Ancient Eyes

Maggies
(1997; 13.27 min.) For voice, sampler, and ensemble.

Matthew Rosenblum's Maggies

Maggies is a work inspired by the very rhythms and sounds of language itself, from a series of argumentative clichés to the quilted rhythms of the Wake's Prankquean episode. (Unfortunately the Joyce estate denied Rosenblum the rights to use the Joycean passages; but Roger Zahab, a friend of the composer, recast them into a parody that captured the essential rhythm and flow of the original, and so the piece was rescued.) Its name is a pun on both the "maggies" passage from Finnegans Wake and the name of the composer's wife, Maggie Lane, whose deadpan delivery and wry sense of humor bring a wonderful, dry sparkle to the text. The music itself is based on Rosenblum's "just" scale. Composed of episodic motifs that cycle with varying degrees of increasing complexity, the altered tuning lends a slightly alien character to a music already under the sway of such non-traditional influences as Asian music and Wakean prose. There's a distinct three-dimensional feel to the piece, the recording placing the reader spatially above the music, which may frame or support passages, but is never allowed to overwhelm the voice. Though the readings provide a sense of forward propulsion through both space and time, various devices work to subtly undermine a sense of linearity. Not only do blocks of text return in expanded iterations, but significant fragments of text are allowed to surface at earlier points, intersecting another monologue like a tape loop unstuck in time and place, provoking feelings of both precognition and déjà vu. Maggies is definitely in motion, but like being lost in the woods -- or the Wake -- we don't always know exactly where we're going, and sometimes we have the suspicion that we've already been there.
Maggies begins with a prelude from Donald Barthelme, an ode to the daunting nature of artistic work and the thrill of that work finally undertaken. The music is sparse, Asian in character; one has the impression that an elaborate tea ceremony is occurring in the background as Maggie Lane expresses her trepidation in beginning the piece itself. (After all, its upcoming Wakean passages would test the limits of any speaker!) Her voice is strong but precise; she articulates the text with great clarity and an immediacy that sets the tone for the entire piece. Slight electronic enhancements add dramatic effects to her voice, occasionally multiplying it with an echo or overdub, placing reverb upon certain passages or words, or moving lines from one channel to the other.
After a second of silence following the Barthelme prelude, the first Wakean section is introduced. Lane navigates the difficult passages almost effortlessly, following the supple rhythms of the text with a natural ease. Again the instrumentation is sparse, and more than a bit eerie -- wandering notes scatter from the piano like a trail of bread crumbs cast in a dark forest, bells jingle offstage, sampled birds twitter, and wind and strings drift through the open spaces in faint, nocturnal breezes. A recurring phrases emerges above the monologue, "Ages ago, years ago," repeated insistently until a sudden low moan and sharp silence marks the transition to the "Maggies" passage. (It's only later we realize this is a phrase knocked loose from the Lish text, looping through "Prig Queen" like a thread from another dream.) This leads directly into the second narrative stream of the work, a series of clichés strung together as a mind-numbing diatribe. The music both brightens and sharpens in intensity, flute and clarinet now a periodic, nagging swirl, the lower instruments intermittently emerging in tense clusters of stilted energy. Lane delivers her monologue pitched at a perfect level of blunted exasperation and deadpan irony -- she sounds like Peanuts' Lucy after a few failed marriages, haranguing her subject for the thousandth time. An almost uncomfortable sense of intimacy pervades her diatribe, as if she can express her love only through a litany of exhausted clichés that mask her codependency with a fragile sense of superiority. Whirling and loping to a merciful end -- "enough, for crying out loud, enough" -- we find ourselves back in the nocturnal world of the Wake. As the passages of Joycean parody progress, the music undergoes several transformations, moving from a recapitulation of the Asian prelude to the lilting sprawl of the Prig Queen to a jazzy combination of repeated figures and weird sounds -- blurting clarinets, banging pianos, tapping drums, and a sampled groan that sounds like a Japanese troll yawning in his sleep. The inscrutable moral of its Wakean tale finally delivered, Maggies slips back into the wearying harangue of Lish's clichés. Now more agitated and percussive, music and speaker climb to a tipsy crescendo, vanishing suddenly behind an extended roll and flourish on the cymbals: "Oh, you -- you dirty dickens, you! Can't you just leave us in peace?"

