Music by the Book

Patricia Flynn ( Associate Professor of Music, DCU)

In 1728 the German composer Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767) composed a dance suite for two unaccompanied violins entitled Gulliver Suite. Informed readers will notice that Telemann’s reading was up to date, it was just two years after Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), then Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, published Gulliver’s Travels. On listening to the five movements of the music, it is clear that this is no superficial borrowing of an ‘in-fashion’ title to better promote a new work. Telemann’s music is alive to the ideas he read: the experimental nature of the book itself, the ridiculousness, satire and humour of Swift’s writing and its deep exploration of the human condition. These Telemann sought to embody in the musical gestures he employed for this unusual and quirky work.
It is the interchange between the ideas of the book and another artform that interests me here, an approach also at the heart of Marie Hanlon’s exhibition It’s All About Books, which is the subject of this catalogue. If it is all about books, it is not limited to the literal surface content of books (many a composer has merely set text) but stretches across the ideas embedded between the covers, including the means by which the writer attracts us towards these ideas, and through which we the readers ultimately engage.
Telemann’s work is a set of four dances with a procession-like introduction or prologue, a standard format of a Baroque dance suite. However, that is about the only standard aspect of this music. The first dance is a tiny movement lasting a mere 30 seconds in the form of a chaconne with light, swift, skipping gestures as befits the dance of the six-inch high Lilliputians. The second dance, almost eight times in length, is in contrast a rather slow and careful gigue, capturing the heavier steps and swaying movement of the Brobdingnags, who, while trying to be elegant, are a towering 60 feet tall and a great danger to the now diminutive Gulliver. The third dance is not a dance at all but a reverie, which captures the preciousness of the Laputians with their head in the clouds, so distanced in their internal world of deep thought that they require an attendant flapper to rouse them. The music lurches from slow lugubrious movement to a flurry of rapid sound before it seems to descend to sleep and is then wound into movement again. The final dance is a loure, a French courtly dance. This stately dance, well-mannered in all respects, is combined with a skittish counter-melody entwining around the calm and steady gestures of the central dance. At one and the same time it represents the well-mannered Houyhnhnms and the distracting wild dance of the Yahoos. If this were all Telemann did, it would be interesting. His musical play on the ideas of the book however, is also manifest in the working of the score. He renders the Lilliputians in the unusual time signature of 3/32 time, that is three impossibly short notes to a bar. The Brobdingnag’s dance is in the nonsense time signature of 24/1 time – 24 semibreves (a note that lasts four beats) to a bar. This would give 96 beats in the bar – a time signature no musician would thank you for. He surpasses himself with the Laputians, referencing their lack of practicality and love of mathematics (even if not musically useful). In the original score, a mathematical equation (3×2/2)/4 replaces the time signature. If worked out, it becomes (6÷2)/4 which would give you the quite ordinary time signature of 3/4 time, or 3 single crotchet beats in a bar, again referencing the Laputian’s preference for overcomplicating the simple. We sense Telemann’s delight at this very serious joke, but also his trust that however much he has annoyed the musicians trying to perform this work, they will get it.

