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“Musicillogical Joyce,” The 2009 Zurich Joyce Workshop 2–8 August 2009

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 46, Number 2, Winter 2009
pp. 214-217 | 10.1353/jjq.0.0145

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.

Elvis Costello

The great thing about music is that everybody knows something about it. This was certainly true of the 2009 Zurich Joyce Workshop entitled “Musicillogical Joyce,” where participants addressed a broad range of perspectives on the subject. Among those in attendance were a highly trained soprano, electric guitarists, fans of opera, experts on eastern music traditions, theory enthusiasts, attendees who hadn’t touched an instrument since that piano lesson when they were six, casual listeners of the radio, connoisseurs of 1980s post-punk, choir singers, people not knowing what a “key” is, and even a resident dog—a Japanese Spitz named I-Chung.

Wim Van Mierlo jokingly asked, “What is music?” on the first morning of the workshop, but this question dominated the discussion throughout much of the week. The primary entry in the Oxford English Dictionary tells us that music is “one of the fine arts which is concerned with the combination of sounds with a view to beauty of form and the expression of emotion; also, the science of the laws or principles (of melody, harmony, rhythm, etc.) by which this art is regulated.” This definition is all well and good, and, of course, the understanding of music theory is important, but many of the talks in this workshop explored what it is that makes music music: why do we “like” what we like (and why did Joyce like what he liked); why do certain songs trigger certain memories; how can musical structures be used in literature; and how can we, in a technological age, draw the line between music and noise?

Stephanie Nelson, our resident classicist, presented an insightful talk on the subtle ways in which Don Giovanni appears throughout Ulysses, focusing on the venues in which the “tenor versus bass” dynamic illuminates the conflict between Bloom and Boylan. Van Mierlo followed with a talk on the relationship between Chamber Music and the Yeatsian poetic, using several reviews of Joyce’s volume to examine this link.

Tuesday began with a Wakean reading of the section immediately before “The Ballad of Persse O’Reilly,” a fitting warm-up to a morning of Wake papers. Chrissie Lees gave an excellent talk entitled “Joyce’s Mock Wagnerism,” in which she demonstrated the ironic stance Joyce adopted in depicting the Wagnerian female in Finnegans Wake. She drew heavily on her genetic research to link George Moore’s Evelyn Innes and Joseph Bédier’s Le roman de Tristan et Iseut with Joyce’s characterization of the “double” Isolde/Issy figure in his own “Tristan and Isolde” piece. That afternoon, the question of “what is music?” was featured in Keel Geheber’s talk on John Cage. Cage famously declared music to be “a combination of sound and silence” exemplified in his piece “4’33” (in which the score instructs the musician to not play anything for four minutes and thirty-three seconds, in three movements). Keel discussed the relationship between Cage’s focus on indeterminacy, rhythm, and the Wake and linked it to the description of ALP’s “letter” in chapter I.5 of Finnegans Wake. Katherine O’Callaghan’s presentation, “Musicality in Joyce,” examined the different strands of sound present in Joyce’s work. In elucidating the ways music and literary technique can play off one another, she discussed the visual aspect of the score in modern music, the building of meaning in music through repetition and leitmotif, and the breaking down of music and language into component parts. The day ended with a talk by Ron Hoffman on the musical links that exist between the works of Joyce and those of William Shakespeare.

Halfway through the workshop, our fearless leader, Fritz Senn, played devil’s advocate with his “Is the Music Really There?” where-in he asked what good it would do us to know about the music present in Joyce, if, in fact, we were not sure it was there at all. If we had not learned that the term “fuga per canonem” designated the technique of the “Sirens” episode, or if we did not know about Joyce’s fondness for Elizabethan music, how would we read the text...

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