 Libretto: Donald Barthelme, Gordon Lish, and Roger Zahab. Includes original Joycean passages.

I. Barthelme
Sometimes I can't seem to do anything. The work is there, piled up. It seems to me an insurmountable obstacle, really out of reach. I sit and look at it wondering where to begin, how to take hold of it. Perhaps I pick up a piece of paper, try to read it but my mind is elsewhere, I am thinking of something else, I can't seem to get the gist of it, it seems meaningless, devoid of interest, not having to do with human affairs, drained of life. Then in an hour, or even a moment, everything changes suddenly: I realize I only have to do it, hurl myself into the midst of it, proceed mechanically, the first thing and then the second thing, that it is simply a matter of moving from one step to the next, plowing through it. I become interested, I become excited, I work very fast, things fall into place, I am exhilarated, amazed that these things could ever have seemed dead to me.

II. Zahab (Wake parody)
It was of slate dark, dank night alone in thought and old stone vale,
when Adam Hoss Devlin and his madmen spanning waterwheels one milk-muttony-nutty morn was allybally and the farst lewd ribbed rubber that never held her alleyway robbed her body to his lawn-stroking ayes and Bill Healey loved alive wroth hillbally hells, and Carl gone hooters hid her brown thighs well out of his chophouse laying hands on coal-dust whelp. On her two dribbling liminies, jesters of yore, Shannon and Tillery, were fireblazing the dunny on Dalkeath Hill rounder left thigh, bustle and fielding mouse. And, be deviled, how calm to the neap of his tide only the pride of Islingshaw, the Prig Queen. And the Prig Queen pulled her rosy tongue and pushed her lips against the door. And she licked up and the fireman was amazed. And spoke he thru the door in her pretty Parisian: Murky Swans! when do I get to luck around the pains of Porter Pass?

III. Gordon Lish
Don't tell me. Do me a favor and let me guess. Be honest with me, tell the truth, don't make me laugh. Tell me, don't make me have to tell you, do I have to tell you that when you're hot, you're hot, that when you're dead, you're dead? Because you know what I know? I know you like I know myself, I know you like the back of my hand, I know you like a book, I know you inside out. I know you like you'll never know. You know what this is? You want to know what this is? Because this is some deal, this is some set-up, this is some joke -- you could vomit from what a joke this is. I want you to hear something, I want you to hear the unvarnished truth. I want you to hear it from me, right from the horse's mouth, from the one person who really cares. You know what you are? That's what you are! Ages ago, years ago, so long ago I couldn't begin to remember, past history, ancient history -- you don't want to know, another age, another life, another theory altogether. I am telling you, I am pleading with you, I am down to you on bended knee -- just don't get cute with me, just don't make any excuses to me -- because in broad daylight, in the dead of night, at the crack of dawn. You think the whole world is going to do a dance around you? No one is going to do a dance around you. No one even knows you are alive, they don't know you from Adam. Don't ask. Don't even begin to ask. Don't make me any promises. Don't tell me one thing and do another. Don't look at me cross-eyed. Don't look at me like that. Don't hand me that crap. Look around you, for pity's sake. Don't you know that one hand washes the other? Talk sense. Take stock. You think this is a picnic? This is no picnic. Don't stand on ceremony with me. The whole world is not going to step to your tune. I warn you -- wake up before it's too late. You know what? A little birdie just told me. You know what? You have got a lot to learn -- that's what. I can't hear myself talk. I can't hear myself think. I cannot remember from one minute to the next. Why do I always have to tell you again and again? Give me a minute to think. Just let me catch my breath. Don't you ever stop to ask? I'm going to tell you something. I'm going to tell you what no one else would have the heart to tell you. I'm going to give you the benefit of my advice. Do you want some advice? You think the sun rises and sets on you, don't you? You should get down on your hands and knees and thank God. You think death is a picnic? Death is no picnic. Face facts, don't kid yourself, people are trying to talk some sense into you, it's not all just fun and fancy free, it's not all just high, wide, and handsome, it's not just a bed of roses and peaches and cream. You know what I've got to do? I've got to talk to you like a baby. I've got to talk to you like a Dutch uncle. I've got to handle you with kid gloves, just in case you didn't know. Let me tell you something no one else would have the heart to tell you. Go ahead, look! Look far and wide -- because they are few and far between. Go ahead, go to the ends of the earth, go to the highest mountain, go to any lengths, because they won't lift a finger for you -- or didn't you know that some things are not for man to know, that some things are better left unsaid, that some things you shouldn't wish on a dog, not on a bet, not on your life, not in a month of Sundays? What do you want? You want the whole world to revolve around you, you want the whole world at your beck and call? That's what you want, isn't it? Be honest with me and let's be done with it, be finished with it, over and done with it, enough, for crying out loud, enough.

