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Beyond Baroque: Pearlman’s Take on James Joyce


After thirty-nine years directing and conducting Boston Baroque (which began in 1973 as Banchetto Musicale), Martin Pearlman now finds himself also at the head of a four-concert series entitled “New Directions.” The kickoff on Sunday, September 23rd in Pickman Hall at Longy School of Music, is with a project dear to Martin Pearlman’s heart, his new composition, Finnegans Wake, an Operoar based on James Joyce’s final work.

Although better known to Boston music audiences as a conductor, Pearlman studied composition with Karel Husa and Yehudi Wyner; the upcoming première of his Finnegans Wake (which remains a work in progress) gives local audiences a chance to hear him in a new way. Martin Pearlman agreed to share his time with me and discuss this new work.

Cashman Kerr Prince: Do you see a connection between your career as conductor and as composer?

Martin Pearlman (Susan Wilson photo)

Martin Pearlman: Yes. Composition is very important to me but is not my public face or a source of income. It informs my view of the music — written music I see more as a series of possibilities. I don’t come to early music as an antiquarian. My goal, my emphasis, is on performance and comes from an interest in modern life. After all, early music instruments are resurrected to suit modern tastes. They really are modern instruments.

Did your music for Samuel Beckett’s plays, Words and Music, Cascando, and … but the clouds … serve as a warm-up for Joyce?

To some extent it did. Of the three one-act plays, two have music as a character, and for the third, the music was accompanimental. It was also theater music and, although it was broken up into little pieces in the Beckett plays, it got me thinking seriously about a more extended theater piece.

How did you come to compose music for these Beckett plays?

Robert Scanlan [professor of the Practice of Theatre in the English Department at Harvard University] was a friend of Samuel Beckett, late in his life and was directing these plays. Scanlan knew me through Boston Baroque and knew my compositions, so that connection led to my being commissioned by the 92nd Street Y to compose the music for those plays.

Modernist literature and baroque music both embrace polyphony. Is this part of your attraction to Modernist literature (Beckett, Joyce)? Does polyphony factor into your Joycean Operoar?

That is part of the attraction. I’ve been fascinated by Finnegans Wake since college, and I got back into it after working on Beckett — in part because of a book by Philip Kitcher [Philosophy professor at Columbia University], Joyce’s Kaleidoscope: An Invitation to Finnegans Wake. I talked to John Paul Riquelme [English professor at Boston University] then to Sandra Tropp [emerita English professor at Boston University] about Joyce. Those talks led me to Adam Harvey [an actor based in Santa Fe, New Mexico who recites/performs passages from Finnegans Wake from memory], who gives a very captivating performance of Joyce.

Early on, I decided to use a speaking actor, instead of a singer because singing would make it difficult to take in such complex language. James Joyce always said Finnegans Wake had to be heard.

The James Joyce Quarterly has said this is the first setting of an extended passage of Finnegans Wake. Samuel Barber set some some sentences as songs [“Nuvoletta,” op. 25, 1947] and John Cage used text but modified it electronically to make it almost a blur in the background in his 1979 piece, Roaratorio, an Irish circus on Finnegans Wake. I have set the opening of Finnegans Wake down to the bottom of page 7 (the pagination is the same in all editions of the text). This functions as a sort of overture to the work and presents many key themes of the book.

Why “Operoar”?

The word comes from Joyce in Finnegans Wake. The other great musical term Joyce gave us, “roaratorio,” was used by John Cage.

Have you been influenced by recordings of Joyce reading from Finnegans Wake, notably, “Anna Livia Plurabelle”?

I’ve listened to it, of course, and it’s very interesting, but I was more influenced by Jim Norton’s reading [an abridged Finnegans Wake, released on Naxos AudioBooks] and by Adam Harvey’s performances. I have also been influenced by what Joyce said and wrote about understanding.

Since Finnegans Wake narrates, in a mash-up of some sixty languages, the events of one night, will there be music inspired by nocturnes or berceuses in your Operoar?

No. Night music like that didn’t feel appropriate, but there is contrapuntal use of Irish songs and some classical references (Beethoven, Wagner – specifically Tristan and Rheingold), most of which are referred to in the text. My goal is not to illustrate every specific allusion but to add layers of meaning.

Sometimes I wonder whether listening to Joyce’s invented language for this book might be a bit like a small child listening to a story. At first, there may be a lot of words he doesn’t understand precisely, but he gets the general idea, and, the more he hears it, the more details he can grasp.

Is Finnegans Wake written with specific performers in mind?

Mainly Adam Harvey, yes.

The other “famous” operatic setting of a Modernist text is Virgil Thomson’s & Gertrude Stein’s, Four Saints in Three Acts (1934). Did you study this work as you set about composing Finnegans Wake, an Operoar?

No. I have not heard it in a very long time, and it is really doing something different. This piece comes more directly out of my reading of Joyce’s text.

Why this instrumentation (flute, clarinet, percussion, piano, violin, viola, double bass)?

It evolved as I wrote and saw what my needs were. I think of Elliott Carter saying that the instrumentation has to be “what a piece needs.” In much of this piece, I think of each instrument as an individual character. The high winds and strings are balanced by the double bass and the bass of the piano to give a wide range. And the percussion, with its many instruments, plays an important role. There are no brass parts; the roaring of thunder comes from how this is done in children’s books, so is a lighter sound and not a sound to scare an adult. For that moment, I used a slide whistle.

How did you notate actor plus music?

There are very precisely notated speech rhythms in the actor’s part to line up with the instruments. I composed my operoar of Finnegans Wake on a computer, and as I finished a section I sent it to Adam Harvey. With the help of a computer-generated performance he learned to read against the music using a scroll-bar. Now Adam Harvey is working from a musical score, and coming to town early to work on being conducted in performance.

Famously Finnegans Wake (1939) is written as one large ring composition: it begins and ends in the middle of the same sentence.

riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.


Take. Bussoftlhee, mememormee! Till thousendsthee. Lps. The keys to. Given! A way a lone a last a loved a long the

How do you start and end a musical composition setting such a text?

James Joyce didn’t write Finnegans Wake sequentially. I didn’t compose the sections in order, either, so my approach has evolved. I started work on this project in the middle of the text. I am now looking at the novel’s ending and this has led me to revise the beginning. A certain amount of circularity is now part of this composition.

The upcoming première is for a work in progress. Where would you like to see this composition go next, in terms of length, texts set, music?

I was very interested in setting a section of the book and preserving Joyce’s text, including all its wonderfully humorous parentheses and digression. This opening section of the book, which we are performing on Sunday, could be a complete concert piece in itself. But it also contains possibilities for a longer work in two or three parts and one that could even be staged as theater. I’m working on a section that goes to the end of the book now. This is a piece that can evolve in a variety of ways, growing outwards like Pierre Boulez’s compositions.

How will you be presenting this upcoming première?

The evening will start with a performance followed by intermission. Then there will be a discussion with the audience, followed by a repetition of the performance. It’s really a public workshop. When we performed excerpts of it at the Huntington Library in Pasadena (in June, 2011), the audience of Joyce scholars was very enthusiastic. But this performance is for a more general music audience, and, as with any new piece, I have no idea how people will react.

This première inaugurates Boston Baroque’s New Directions chamber series at 7:00 on Sunday, September 23rd in Pickman Hall at Longy School of Music, Cambridge. More details are here.

Cashman Kerr Prince is trained in Classics and Comparative Literature and is now a Visiting Scholar in the Department of Classical Studies at Wellesley College.  He is also a cellist of some accomplishment, currently playing with the Brookline Symphony Orchestra.

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