Originally devised as a radio play, An Alphabet was commissioned in 1982 by Cologne’s West German Radio. The piece postulates an imaginary encounter between the narrator, ostensibly John Cage, and sixteen creative personalities, who represent “an alphabet by means of which we spell our lives.” The most important of these personalities are the three “ghosts” of the title: Marcel Duchamp, James Joyce, and Erik Satie. The other thirteen include Jonathan Albert, Erzähler, Buckminster Fuller, Oppian, Robert Rauschenberg, Henry David Thoreau, Thorstein Veblen, Andy Warhol, Brigham Young and his wife, Mao Zedong, Duchamp’s female alter-ego Rrose Selavy, and an electronic voice named “Vocoder.” Spread out over thirty-three scenes, much of the “libretto” uses Cages’ beloved mesostics, and the “encounters” were partially determined by chance operations. Selections from Finnegans Wake are used for parts of Joyce’s dialogue.
Although the original play had no composed music, Cage did leave a few notes on a possible score. Although he never fleshed it out, after his death the composer Mikel Rouse used the notes for his own score, which premiered in 199X when the piece was staged in X. Recently, Marcel Duchamp, James Joyce, Erik Satie: An Alphabet was performed at the University of Illinois’ Krannert Center.