Georg Telemann, Gulliver Suite 1728

An idea is conveyed and to capture this the musician/reader must make a leap. In this cognitive stretch there is a satisfaction on both sides. Hanlon’s work is alive to the pleasure of these stretches and the way we are engaged by and engage with the book in this respect. The author and/or artist must, however, be prepared to lose control. Art is not a mere puzzle with a single correct answer. An artist ultimately has to allow the work to float free and become what it may in the world, colliding with individuals and contexts, taking on new meanings and significance, often not imagined by the artists themselves. In this I hear echoes of Immanuel Kant’s (1724-1804) free flow of the imagination and understanding or GWF Hegel’s (1770-1831) art as the expression of the human freedom of spirit. Hegel divides what he terms modern or post-Reformation art into works that simply imitate nature (that is, just a good copy), as opposed to those that capture the ‘life’ of things – an example might be the lustre of light on metal. On the one hand is the category of works that are merely representative, that deal with ordinary life, confirming what we already know. On the other are those that illuminate, that deal with ideas and bring us to a fuller understanding of human freedom as expressed in our capacity to apprehend, to recognise the lustre, to know the world in this way, in brief, to ‘get it’. In this latter category he included the celebration of witty, humorous subjectivity. Naming in particular the work of another similarly anarchic Irish writer, Laurence Sterne (1713-1768), Hegel declares that in Sterne’s experimental novel Tristram Shandy (1759), it is the very triviality of the text that renders precisely the supreme idea of depth. By testing philosophical argument in apparently whimsical and bawdy fiction, it is more successful than what Sterne considered ‘the pseudo-profundity of formal philosophical reasoning’, a very clear dig at the philosopher John Locke. Hanlon, like Sterne, is interested in the experiments of form and the book as object. The black page and the marbled page together with Tristram’s commentary on the readers’ probable lack of understanding of these, reveal the book as constructed object, goading the reader into collaborating in its construction. In trusting the reader to make the leap, meaning (however uncertain) beyond mere linear narrative is achieved.
Drawing on a different century, Hanlon’s piece The Death of the Author references Roland Barthes (1915-1980), who from his Marxist perspective extends Hegel’s categories. His ideal reader is a producer rather than a consumer. In The Pleasure of the Text (1973), Barthes divides texts into those that are ‘readerly’ and those that are ‘writerly’. Readerly texts ask little of their readers, are fixed in meaning and can be read passively. Writerly texts, on the other hand, demand a creative engagement from the reader, and often a cognitive or affective leap or stretch as they ‘construct’ the text anew with each reading. In a recent publication The Other Irish Tradition (2018), Rob Doyle laments the rarity of ‘writerly’ novels but sees experimental forms as an overlooked yet particular part of the Irish tradition. Beyond the Irish tradition in my own reading of George Sanders’ 2017 novel Lincoln in the Bardo, I have enjoyed the thrill of flying without wires in the shifts between the in-between ‘bardo’ world of the recently dead, who are not aware that they are dead, and the ‘real’ historical world of Lincoln’s Washington. Sanders trusts the reader to stay with the text long enough to self-learn the rhythm of how these are signposted in opposing comic and scholarly registers, not unlike the techniques used by Sterne. Mike McCormack’s single sentence Solar Bones (2016) and Junot Daiz’s The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao, (2007) also challenge the reader not to rely on literal understandings.
James Joyce (1882-1941) is, of course, the most renowned of experimental writers and this brings me back to music. While Joyce’s own musical sensibility imbued his work, he has had a profound influence on many composers, not least on John Cage (1912-1992), equally one of the most experimental of musicians. It is to Joyce’s final work, Finnegans Wake, which continues to resist complete explanation, that Cage was attracted. Roratorio, with all its form-breaking and word play of the title is an obvious piece, but Cage’s engagement with Joyce predated this. Like Telemann, his reading was up to date. The complete Finnegans Wake was published as one book in 1939 and Cage had an early copy. As early as 1942 he set a passage from page 556, The Wonderful Widow of 18 Springs, a kind of incantation lullaby to one of the main characters, Issy. This unusually beautiful and lyrical work is austere in its essential materials; a singer using only three pitches accompanied by rhythms tapped on the closed lid of a piano. With such reduced material, everything matters. Small changes become highly significant. With just three pitches, the highest pitch lifts the chant-like whole-tone rocking between the other two closely spaced notes. The high pitch often creates a sigh-like sound in its downward gesture. The music has motivation and purposeful direction and we recognise the climax in ‘win me … woo me … wed me … ah weary me … deeply’. The melodic rise on ‘ah’ and the fall to the longer ‘weary me’ seems to complete this phrase until we experience, almost as an afterthought, the tiny vocal rise on ‘deeply’ to what has become our anchor note, enfolding us in this delayed gentle close. Out of sparse musical material he directs our attention away from the expected. We listen on-the-move with changing expectations, following, noticing and understanding. We notice keenly the change from flesh to knuckle on the piano lid; we follow the quickening of the tempo and the closely worked dynamic swells and falls. In the final incantation of the names of the child Isobel, marked poco accel. (gradually a little faster) ‘I-so-bel, Sis-ter I-so-bel. Saint-ette I-so-bel, Ma-dame Isa veu-ve la bel-le’, we are led through the additive rhythmic patterns to a tension that is only released when, at the very end, something new happens with the long expressive vocal slide to what has become our home note. The final syllable sounds simultaneously with the wood accompaniment. This is the only time the two hands of the rhythm accompaniment sound together, assuring us that, yes, the song is done.
We are left with an ineffable sense of Joyce’s text, experiencing multiple levels of our human ability to apprehend, to notice, to reach, to recognise, to follow. Unusually for Cage there is an emotional connection to this delicate, sensitive, lovingly alliterative lyrical text. It may have taken numerous performances for this to be understood. It did not receive a warm first reception. The audience may have felt mocked by the closed piano lid. Human ridicule is subversive. We are at a loss, our knowledge is no good to us, we feel embarrassed and often stupid. No one wants to feel these things. What Swift, Telemann, Sterne, Joyce and Cage have in common is their ability to annoy in order to reveal, to illuminate, to stretch the performer/reader/listener’s attention to reach new meaning. It is the disruptive irritation of the experimental.
These are the flappers who attend us, to shake us out of our reverie, to right our ideas of the way the world ought to be, and to make us look, see and hear anew. The buzz can be irritating, discombobulating, an insistent finger to the shoulder bone rousing us out of our surety to disrupt our expectations and move us beyond irritation and embarrassment to consider what am I really seeing, hearing, reading, witnessing, apprehending, reaching for, constructing in this exhibition at this present time, in the freedom of my human imagination.


[1] Hadfield, Andrew (2017) ‘Sterne Amongst the Philosophers’, Textual Practice, 31:2 p.229, Taylor Francis.

[1] Locke’s idea of God as the divine watchmaker and Tristram’s anxiety about the role a clock played in his conception at the opening of Tristram Shandy is but one of the many skirmishes Sterne made against the logic of Locke’s philosophy.