James Joyce at Ichi-no-Tani with a Glass Harmonica

Contributed by Kevin Salfen
Assistant Professor of Music History, University of the Incarnate Word

This summer I heard the flute that Renshō heard and thought of Joyce’s “The Dead.” In early August in Bloomsburg’s heat and bugs I heard the flute that Atsumori played in the Heike camp, and I thought of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor.

That’s the sort of thing that happens. Call it the postmodern imagination. Or life.

The Noh Training Project’s 2012 performance of Atsumori is in the past now, and I remember it like Renshō remembered the flute once he was far from the shores where he had slain the youthful warrior. Layers of memory, memories of sound accrete, and what cranial geologist can make sense of those strata, pocked with fossil fragments, life lived long ago, half-forgotten?

It had been years since I read Dubliners, and somehow little Michael Furey, who died after leaving his sickbed to see the girl he loved one last time, became a flutist in my memory, even though he wasn’t. Joyce’s protagonist of “The Dead” is Gabriel, middle-aged and successful, and at the end of a dinner party he is pleased. With himself and his own accomplishments, with his wife. But she has heard a song—The Lass of Aughrim—sung by the ill-tempered tenor who was guest of honor at the party. (“Can’t you see that I’m as hoarse as a crow?” he barks at someone.)

Hearing The Lass of Aughrim, poorly sung perhaps, by this tenor named D’Arcy, decades after little Michael Furey’s death, Gabriel’s wife leaves the world of her husband and his accomplishments. Becomes again a girl, enamored, listening to a boy sing. She is distant, moody even, and only when Gabriel presses does her grief erupt. She confesses, weeps, and Gabriel listens, with an understandable coolness. Finally she has exhausted herself and sleeps, and he is left to think of how the memory of the dead has haunted her all these years, of how much less he is to her, he now realizes, than little Michael Furey, a singer whose song was long buried.

“Il dolce suono” is Lucia’s “mad scene” in librettist Salvatore Cammarano and composer Gaetano Donizetti’s opera of 1835. By this point Lucia is a murderer, has killed her husband Arturo, whom she was forced to marry by her tyrannical brother. In many productions she comes on stage disheveled, her white gown stained with Arturo’s blood. All this tragedy because Lucia had loved Edgardo, of the rival Ravenswood clan, had even met with him clandestinely and exchanged rings with him.

Before she sings her mad song, a flute plays a familiar melody, like a half-remembered song from childhood; in fact, it is a variation of an aria Lucia had sung in Act I, which itself was about the ghost of a young woman who had been killed by her lover, her body thrown into a fountain. And then Lucia sings: “Il dolce suono mi colpì sua voce!” “The sweet sound of his voice struck me.” The world folds in on itself. Time collapses, and Lucia relives the past through melody. Donizetti had originally thought to use the glass harmonica to suggest this echo of the past, but the use of flute allows, in the mad scene’s final moments, for a virtuosic textless cadenza between instrument and voice. Music has opened up a new realm of possibility, a place beyond words where all that is separated can be united. Act I and III, ghost and Lucia, Lucia and her true love, dream and the waking world.

Renshō comes to Ichi-no-tani to comfort Atsumori and hears the “sweet music” of a grass-cutter’s flute. It is also Atsumori’s flute, the discovery of which on his lifeless body had made battle-hardened Heike warriors weep. In Zeami’s Atsumori, music collapses time, folds together memory with the lived moment.

These ghosts—of Michael Furey, of the girl of the fountain, of Atsumori—already inhabit a timeless existence. The folding of time is nothing to them. But for the living to experience this folded time requires music, which articulates time uniquely. I am trying, gone from Bloomsburg, to listen to this folded time, am drawing together half-remembered sounds while sitting in a room gone quiet.

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About Theatre Nohgaku

Noh, one of the oldest continuing stage arts, combines highly stylized dance, chant, music, mask and costume with intense inner concentration and physical discipline, creating a uniquely powerful theatrical experience. Theatre Nohgaku’s mission is to share noh’s beauty and power with English speaking audiences and performers. We have found that this traditional form retains its dramatic effectiveness in languages other than Japanese. We believe noh techniques hold a powerful means of expression in the context of contemporary English language theatre.
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