Music After Joyce: The Post-Serial Avant-Garde
Timothy S. Murphy
UCLA Department of English
All indications suggest that, despite his well-documented enthusiasm
for traditional song and his attempts to find literary corollaries for
musical techniques, James Joyce detested most modern music. He claimed,
for example, that Stravinsky wrote songs "not even a canary could sing"
(Ellmann 669), and he makes no mention at all of influential and even scandalous
figures like Schönberg or Varèse. The only contemporary composers
for whom he showed any enthusiasm were Othmar Schoeck and George Antheil,
the former a late Romantic and the latter what we might call an opportunistic
Futurist, but both are decidedly minor figures whose importance to Joyce
derived primarily from his desire to subordinate their work to his own
(Ellmann 557-558, 669). Joyce's attitude toward modern music was hardly
unique, even among the "heroic" figures of modern culture; when introduced
to Varèse, Einstein refused to discuss anything but Mozart, and
even Satie ridiculed Debussy in print. What is unique, and rather ironic,
is the extent of Joyce's influence on those composers who have sought to
extend the musical innovations wrought by moderns like Stravinsky, Debussy,
Schönberg and Varèse, innovations that Joyce himself might
very well have denounced as "unmusical."
Undoubtedly the most famous of Joyce's heirs in modern music is the
Cage, whose music has been the most consistent object of study for
literary critics primarily because of the conceptual, discursive nature
of his compositions and their basis in his "mesostics" (which include many
on Joyce and Finnegans Wake; for examples, see Cage). Many other
composers, however, some of whom use more traditional
systems of musical notation, have also been inspired by Joyce's linguistic
experiments; these composers range from the neo-Romantic Samuel Barber,
who set a number of Joycean texts from Chamber Music to Finnegans
Wake, to the hard-edged computer-music experimentalist Tod
Machover, who interwove ALP's final monologue with electronic sound,
by way of Toru Takemitsu's textless yet programmatic visions of the sea.
In this essay I will focus on two composers whose works are slightly more
homogeneous, though only in terms of their relations to Joyce's work: Pierre
Boulez and Luciano
Berio, two of the most popular and well-respected postwar composers.
Both were associated, to varying degrees, with the so-called Darmstadt
generation of avant-gardists, named for the German town where summer courses
in modern musical technique have been held since 1946. The Darmstadt group,
which also included Karlheinz Stockhausen, Luigi Nono and Henri Pousseur,
was loosely united around the project of creating a new common language
for modern music out of the fragmentary insights of Schönberg's serialism,
Stravinsky's rhythmic experiments, Debussy's non-progressive forms and
Varèse's "sound masses." Central to this project were two apparently
contradictory impulses that Boulez and Berio found prefigured in Joyce's
writing: the artist's attempt to exert total control over the musical material,
and the simultaneous interest in aleatory forms that required the active
participation or choice of the performer.
Neither the control system nor the chance aesthetic was considered adequate
alone: total serialism, the mathematization of all harmonic, rhythmic,
dynamic and timbral parameters of a work, created a formal complexity that
could rarely if ever be discovered by a listening audience, while chance
composition was considered to be too great a renunciation of artistic responsibility.
The model of the "open work" was proposed to synthesize these antitheses.
In his influential early (pre-semiotic) study of the open work, Umberto
Eco defines it in opposition to
a classical composition...[which] posits an assemblage of sound
units which the composer arranged in a closed, well-defined manner before
presenting it to the listener. He converted his idea into conventional
symbols which more or less oblige the eventual performer to reproduce the
format devised by the composer himself, whereas the new musical works...reject
the definitive, concluded message and multiply the formal possibilities
of the distribution of their elements...In primitive terms we can say that
they are quite literally 'unfinished': the author seems to hand them on
to the performer more or less like the components of a construction kit
That is, Eco's exemplary open musical works consist of rigorously composed
parts that may be assembled in many different orders (as in Stockhausen's
Klavierstück XI ), or of parts whose relation is capable
of change even if their order is fixed (as in the durations and tempos
of Berio's original Sequenza for flute ); an open work is
not improvisatory, like jazz or Indian raga, nor is it a complete refusal
of intention and control, as in Cage's Zen-influenced works. Open works
are not indeterminate, not totally without pre-existing structure, but
rather suspended between many different but fully determinate structures.
