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Thema (Omaggio a Joyce) – Author's note

Thema (Omaggio a Joyce)
electro-acoustic elaboration of Cathy Berberian’s voice on tape (1958)
Text by James Joyce

If the experience of electronic music is important, and I believe it is, its meaning lies not in the discovery of new sounds but in the possibility it gives the composer of integrating a larger area of sound phenomena into musical thought, thus overcoming a dualistic conception of musical material. Just as language is not words on one side and concepts on the other, but is rather a system of arbitrary symbols through which we give a certain form to our way of being in the world, so music is not made of notes and conventional relations among them, but rather identifies with our way of choosing, shaping and structuring certain aspects of the sound continuum. Verses, prosody and rhymes are no more an assurance of poetry than written notes are an assurance of music. We often find more poetry in prose than in poetry itself and more music in speech and noise than in conventional musical sounds.
It is within this general perspective that Thema (Omaggio a Joyce) for tape, composed in 1958, should be approached. I tried to interpret musically a reading of Joyce’s text, developing the polyphonic intent that characterizes the eleventh chapter of Ulysses (entitled “Sirens” and dedicated to music), whose narrative technique was suggested to the author by a common procedure of polyphonic music: the fuga per canonem.
In this work I made no use of electronically produced sounds; the only sound source is a recording of Cathy Berberian’s voice reading the beginning of the eleventh chapter of Ulysses. The text is not only read in its original English version, but also in the Italian (Montale) and French (Joyce, Larbaud) translations.
In Thema I was interested in obtaining a new kind of unity between speech and music, developing the possibilities of a continuous metamorphosis of one into the other. Through a selection and reorganization of the phonetic and semantic elements of Joyce’s text, Mr Bloom’s day in Dublin (it is 4 pm at the Ormond Bar) briefly takes another direction, where it is no longer possible to distinguish between word and sound, between sound and noise, between poetry and music; once more, we become aware of the relative nature of these distinctions and of the expressive character of their changing functions.

Luciano Berio