Aki Onda
PAST Leif Elggren
Wilhelm Hein
Bettina Köster

Bilderdijkstraat 165
1053KP Amsterdam

12 – 14 October 2012
  3 pm till 8 pm
OPENING RECEPTION: 12 October, 7–9pm

An Encounter

Rahma Khazam

The long list of musicians inspired by the writings of James Joyce fall into one of two categories: those who merely set his texts to music – as in the case of Kate Bush, the lyrics of whose 2011 song Flower of the Mountain are taken from Ulysses character Molly Bloom – and those who build on Joyce's achievements, like John Cage. Deploring Joyce's conventional use of grammar, Cage wrote: “Finnegans Wake employs syntax./ Though Joyce's subjects, verbs and/ objects are generally unconventional,/ their relationships are the ordinary/ ones.”1 The American composer used fragments of Finnegans Wake to form non-syntactic ‘mesostics’ which he incorporated – in the form of a reading – in his 1979 musical work Roaratorio.2 The Swedish artist Leif Elggren also comes under the second category. His new audio work based on Joyce's early short story An Encounter features strangely ominous mutters, creaks and groans. These mirror the story's narrative tension, while their unmusical character foreshadows the Irish author's subsequent break with traditional literary language and form.

Elggren's radical reinterpretation of An Encounter underwent a number of modifications and revisions along the way. An initial ‘normal’ reading having proved disappointing, he decided to record himself reading the text backwards, thereby stripping it of narrative content and meaning and shifting the focus onto the words themselves. Yet he found this new version contrived and unconvincing because it failed to grapple with the story's underlying concerns. He then subjected the recording to further treatments, removing all traces of intentionality, intonation and dynamics, until all that was left was the merest hint of a human voice with all the life sapped out of it. Its muted, indistinct rumbles materialize the frustration and paralysis of Dublin society, as Joyce sketched them out in his story.

But there are yet other ways in which Elggren's sound work complements Joyce's story – ways that pertain to the nature of sound and literature themselves. Both writing and listening are events that take place over time and just as a story is made to be read again and again, so is a sound work meant to be heard and reheard – with each additional exposure triggering new emotions and revelations. Finally, reading and listening both have temporal limits, in this case the work's forty-seven minute duration – which is the time it took for Elggren to read the text backwards and the time his sound piece takes to unfold. Here, writing, reading, sound and music merge in a complex, hybrid space.

In addition to breaking down disciplinary frontiers, Elggren also questions his own artistic practice in this piece: for the first time, he grapples with a text that is not his own, while making it impossible for the listener to understand what is being said. Cage may have freed Joyce's writing from syntax, but Elggren makes the actual words of An Encounter unintelligible – thereby transcending his own, and Joyce's, limits.

1   John Cage, M: Writings '67-'72, Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, Conn., 1973, p.102-3.
2   See Scott W. Klein, “James Joyce and Avant-Garde Music”,

An Encounter
Leif Elggren website
Sacramental Meals (Sakramentala Måltider), Leif Elggren, Firework Edition, 1988
A Royal Failure Strength through Failure, Fabio Roberti with Leif Elggren and Marja-Leena Sillanpää, WFMU, broadcasted on 03.05.2012
I Pity Inanimate Objects interview by M. Monroe, Bananafish #16, p. 35 – 44, Seymour Glass, San Francisco, 2002
Firework Edition Records website
The Kingdoms of Elgaland-Vargaland website
The Kings of Elgaland-Vargaland Experimental Composers, David Weinstein with Leif Elggren, CM von Hausswolff and Egnekn Montgomery, Art On Air, broadcasted on 23.06.2012
Guds söner website

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