Thus they enable a composer, in principle at least, to reconcile the apparently
contradictory imperatives of complete control, which reached its apotheosis
in the total serialism of the earlier Boulez and Stockhausen, and the freedom
in performance that was the hallmark of Cage's aleatory works.
Both kinds of formal openness, that of sequence and that of intra-sequential
relation, find privileged models in Joyce's writing, though not only there.
Eco insists that the literary work in general, even when its order is fixed,
is a "continuous potentiality of 'openness'--in other words, an indefinite
reserve of meanings"--of which "the work of James Joyce is a major example"
(Eco 10). He cites "Wandering Rocks" and its multiplication of perspectives,
and more importantly Finnegans Wake, which "is finite in
one sense, but in another sense it is unlimited" (Eco 10) by virtue
of its circular construction and its puns. "Each occurrence, each word
stands in a series of possible relations with all the others in the text.
According to the semantic choice which we make in the case of one unit,
so goes the way we interpret all the other units in the text" (Eco 10).
Eco likens the reader of the Wake to a person listening to a post-serial
composition, citing Henri Pousseur's description:
Since the phenomena are no longer tied to one another by a
term-to-term determination, it is up to the listener to place himself deliberately
in the midst of an inexhaustible network of relationships and to choose
for himself, so to speak, his own modes of approach, his reference points
and his scale, and to endeavor to use as many dimensions as he possibly
can at the same time and thus dynamize, multiply and extend to the utmost
degree his perceptual faculties (Pousseur cited in Eco 10-11).
Since the continuity is no longer provided by traditional harmonic or thematic
relationships in linear development, the reader is free to find a different
form of continuity or connection for her- or himself.
This freedom from term-to-term determination in serial and post-serial
works grants the listener not only the liberty but the responsibility
to "choose for himself" and to "extend to the utmost degree his perceptual
faculties," and it was this responsibility that led Pierre Boulez to claim
in 1952 that "all non-serial composers are useless" (Boulez, Stocktakings
214). Boulez, born in Montbrison, France in 1925, studied with Olivier
Messiaen and René Leibowitz in Paris in the early Forties, and encountered
Joyce's earlier writings around the same time (Jameux 17), but he was not
introduced to Finnegans Wake until 1949, when John Cage gave him
a copy. In a letter to Cage dated January 1950, Boulez offers "a thousand
thanks for Finnegan's [sic] Wake. You can't imagine how much I enjoyed
that book. It is almost a 'totem'!" (Nattiez 46). The "totem" would not
become directly influential on Boulez's music until several years later,
when he undertook the composition of his Third Piano Sonata (1956-57).
In the article "'Sonate, que me veux-tu?'" (1960), he claims that "my present
mode of thought derives from my reflections on literature rather than on
music" (Boulez, Orientations 143), specifically the works of Mallarmé
and Joyce. In Joyce's work, Boulez writes,
the novel observes itself qua novel, reflects on itself
and is aware that it is a novel, hence the logic and coherence of the writer's
prodigious technique, perpetually on the alert and generating universes
that themselves expand. In the same way music, as I see it, is not exclusively
concerned with 'expression,' but must also be aware of itself and become
the object of its own reflection (Boulez, Orientations 143-144).
Music must do this, Boulez insists, through its form, since it has no "meaning"
in the linguistic sense. "It must be our concern in the future to follow
the examples of Joyce and Mallarmé and to jettison the concept of
a work as a simple journey starting with a departure and ending with an
arrival...As against this classical procedure the idea of a maze seems
to me the most important recent innovation in the creative sphere" (Boulez,
And indeed, like the Wake, Boulez's Third Piano Sonata is a maze,
a structure composed of five sections of fully determined parts through
which a perfomer can follow many different paths. Most of the sections
or "formants" of the Sonata are even given titles drawn from literary formalism.
For example, the second formant of the score, entitled "Trope," consists
of four ordered sections, "Parenthèse," "Commentaire," "Glose" and
"Texte," any one of which can form the beginning.
If we began with "Commentaire," we would have to end
with "Parenthèse." Furthermore, "Glose" can be played either before
or after the accompanying "Commentaire" (Jameux 301), so there are eight
possible orders. "Constellation-Miroir," the third formant, comprises two
large structures: three groups of "points" printed in green and two of
"blocs" in red.
