Thursday, May 4, 2017

Guest Post: Scott Rhodes on the Making of "Vicocyclometer" (for Waywords & Meansigns, 3rd Edition)


Art by Heather Ryan Kelley.
[The newest edition of Waywords & Meansigns was made available today, featuring over 100 new recordings from artists hailing from 15 different countries. Here in Austin, a small team of Wake-heads from the Finnegans Wake Reading Group of Austin assembled to make weird music out of a three-page section in Book IV, page 613-615. You can hear our recording here, just scroll to the bottom of the page. We dubbed our project "Vicocyclometer." Scott Rhodes, who produced our unique mix, provided some very thoughtful background on the essence of our recording. So, for the first ever guest post at this blog, here is Scott on the making of "Vicocyclometer."--PQ]


Obviously our "Vicocyclometer" is not a scholar’s work, such as proceeding merely by taking cues from a conservative reading of the text and setting them to sound. We were more artistically playful, call it the way of the amateur: made with love. The process was actually quite similar to any given session of our local reading group. Our method of tackling Joyce’s Finnegans Wake has been to pay close attention to annotations and commentaries on each passage, sentence and word—and even syllable —but in the end we return to our imagination, a mode of reading we feel Joyce himself would approve. The text should be intimately meaningful to the reader, demanding a personal investment for its completion. Of course that's a dangerous tightrope to walk, as Nietzsche said "who has not been sick to death of everything subjective and its accursed ipsissimosity" (self-referencing). Taking a hint from the old adage: an artist’s goal is to make you an artist… there is an art to it.

Joycean themes are immediately recognizable in the piece: thunder, sounds of water, multiplicity of languages as well as the great leaps in geography and epochs. Other Joycean inspired ideas are not so apparent. A good example is a personal choice I made involving a rather tenuous bit of ethnomusicological speculation of mine about traditional Pontic music. When Peter proposed building the piece around Middle Eastern music I knew right away I wanted to use this particular folk music of northern Turkey— for a couple of reasons.

The main instrument in Pontic Music is the Kemençe, which is a kind of dulcimer that is bowed. Typically the melody is quite intricate and repetitious, similar to the stylings of the Irish fiddle. When I first heard Pontic music I immediately heard a similarity to Irish music, though I doubt there is any comparative legitimacy. Still, I knew that Northern Turkey had in fact been colonized by Gaelic people in the Hellenistic period (hence Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians) but over a period of centuries they slowly had been subject to various wars and defeats (hence the famous ancient sculpture "Dying Gaul") but eventually the Gaelic people and language assimilated into the people and languages of the region.

So the idea was not absurd but more importantly Pontic Greek folk music conveyed precisely what this given passage of Finnegans Wake is about— cultural displacement and assimilation. In this given passage we are reading of Roman Christians supplanting Irish Druidism, but in antiquity we have Romans supplanting the Gauls of Asia Minor. The sounds and voices of old Pontic recordings in my collection were suitably Joycean with those nostalgic, mournful moods, the Kemençe and tearful stories all telling of yet another culture's violation: the early Twentieth century displacement of Pontic Greeks and Armenians.

Of course this very kind of violence is another constant in Finnegans Wake. Wars and battles from across the globe and throughout time are constantly visited upon the reader, sometimes as a glimpse, sometimes a whispering hint, other times in pages of immersion. In fact the book would be a grim experience were it not for Joyce’s overriding principle epitomized by his employment of the literary pun. Like a pun, meaning itself cycles through time, and the pun succinctly instantiates that we hold two opposing thoughts at once—something Aristotle thought impossible, though Blake might differ: “Excessive sorrow laughs. Excessive joy weeps.” As does Joyce who is committed that not just linguistic or personal meaning exceeds in irony, but ontology itself is superabundant, history too, excessive. If oppositions are subject to time (perhaps even essential), even the most grievous occasions of genocide and, if you will, epistemicide, will all eventually surrender to their temporality and, in Joyce’s Viconian, Nietzschean and Möbius mind, find their way to their beginning season. It’s Joyce’s eternal return.

So a lot of thought went into our little "Vicocyclometer" and lots more could be said but I leave with this quote as an elucidation on the final quiet moment of our little musical mashup.

Since these choruses come so late in the season, it seems almost as though song might stay the passage of time. At this point, one succumbs to the illusion that this shrilling chorus has been heard before, in another time and another place, a time of commencement and a place of chilling water. And then the sound and the picture fall into place. The shrilling of the tree crickets is a sonic déjà vu, a déjà entendu, of the chorusing spring peepers in the swamps and bogs. The two choruses are remarkably similar, not only in fancy but in sound and pitch and rhythm. The resemblance brings the listener to a rude realization of the passage of time. Only yesterday it was spring. Today it is fall. The year is ending on the same note on which it began. 
(Vincent G. Dethier; Crickets and Katydids, Concerts and Solos.)

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