage of thought. However, the very static and at times confusing direction of this "performed installation" served to smother rather than illuminate the proceedings and ended up producing a bewildering barrage of stimuli for the ears and hardly anything for the eye. A few audience members lasted only a bit longer than four minutes and thirty-three seconds into the piece before making their way quietly up the aisle.

As the curtain goes up, we see several low benches placed on risers that take up the entire span of the stage. Each character inhabited his or her own seat, for the most part remaining confined to the immediate space around it. The exception was the Narrator, a bravura performance by John Kelly, who darted up and down the risers, dancing and speaking in between and around the others like a hyperactive, albeit graceful, child in a wax museum. Had this been an interactive installation in which one could wander in and out along with the Narrator and hear various monologues as you passed by, it might have been more successful, but with the proscenium separating us and them, and with everybody sitting practically immobile, there was an uneasy feeling of stagnation. With all the discussion of Buckminster Fuller’s work, the configuration began to look rather like an unstable carbon-12 atom with twelve staid protons and neutrons and one crazed electron.

Then too, Cage’s work is never what one would describe as "easy access". Director Laura Kuhn remarks in the program that she wanted to "animate the inanimate through the temporal dimension of theater without obscuring the text or confounding the ear." Unfortunately, for this reviewer, she has done just what she wished to avoid. Working with a dense text filled with ideas and allusions, from a composer who was known more for academic esoterica and impenetrability, Kuhn and Mikel Rouse (who worked on the reconstruction of the sound score from Cage’s notes) have created some interesting and theatrical moments, but also some befuddling ones that border on preciousness.

One disconcerting gimmick, for example, was that most of the lines for Cunningham’s character, Satie, had been recorded previously and they were played more or less as he spoke them, in echo fashion. The director seemed to intend that either he, the live player, say the words slightly before the recording, or that the recording sound first and the player speak the words afterwards, or maybe sometimes one, sometimes the other. Or maybe it was merely a mnemonic device for helping the player recall long peripatetic speeches. The limitations of a human being what they are, sometimes he wouldn’t say the same phrases as the recording, sometimes he’d leave out whole sections, sometimes he’d beat the recording, sometimes he’d let the recording go first. Which way was it supposed to go? WAS it supposed to go any particular way? I spent half the time trying to figure out whether he was supposed to speak before or after the recording thereby missing the actual content.

Oddly enough, because none of the players moved very much, I was also distracted by the effort of figuring out who was speaking, both in the spatial sense of where they were on the stage, and in the sense of who the character was supposed to be. This, coupled with a mixed palette of sounds, meant that the text was often completely lost. It was a difficult thing to concentrate simultaneously on the words, the allusions, the speaker’s locus and the sounds. By the end I had a headache and I closed my eyes. That was when I discovered that it made much more sense when you weren’t looking at it. The dazzle of ideas finally began to show.

In some ways "An Alphabet" is typical of Cage’s work. Cage is famous for the genre that has been called aleatoric music or indeterminacy, that is, music that occurs by chance rather than that which is fixed. Throughout the piece, nearly two hundred "sampled" sounds put in an appearance, some of them designed to coincide with particular moments in the spoken text and others occurring in an order and timing determined by random chance. The sounds are sometimes heard only in the back of your consciousness, but occasionally they cover a speaker’s voice, which is not antithetical to Cage’s principles: he liked the idea that a performance could be like real life, where interruptions or obscurations would occur by accident. Indeterminacy also guarantees that one will never have the same experience twice, reinforcing the nature of live performance.

The text itself is a non-changing, non-aleatoric element. There is a specific script, and the order of the monologues is not chosen by random chance. Perhaps "An Alphabet" is better served in written form. One detail that can only be evident by reading the text is the mesostics that Cage wove throughout his phrases. He capitalizes a letter in each line and, if one reads vertically through the lines in an acrostic fashion, the letters spell out the names of the three key players: James Joyce, Erik Satie and Marcel Duchamp, over and over again.

Finally, much of "An Alphabet" only makes sense in retrospect, after you’ve gone home and read it, maybe discussed it with a few friends, and read some of John Cage’s remarks. It was invaluable to me that, completely by chance, I went to see the exhibition at the San Francisco Legion of Honor on Dadaism and Surrealism, which at least allowed me to key into the remark about Duchamp’s readymobiles and his feminine alter ego "Rrose Selavy" who makes an appearance in the show. In large part, however, "An Alphabet" will feel most comprehensible to those who already know something about Cage and the characters he mentions. It’s rather like a long extended in-joke, which has parts that sound like they’re awfully funny, if you knew what they were talking about. On the one hand it makes you wish to be a better-educated person, it might even send you on a quick course of study of Rauschenberg, Satie, Feldman, Buckminster Fuller and Paolo Uccello. On the other hand, you might be so frustrated that you just want to take two aspirin and lie down.

My companion, who saw a much less elaborate, staged reading that was performed at UCLA several years ago, noted that in the simpler version, the characters held up signs to indicate who they were, eliminating at least two of my headaches. She also remarked that it had had the kind of impact I’d been seeking when it was not accompanied by annoying distractions. Nevertheless, it was a worthwhile effort and there was much to ponder. It’s a pity it there was only one show. I know I would have come back again if only to figure out what the heck they were saying.


Edited by Jeff.

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