IV. Zahab (Wake parody)
And so began the skirling marches on. Against the sour mash her handsome tongue smoothed somehow: shlupp! And thus the grapes o'wrath sideswiped up the criminal barrister and onto the sleeted plain in Finster Ness he railed, railed, railed. And Glinn Hess Stoudt warbled after her all balled in beck; Sit! Lux, Sit. Come back, stop! Bon, she swailed him: Unkind hound! Bare soon in the bran barn the raised shrilling fright of Harlan English swooned senseless outside Erie. Vrai! in fearstitch laddies sang the lashes aback in Ardour and he laved her throat in wild shag-headed extase, and forty thieves frapped the lad in 'is tarboosh all through high mass, and he cohorted with the onesure feelgood, and he became a latherman.

As shorn in lore of yore to love life, all while she glows in eyes by light, of roses breathed loaves of breath, yet comely poacher of hope as before - Sweet Peck-at-my-Heart picks one man more.

And the Prig Queen lipped a nipple once and sat up again and weathercocks flew cackling from the honeycombs. And she pulled a leather over the wicker, saying: Mark the Twain, when do I get to luck around the pains of Porter Pass? And schlupp! sauce the wicker and sourdine her amnesty. Surly malice aforethought limn on a dribble, she and stand down a dribble, she and all the hellbent ways to Dalkeath Hill she ran, ran, ran. And Carl gone hooters bleated after her with a long bullhorn: Calm beck now calm beck with my hearing aid, stop! But the Prig Queen swaddled it: Am taking it. And there was a vial of grain alcohol that lured she right to bar lootings elsewhere in Syria. And the Prig Queen sent for her forty thieves to sulk in Saghbean and she parched the nurses of Clerkenwell with the hail of a fop into the limninies and she had the four larks at break of day in to drain his fears and she converted him to the unbuttoned allbeauties and he became a krishnan. On then she stared running, running, out in a pair of knickers, unbeknownst to him, she backed into Carl gone hooters and the Fairlyill with him under her red bonnet.

And so began the skirling marches on. Against the sour mash her handsome tongue smoothed somehow: shlupp! And thus the grapes o'wrath sideswiped up the criminal barrister and onto the sleeted plain in Finster Ness he railed, railed, railed. And Glinn Hess Stoudt warbled after her all balled in beck; Sit! Lux, Sit. Come back, stop! Bon, she swailed him: Unkind hound! Bare soon in the bran barn the raised shrilling fright of Harlan English swooned senseless outside Erie. Vrai! in fearstitch laddies sang the lashes aback in Ardour and he laved her throat in wild shag-headed extase, and forty thieves frapped the lad in 'is tarboosh all through high mass, and he cohorted with the onesure feelgood, and he became a latherman.

And that was the fierce pace of deliverative porphyry in all the blazing bloody blasphemous world. How twisted the writer was made to sweat so close to the Northumbrian parasol. So far shale thou see. Between you and me, the Prig Queen was to slow the dunny fire and the limninies went to heat the spaceware and gone hooters to hit the women up. Thus the fulsomeness of the burgher facilitates the hell of the polite.

