Marcel Duchamp, James Joyce, Erik Satie: An Alphabet
A radio play featuring a narrator and 16 characters (1982; 75-85 min.)

John Cage's Marcel Duchamp, James Joyce, Erik Satie: An Alphabet

Originally devised as a radio play, An Alphabet was commissioned in 1982 by Cologne's West German Radio. The piece postulates an imaginary encounter between the narrator, ostensibly John Cage, and sixteen creative personalities, who represent "an alphabet by means of which we spell our lives." The most important of these personalities are the three "ghosts" of the title: Marcel Duchamp, James Joyce, and Erik Satie. The other thirteen include Jonathan Albert, Erzähler, Buckminster Fuller, Oppian, Robert Rauschenberg, Henry David Thoreau, Thorstein Veblen, Andy Warhol, Brigham Young and his wife, Mao Zedong, Duchamp's female alter-ego Rrose Selavy, and an electronic voice named "Vocoder." Spread out over thirty-three scenes, much of the "libretto" uses Cages' beloved mesostics, and the "encounters" were partially determined by chance operations. Selections from Finnegans Wake are used for parts of Joyce's dialogue.
Although the original play had no composed music, Cage did leave a few notes on a possible score. Although he never fleshed it out, after his death the composer Mikel Rouse used the notes for his own score, which premiered in 199X when the piece was staged in X. Recently, Marcel Duchamp, James Joyce, Erik Satie: An Alphabet was performed at the University of Illinois' Krannert Center. The following information was largely gleaned from these performances.

 Excerpts from the University of Illinois "NewsBureau," September 1, 2001:

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The inimitable avant-garde composer John Cage premiered some of his most important works before audiences at the University of Illinois. Nearly a decade after Cage's death, a new staged version of his 1982 radio play Marcel Duchamp, James Joyce, Erik Satie: An Alphabet will receive its U.S. premiere Sept. 29 at the UI's Krannert Center for the Performing Arts.
The production, directed by Laura Kuhn with music realized by Mikel Rouse, opened Aug. 30 at the Edinburgh International Festival, and will be staged in Berlin and Dublin before coming to the UI. Alphabet unfolds as a fantasy meeting of some of history's most imaginative minds. The conversants are introduced by a narrator who poses as Cage himself. In addition to the title characters, other contributors to the dialogue include Buckminster Fuller, Robert Rauschenberg, Henry David Thoreau, Mao Tse-Tung and Thorstein Veblen.
"Juxtaposed here are centuries, occupations, genders, even the living with the dead, making Alphabet a remarkably democratic intermingling of perspectives, with unmitigated humor, and an unmistakable irreverence for the particulars of history," said Kuhn, co-founder of the John Cage Trust.
Cage died in 1992, leaving behind a completed libretto for Alphabet. The score, however, was not notated, and existed only as a series of handwritten notes. Rouse worked from them to complete the score.
Much of the libretto "is actually a poetic piece written as a mesostic," said David Patterson, a UI music professor and Cage scholar who will give a pre-performance talk about Cage and his work. Patterson said a mesostic is a technique Cage used in which key letters – in this case the characters' names – are placed on the page vertically with new text preceding or following the key letters.
Illustrated copies of the libretto will be available at the Krannert Center performance.
Patterson said it is fitting that this "hybrid" Cage production is opening the U.S. leg of its tour at the UI because "Cage was in and out of here several times since the 1950s. This is one of a string of several important works that have been premiered here." The composer came to the university in the 1950s, Patterson said, "with his highly controversial electronic work Williams Mix." In the 1960s, UI audiences were the first to experience Musicircus and the multimedia piece HPSCHD.
Alphabet will feature a professional cast that includes Rouse; longtime Cage friend and associate Merce Cunningham; David Vaughan; and John Kelly. Two other characters appear on tape, with remaining characters portrayed by artists from the UI College of Fine and Applied Arts.

 Excerpts from a Cage lecture, from a review by Shelley Masar.

In the libretto that Krannert audiences will receive to help them absorb the verbal layers, there is a lecture by Cage explaining what he intended and how he composed it. "It is possible to imagine that the artists whose work we live with constitute an alphabet by means of which we spell our lives." He explains that he chose Satie (1866-1925), Joyce (1882-1941), and Duchamp (1887-1968) "three ghosts" because their work is similar in that it "resisted the march of understanding." In that their art is "incomprehensible," Cage says, "it is forever useful in our daily lives." Cage explains that Duchamp's work changed his way of seeing until "I became a duchamp [sic] unto myself. I could find as he did for himself the space and time of my own experience." Cage felt less immediate affinity for James Joyce but came to agree that Joyce was "making models of a mysterious universe" so as to "strike with polished irony at the hot vanity of divine and human wishes." Cage expresses deep respect for Joyce's "love of the clear dark" of "unknowing" that human beings fear. As for Satie, Cage compares him to mushrooms. To hear him well played is like "the excitement of seeing wild mushrooms growing again. I fall in love all over."
As for his process of composition in the lecture, Cage decided to "listen to Buckminster Fuller" that "proper consideration to something begins with not one idea but five." He decided to take 5 as a maximum and 1 as a minimum. "Each ghost could be alone in which case he would read from his own writings." Or he could be with an other being, or beings ghosts or living, sentient or insentient. "There could be twenty-six different possibilities:" the three ghosts alone, each in combination with one to four different beings, the ghosts in pairs with one to three different beings, all three with one or two. He used the alphabet, an unabridged dictionary and chance operations to locate other insentient beings to inform the 33 scenes.
In writing about Duchamp Cage was finally giving in. He was often asked to write about Marcel Duchamp. He has written pieces about "NOT writing about Marcel." But it is Satie, about whom Cage often wrote and lectured, who has the most lines. Some of the funniest parts in the play come from Satie's writing. For instance, Satie on music teachers: "It's very beneficial for a student to get used to putting up with his teacher. He'll ask questions he knows that you don't know. He takes unfair advantage, obviously. But you have the right to remain silent. It's even the best policy."
There are other jokes. Brigham Young, the Mormon, commissions Duchamp to make a new version of his most famous piece Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, AKA The Large Glass. Only Young's version will have "more brides than bachelors."

--Shelley Masar

CD/Book Information

Marcel Duchamp, James Joyce, Erik Satie: An Alphabet is available on CD only through Wergo, a German classical label. The CD must be ordered directly through their Web site:

Cage: Marcel Duchamp, James Joyce, Erik Satie: An Alphabet (Wergo)
John Cage (Composer), et al / Audio CD / Released 2003

More Cage

"The Wonderful Widow of Eighteen Springs" -- (1942) A song adapted from the "Isobel" passage from Finnegans Wake.

Roaratorio -- (1979) This large and chaotic work incorporates phrases from Finnegans Wake into a tapestry of noise, voice, song, and Irish traditional music.

"Nowth Upon Nacht" -- (1984) A song with lyics directly adapted from Finnegans Wake.

--Allen B. Ruch
1 June 2003
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