There is also a brief "Mélanges" section in
which the colors are reversed. The instructions for "Constellation-Miroir"
The route through each group and from one group to another
should be carried out according to the reference marks indicated by arrows,
without any omission or repetition. The various different routes are indicated
by arrows of the same shape which correspond to different places in the
score. The route-modifications sometimes entail tempo-modifications which
may also be independent of every form of route (Boulez, Sonate).
The other three formants, "Antiphonie," "Strophe" and "Séquence,"
have been performed but not yet published because they are still undergoing
revision, which has prompted Boulez to admit that "My sonata...may be called
a kind of 'work in progress,' to echo Joyce" (Boulez, Orientations
He continues, "I find the concept of works as independent fragments
increasingly alien, and I have a marked preference for large structural
groups centred on a cluster of determinate possibilities (Joyce's influence
again)" (Boulez, Orientations 148). This is how Boulez succeeds
in reconciling the apparently contradictory demands of Darmstadt aesthetics,
demands for the composer's total creative control over the piece and for
open form that allows performers freedom. As György Ligeti put it,
The two processes discussed finally link up; interchangeability
within non-developing form and package-interpretation of durations and
intensities gave Boulez the idea of not leaving this freedom to mere chance,
but of guiding it within certain limits, taking over the steering of the
musical form that was unfolding, making the interpreter the chauffeur,
who can drive in any one of a number of directions along the routes planned
by the composer and signposted in advance… The written text of Boulez's
third sonata represents such a map (Ligeti 57).
More precisely, Boulez calls the Sonata "a maze, a spiral in time" (Boulez,
Orientations 148) very much like Finnegans Wake. The importance
of this encounter with Joyce and openness has been decisive for Boulez;
Dominique Jameux claims that, "with the Third Sonata, Boulez entered upon
a period of research which, in turn, led to a period of crisis, defined
by an awareness of the inevitable problems of the open-form work...which
was eventually resolved some twenty-five years later, with Répons"
(Jameux 98). The later open-form works have no direct relation to Joyce,
at least none that Boulez has acknowledged, but through the mediation of
the Third Sonata Joyce's influence still resonates in all those works.
Luciano Berio's encounter with Joyce had less traumatic but no less
profound effects than Boulez's encounter did, though it came around the
same period. Like Boulez, Berio was also born in 1925, in the Italian city
of Oneglia. Berio's first attempt to come to terms with Joyce came in 1953,
when he set three poems from Chamber Music to music patterned after
the melodic serialism of his teacher Luigi Dallapiccola (Berio, Two
Interviews 53); although these songs show early signs of Berio's uniquely
lyrical approach to modern compositional innovations, they cannot be considered
mature works either in their melodic structure or in their approach to
the music/text relation.
His second Joycean experiment, however, is much more significant, both
for Berio's own work and for the course of modern music. Thema (Omaggio
a Joyce) (1958) is, along with Varèse's Poème electronique
(1957-58) and Stockhausen's Gesang der Jünglinge (1956), one
of the classic works of electronic or "electro-acoustic" music, music composed
directly on tape using pre-recorded and manipulated natural and electronic
sounds. Constructed in collaboration with Umberto Eco, who had introduced
Berio to Ulysses, Thema takes its point of departure from
the opening "overture" of the "Sirens" chapter of Ulysses (U 11.1-36).
Berio cites Joyce's own claim
that the formal structure of "Sirens" transposes the fuga per canonem
(Berio, "Poésie" 27, Ellmann 462), though he notes that "the Joycean
polyphony, naturally, refers only to the network of facts and characters:
a reading voice is always a 'solo' voice and not a fugue" in itself
(Berio, "Poésie" 27). Berio's tape piece, on the other hand, is
a literal fugue that "render[s] real the polyphony attempted on the page"
by superimposing or overdubbing the voice of his then-wife Cathy Berberian
onto itself three times (Berio, "Poésie" 28-29).
Thema uses only these voices and no electronic sounds, because
Berio's intention was "to produce a reading of Joyce's text within certain
restrictions dictated by the text itself," and more broadly to
establish a new relationship between speech and music, in which
a continuous metamorphosis of one into the other can be developed. Thus,
through a reorganization and transformation of the phonetic and semantic
elements of Joyce's text, Mr. Bloom's day in Dublin...briefly takes another
direction, where it is no longer possible to distinguish between word and
sound, between sound and noise, between poetry and music, but where we
once more become aware of the relative nature of these distinctions and
of the expressive character inherent in their changing functions (Berio,
Berio goes on to describe the formal restrictions and transformational
rules used to create this piece as follows:
Once accepted as a sound-system, the text can gradually be
detached from its frame of vocal delivery and evaluated in terms of electro-acoustic
transformational possibilities. The text is thus broken down into sound
families, groups of words or syllables organized in a scale of vocal colors
(from 'a' to 'u') and a scale of consonants (from voiced to unvoiced),
the ordering of which is determined by noise content. The extreme points
of the latter scale, for instance, are constituted by the 'bl' grouping
(from "Blew. Blue bloom..." [U 11.6]) and by 's' (from the last line of
this exposition...: "Pearls: when she. Liszt's rhapsodies. Hissss" [U 11.36]).
The members of these sound families are placed in environments other than
their original textual contexts, the varying length of the portions of
context establishing a pattern of degree of intelligibility of the text
(Berio, liner notes).
Each element of the text thus broken down is systematically transformed
according to three processes whose application is determined by the original
nature of the element itself.
Elements marked by abrupt breaks or sonic discontinuity (such as "Goodgod
henev erheard inall" [U 11.29]) are converted into periodic or pulsed ones,
and then stitched together into continuous lines of sound. Elements that
are initially continuous, like sibilants (for example "Hissss" [U 11.36]),
become periodic and ultimately discontinuous through electronic manipulation
and transformation. Finally, periodic or rhythmically repetitive sound
elements (like "thnthnthn" [U 11.2]) are rendered first continuous and
then discontinuous. All these transformations are carried out by tape editing,
superimposition of identical elements with varying time relations (also
called "phase shifting" and associated later with the work of Steve Reich),
wide frequency and time transpositions, and filtering (Berio, "Poésie"
31-32, liner notes). The original text is often not easily recognizable
because of these extensive but very precise transformations.
In Thema, Berio claims, "we pass from a 'poetic' listening space
to a 'musical' listening space. This musical listening space is based on
the poetic material, on an object which is transformed and becomes music"
(Berio, "Entretien" 63). Berio's most recent directly Joycean work, Epifanie
(1959-61), also uses "the voices of poets to make music" as Eco says, but
in a very different way than Thema did. First of all, despite the
Joycean title, he does not limit himself to Joyce's writing, but works
with a variety of texts
five languages. In addition to the bird-girl passage from chapter IV of
Portrait, Berio also uses Brecht's poem "An die Nachgeborenen,"
a passage from Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu, and texts
by Machado, Sanguineti and Claude Simon. He does not transform the words
through tape manipulation, but simply sets them to music that moves from
tonality through free atonality to serialism and back with grace and clarity.
The true novelty of Epifanie for Berio, however, lies in its large-scale
structure, which is reminiscent of Boulez's Third Piano Sonata: it
is an open-form work, though one that is fully composed like Boulez's rather
than indeterminate like Cage's. Epifanie consists of seven orchestral
sections divided into three "Quaderni" or "Notebooks," and five orchestral
song segments, labeled "a" through "e." These twelve elements, which comprise
"two cycles--one vocal, one orchestral--which are performed simultaneously"
with the vocal cycle acting as "an epiphany, that is, as a kind of sudden
apparition, in the more complex orchestral structure" (Berio, Two Interviews
147), can be arranged in ten different ways, according to Berio's instructions
in the score (Berio, Epifanie notes),
this number of arrangements being defined by his insistence
that "The result should always suggest a process or development...based
not only on the music but also on the content of the poems used" (Berio,
Two Interviews 146). The Joyce passage,
for example, which is set in "madrigal" fashion to an accompaniment of
violins, cannot begin the vocal cycle of the work, but it can conclude
In this rather
Boulezian manner, Berio too resolves the apparent contradiction between
authorial control and openness of form that drove the Darmstadt group's
aesthetics by inserting points of choice or responsibility for the performer
into a fully composed work.
Though he has not returned to direct work with Joyce's texts since Epifanie,
Berio has continued to be profoundly influenced by them. David Osmond-Smith,
the leading scholar of Berio's work, claims that the experiment of Thema
"provided a basis for the treatment of Dante in [Berio's] Laborintus
II (1965) and of [Beckett and] Lévi-Strauss in Sinfonia
(1968-69)," and further that "it was in the major instrumental works
of the Sixties that Berio really arrived at more general Joycean working
methods" (Osmond-Smith 84, my translation). Osmond-Smith likens Berio's
method of elaborating the solo Sequenza VI (1967) for viola into
the concerto-like Chemins II (1967), IIb and III (1968)
to the procedure of "stratification" that Joyce used to elaborate the originally
rather conventional language of Finnegans Wake into its final hyper-determination.
"If the stratification process of Finnegans Wake suggests...self-perpetuation,
then the many proliferations from Sequenza VI for viola insist on
the temporary nature of creative solutions, and demand from listeners and
readers of the score, not passive consumption, but active criticism" (Osmond-Smith
88, my translation). The circular phonemic structure of the a capella
vocal work A-Ronne (1974-75) as well testifies to a continuing debt
to Finnegans Wake, which Berio once described as manifesting a "richness
of relations...so complex that the reader gives a new interpretation at
each reading, discovering not only allusive bonds, but also a continually
changing concrete reality" (Berio, "Forme" 39). This debt also remains
evident in his later vocal and operatic collaborations with Eduardo Sanguinetti
and Italo Calvino.
These outlines barely scratch the surfaces of Boulez's and Berio's extraordinarily
complex Joyce-related works, to say nothing of their broader aesthetic
concerns, but I hope I have at least demonstrated that Joyce's influence
on contemporary music goes far beyond the well-known works and philosophy
of John Cage. In closing I hope as well to convince you that the Joycean
critical community should study this other Joycean legacy as carefully
as it has studied Cage, and to that end that the International James Joyce
Foundation should invite Boulez and/or Berio to speak about the Joycean
resonances of their works at the international symposium in Rome. Many
Joyceans still do not know that Cage had agreed to attend the 1993 Irvine
conference, but died several months before it took place; Takemitsu, who
composed more works derived from Joycean sources than any other major composer,
died in early 1996. Boulez and Berio are both seventy-two this year, and
it would be a tragic mistake if we were to miss the opportunity to hear
them speak as well simply because we delayed inviting them, out of nothing
more than honest ignorance of their work and its relevance to our common
Berio, Luciano. "Entretien Radicondoli 1983" in Contrechamps
1 (septembre 1983): 60-66.
__________. Epifanie (1959-61), revision 1965 (London: Universal
__________. "Forme" in Contrechamps 1 (septembre 1983): 36-40.
Trans. Jacques Demierre.
__________. "Poésie et musique -- une expérience" in Contrechamps
1 (septembre 1983): 24-35. Trans. Vincent Barras. Revised English trans.
in liner notes to Electronic Music III (Turnabout).
__________. Two Interviews (New York: Marion Boyars, 1985). Ed.
& trans. David Osmond-Smith.
Boulez, Pierre. Stocktakings from an Apprenticeship (Oxford:
Clarendon Press, 1991). Ed. Paule Thévenin, trans. Stephen Walsh.
__________. Orientations: Collected Writings (Cambridge: Harvard
UP, 1986). Ed. J.-J. Nattiez, trans. Martin Cooper.
__________. Troisième Sonate pour piano, formant 3 - Constellation/Constellation--Miroir
(London: Universal Edition, 1963).
Cage, John. "Writing for the Second Time Through Finnegans Wake," book
two of liner notes to Cage, Roaratorio: An Irish Circus on Finnegans
Wake/Laughtears/Writing for the Second Time Through Finnegans Wake
Eco, Umberto. The Open Work (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1989). Trans.
Ellmann, Richard. James Joyce new and revised edition (New York:
Oxford UP, 1982).
Jameux, Dominique. Pierre Boulez (London: Faber & Faber,
1991). Trans. Susan Bradshaw.
Joyce, James. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in H. Levin,
ed., The Portable Joyce (New York: Viking, 1946, 1947, 1974, 1975).
__________. Ulysses (New York: Vintage, 1986). Ed. Hans Walter
Gabler et al.
Ligeti, György. "Some Remarks on Boulez' 3rd Piano Sonata" in die
Reihe 5 (1959/1961): 56-58.
Nattiez, Jean-Jacques, ed. The Boulez-Cage Correspondence (New
York: Cambridge UP, 1993). Trans. Robert Samuels.
Osmond-Smith, David. "Joyce, Berio et l'art de l'explosition" in Contrechamps
1 (septembre 1983): 83-89. Trans. Jacques Demierre.