V. Gordon Lish:
What do I say to you, where do I start with you, how do I make myself heard? I don't know where to begin with you, I don't know where to start with you, I don't know how to impress on you the importance of every single solitary word. Thank God I am alive to tell you, thank God I am here to tell you, thank God you've got someone to tell you, I only wish I could begin to tell you, if there were only some way someone could tell you, if only there were someone here to tell you, but you don't want to listen, you don't want to learn, you don't want to know, you don't want to help yourself you just want to have it your own sweet way. Who can talk to you? Can anyone talk to you? You don't want anyone to talk to you. So far as you are concerned, the whole world could drop dead. You think death is a picnic? Death is no picnic. Face facts, don't kid yourself, people are trying to talk some sense into you, it's not all just fun and fancy free, it's not all just high, wide, and handsome, it's not just a bed of roses and peaches and cream. You know what I've got to do? I've got to talk to you like a baby. I've got to talk to you like a Dutch uncle. I've got to handle you with kid gloves, just in case you didn't know. Let me tell you something no one else would have the heart to tell you. Go ahead, look! Look far and wide -- because they are few and far between! Pardon my French -- but put up or shut up! Oh, we could just laugh in your face. Oh, you -- you dirty dickens, you! Can't you just leave us in peace?

Original Joyce Text

The following is the text from Finnegans Wake parodied by Roger Zahab for Maggies:

It was of a night, late, lang time agone, in an auldstane eld, when Adam was delvin and his madameen spinning watersilts, when mulk mountynotty man was everybully and the first leal ribberobber that ever had her ainway everybuddy to his lovesaking eyes and everybilly lived alove with everybiddy else, and Jarl van Hoother had his burnt head high up in his lamphouse, laying cold hands on himself. And his two little jiminies, cousins of ourn, Tristopher and Hilary, were kickaheeling their dummy on the oil cloth flure of his homerigh, castle and earthenhouse. And, be dermot, who come to the keep of his inn only the niece-of-his-in-law, the prankquean. And the prankquean pulled a rosy one and made her wit foreninst the dour. And she lit up and fireland was ablaze. And spoke she to the dour in her petty perusienne: Mark the Wans, why do I am alook alike a poss of porterpease?

And that was how the skirtmisshes began. But the dour handworded her grace in dootch nossow: Shut! So her grace o'malice kidsnapped up the jiminy Tristopher and into the shandy westerness she rain, rain, rain. And Jarl van Hoother warlessed after her with soft dovesgall: Stop deef stop come back to my earin stop. But she swaradid to him: Unlikelihud And there was a brannewail that same sabboath night of falling angels somewhere in Erio. And the Prankquean went for her forty years' walk in Tourlemonde and shewashed the blessings of the lovespots off the jiminy with soap sulliver suddles and she had her four owlers masters to tauch him his tickles and she convorted him to the onesure allgood and he became a luderman.

As born for lorn in lore of love to live and wive by wile and rile by rule of ruse 'reathed rose and hose hol'd home, yeth cometh elope year, coach and four, SweetPeck-at-my-Heart picks one man more.

And the prankquean nipped a paly one and lit up again and redcocks flew flackering from the hillcombs. And she made her witter before the wicked, saying: Mark the Twy, why do I am alook alike two poss of porterpease? And: Shut! says the wicked, handwording her madesty. So her madesty a forethought set down a jiminy and took up a jiminey and all the lilipath ways to Woeman's land she rain, rain, rain. And Jarl van Hoother bleethered atter her with a loud finegale: Stop domb stop come back with my earring stop. But the prankquean swaradid: Am liking it. And there was a wild old grannewwail that laurency night of starshootings somewhere in Erio. And the prankquean went for her forty years'walk in Turnlemeem and she punched the curses of cromcrwell with the nail of a top into the jiminy and she had her four larksical minitrix to touch him his tears and she provorted him to the onecertain allsecure and he became a tristian. So then she started raining, raining, and in a pair of changers, be dom ter, she was back again at Jarl van Hoother's and the Larryhill with her under her abromette.

