Roger Marsh's Not a Soul but Ourselves....
Not a Soul but Ourselves... was commissioned by the Arts Council of Great Britain for the Extended Vocal Techniques Ensemble of San Diego. Scored for two female and two male voices with independent amplification, the first performance was given in San Diego, November 29, 1977. It has most recently been presented at the 17th International James Joyce Symposium, at Goldsmiths College in London, June 24, 2000, where it formed part of an evening of Joycean music and theater organized by Roger Marsh himself. The following review is based on the Electric Phoenix recording of the work, which was used at the Symposium.
Essentially a surreal but oddly cheerful workout of the Anna Livia Plurabelle chapter of Finnegans Wake, Not a Soul but Ourselves... takes four voices and weaves them through Joyce's text, winding some threads tightly into patterns and allowing others to unravel madly over the course of a quarter-hour. Underpinning this vocal journey are two basic motifs. The first is the text of the chapter itself, delivered in a rapid patter by the higher-pitched female voice, the words rising and falling like a babbling river of sound. The second is the phrase "Anna Livia Plurabelle," which punctuates the work frequently enough to be considered as loose a structural device. Here the voices gather in chorus, intoning the syllables of the name in quickening cycles like a barbershop quartet lost in Circe's hallucinatory Nighttown: "Ahh-Nah-Lih-Vyah-Ploo-Rah-Bell-Ah...." After a simultaneous introduction of both motifs -- the spoken voice taking us from "O tell me all about Anna Livia" to "Qu'appelle?" -- the piece begins in earnest, unfolding in slightly different directions after each commodius vicus of recirculation brings us back to ALP and environs. Some wonderfully inventive vocal fireworks ensue. Repetitions of key phrases: tell me tell me tell me; who is she who is she who is she build up from whispered beginnings to be cut off by curt replies, or answered by variants of "Anna Livia Plurabelle" decorated with an arabesque of trilling. Muttered phrases are broken by increasingly insistent queries, the text fades in and out, and occasionally whimsical statements are delivered into sudden pockets of silence: At the third stroke, it will be half-past kissing time. The voices frequently engage in mock dialogue, asking questions that may or may not receive answers: Tell me. What? Tell me! What?! or simply Do you have the time? Indeed, time is a recurring theme, and its appearance often marks a shift in the musical flow or a return to the ALP chorus. As the work progresses, it grows less kinetic and more wistful, almost dreamy, with certain phrases precipitated from the swirl with a sensuous clarity: How beautiful and truetowife of her, Soft morning, city!, I am leafy speafing, You know where I'm bringing you...you remember?, Not a soul but ourselves..., while male voices implore us to Forget. (What?) or to just Listen. After a final ALP chorus, the voices begin to warble melodically, vibrating on differing syllables until the becoming diffused, fading out, hitherandthithering away....
While comparisons to Berio's Thema may naturally come to mind, Marsh's piece is more musical, less subject to electronic distortion, and a good deal more humorous. There's an infectious sense of play in Not a Soul but Ourselves... that sparkles above its complex vocal dynamics. Marsh is a composer who can both capture the Wake's sense of dreamy mystery, yet not be afraid to give its nose a playful tweak.
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Marsh's most frequently heard work to date is Not a Soul But Ourselves..., scored for four voices. This was first written for the Extended Vocal Techniques Ensemble of California, then performed and recorded by Electric Phoenix, and finally made into a staged piece by the music theatre group Vocem. An extension of the Anna Livia Plurabelle chapter of Joyce's Finnegans Wake, the music comprises a delicate tracery of predominantly small vocal sounds, combined in carefully balanced and shifting aggregations of inflection, interspersed with silence. The piece shows clearly Marsh's feel for balance and timing and his sensitivity to rhetoric and its antithesis, muttering.
Marsh shares many of the attributes of a poet: he is something of an outsider, his language is condensed, heightened and loaded with meaning, there tends to be a "tone of voice" in his work. He dislikes the redundancy of musical and theatrical gesture and prefers not to be seen as a composer seeking an established position or a conventional celebrity.
Not a Soul but Ourselves... was recorded by Electric Phoenix and released on WERGO LP WER-60094, but it has since been deleted from the catalog. It has not been committed to CD, but excerpts do appear on the Naxos Finnegans Wake audiobook, which is unfortunately not available in the United States. Roger Marsh has offered to make it available to interested parties for the cost of materials and shipping; please contact the composer through his homepage at: