What did James Joyce, Marcel Duchamp, Erik Satie, Buckminster Fuller, Mao Tse Tung, Oppian, Robert Rauschenberg, Henry David Thoreau, Thorstein Veblen, Brigham Young and his wife have in common? Beats me. But the late, great Minimalist composer John Cage possessed the genius to recognize harmonies where lesser mortals heard only dissonances and spot logical musical progressions where others saw only random patterns. In 1982 he put all these diverse characters into a radio play titled James Joyce, Marcel Duchamp, Erik Satie: An Alphabet, and it was adapted as a musical theatre piece by director Laura Kuhn in 2001. Kuhn herself, along with a cast of actors that includes the avant-garde performance artist John Kelly, will be reviving the piece this weekend at the Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts on the Bard College campus in Annandale.
Cage’s Alphabet began life as a commission from Klaus Schöning and Cologne’s West German Radio (WDR). Working on the principles of collage, Cage created a cast of unlikely characters resulting in a remarkably democratic intermingling of perspectives, suffused throughout with humor and irreverence for the particulars of history. Nearly a decade after Cage’s death, Kuhn – who had worked closely with the composer from 1986 to 1992 – directed the premiere of her adaptation in Edinburgh. Sound and music designer Mikel Rouse collaborated with Kuhn and a team of composers, musicologists and performers, collecting and cataloguing sounds for Cage’s score, which consists of almost 200 sounds “as varied and suggestive as the dialogue itself: a lawnmower, X-rays, an earthquake, a Xerox machine, a bullfight and a marriage ceremony, to name just a few,” says Rouse. The set design is by Marco Steinberg.
Presented by the John Cage Trust and New Albion Records, the new production is the first of many events scheduled to take place around the world to celebrate the onset of Cage’s centennial year. It also celebrates the fourth year of the John Cage Trust’s residence at Bard College.
Probably best-known for his cabaret-style Joni Mitchell tribute Paved Paradise, actor John Kelly will perform the role of the Narrator, which he created for the theatrical version of the work. The cast also includes Mikel Rouse as Joyce, Larry Larson as Jonathan Albert, Joan Retallack as Fuller, Emma Reed as Mao, Victoria Miguel as Veblen, Richard Teitelbaum as Rauschenberg, John Seidman as Duchamp, Ferran Carvajal as Oppian, Trevor Carlson as Brigham Young, Robin Preiss as Mrs. Young and Rebeccah Johnson as Thoreau. Satie is portrayed, on tape, by Cage’s recently deceased longtime artistic and domestic partner, Merce Cunningham.
James Joyce, Marcel Duchamp, Erik Satie: An Alphabet will be performed this Friday and Saturday, November 11 and 12 at 8 p.m. Ticket prices are $15, $25, $35 and $45. For tickets and information call the Fisher Center box office at (845) 758-7900 or visit fishercenter.bard.edu.