And that was the first peace of illiterative porthery in all the flamend floody flatuous world. How kirssy the tiler made a sweet unclose to the Narwhealian captol. Saw fore shalt thou sea. Betoun ye and be. The Prankquean was to hold the dummyship and the jimminies was to keep the peacewave and van Hoother was to get the wind up. Thus the hearsomeness of the burger felicitates the whole of the polis.

 Excerpts from the liner notes from the CRI Compact Disc. Written by Matthew Rosenblum.

In the past ten years I've been drawn to hybrid musical styles in which widely varying cultures and traditions merge or even clash. The sheer sound and rhythm of language has also been a great source of inspiration for me, as well as how languages might combine or intersect. This fascination with combinations or superimpositions also shows in my tuning system. But I'm also interested in the reconciliation of differences and that's what unites the three pieces on this disc....
Maggies combines live instrumental music with sampled ambient sounds and pre-recorded texts by Donald Barthelme, Gordon Lish, and Roger Zahab. The inspiration of the piece was the rhythms and sounds of these texts but especially as they are given contour and musical qualities by the chosen reader, Maggie Lane (my wife).
The brief text by Donald Barthelme, positioned at the beginning of the piece, is taken from his book Unspeakable Practices, Unnatural Acts, and is the prelude to the rest of the work. The text by Roger Zahab, "Bales in Ayr," is a parody of a section from James Joyce's Finnegans Wake and provides a very "open ended" recurring narrative throughout. The story by Gordon Lish strings together familiar clichés in a "stream of consciousness" manner and is excerpted from The Merry Chase. This text is used in the middle and at the end of the piece and provides a second pseudo narrative.
Maggies was originally conceived using short passages from James Joyce's Finnegans Wake. After a year of trying to get permission from Joyce's estate to use the texts in this piece, the grandson of Mr. Joyce, Stephen James Joyce, refused, stating that his grandfather had very particular tastes in music and that he would not have liked my music. He added, as well, that neither he, nor his wife, cared for my music either! After relating this story to my dear friend Roger Zahab, Roger proclaimed that he had read Finnegans Wake no less than three times and offered to write a parody of the Joyce text for me. The resulting text is a gem of "deliverative porphyry" and I am extremely grateful.
A note on my tuning system:
In all the works on this disc, keyboard #1 (acoustic) is tuned normally, while keyboard #2 (digital) is altered in the following way: C#, D#, F# and G# are raised approximately 37 cents, and B-flat, B, C, E and F are lowered approximately 51 cents. The nine added notes form natural intervals with each other and with notes from the standard twelve note system. The singers and the other instruments in the ensembles also use pitches from the twenty one note system. In each of the works, the standard and altered tunings are used independently and in combination.

--Written by Matthew Rosenblum. Copyright 1999, CRI

CD Information

Maggies has been recorded on CRI CD 831, Matthew Rosenblum: Ancient Eyes, part of their "Emergency Music" series. The disc also contains Nü Kuan Tzu and Ancient Eyes. The former combines ancient Chinese poetry with French Romantic poetry, read and sung in various combinations of their native languages. Each of the nine movements is modeled on a different textual juxtaposition or musical themes, from microtonal scales to pop melodies. It is quite an intriguing mixture of sounds and ideas, yet comes across as being surprisingly coherent, and is my favorite work on the disc. It sounds like something they'd broadcast from those zeppelin-like airships in Bladerunner, in a world where Yoko Ono might have actually joined the Beatles, which of course were fans of Rimbaud and worked extensively with Messiaen, Ligeti and Berio. (Look -- that's what it sounds like to me, ok?) Ancient Eyes is a short but delightful piece commemorating the birth of the composer's daughter. Taking Middle Eastern music and impressionism as its principle influences, it seems to hang suspended in the air, weaving a spell of mystery from its wavering textures and shimmering percussion.
You may purchase Ancient Eyes online from Amazon.com below:

Rosenblum: Ancient Eyes
Audio CD / Released 1999

Also of possible interest -- the Libyrinth's Scriptorium contains a Donald Barthelme page, which contains information on the author whose work was excerpted in Maggies' prelude.


--A. Ruch
20 January 2001
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