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Parallel Fifths, Parallel Lives: Miscommunication and Failed Interactions

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The Unspoken

It is not surprising that in the scholarship on the role of music in James Joyce's Ulysses, many authors have chosen to focus on "Sirens" (U 11). More than any other episode in the novel, "Sirens" is full of musical examples--both performed and referenced. Also, the form of "Sirens" is unusual--it differs from other episodes in that it has a kind of introduction at the beginning. This introduction is almost impossible to understand on its own; it is a list of fragments that are incomprehensible alone but relate to events that happen later in the episode. Joyce himself claimed that "Sirens" was written as a fugue, and as a result several critics have tried to find evidence for this, mostly by examining the way that these introductory fragments relate back to the rest of the episode. Here, I look specifically at Nadya Zimmerman's rationale for why "Sirens" is a fugue, and at J├╝rgen Grandt's contention that it is an example of counterpoint. But some critics disagree, among them Scott Ordway, who makes a case that "Sirens" is most effectively read as a sonata. Although Sirens has fugal and sonata-like elements, it is lacking in one key element of a both forms: harmonic interplay between the voices. The voices in "Sirens" do not answer each other's questions and fail to carry on conversations with each other, unlike the harmonic call and answer that defines the vocal interplay in both forms. Furthermore, the episode has no real resolution, making it yet more unlike a fugue or a sonata. Instead, the musical nature of "Sirens" can be best compared to a series of perfect parallel fifths, where the voices move in parallel patterns but never cross paths. Ultimately, this pattern, which is discouraged in counterpoint, mimics the characters' missed signals and lack of substantial interaction throughout the episode.

A fugue is a musical form that dates back to the 14th century but was more formally developed by J.S. Bach in the mid 17th century. His fugues are the ones most commonly used as references for the fugal structure today. In its most basic form, a fugue has three voices, which usually follow a soprano-alto-bass structure. These voices maintain largely independent lines until the last two bars of the pieces, when the voices come together in chords that "lend fullness and finality" (Grove Music Online) and resolves in the tonic key (the key of the piece). In some ways, a fugue is an exercise in imitation. A fugue usually starts with one single voice that introduces the theme or "subject," which is always in the tonic key. Next, a second voice enters with the same subject, this time in the dominant key (the fifth of the tonic key), which is commonly referred to as the "answer." While this second voice introduces the answer, the first voice continues in counterpoint, introducing new themes that may or may not resurface in the rest of the piece. When the third voice enters, it re-introduces the original subject, in the original key. Fugues are often confused with cannons--indeed, both forms rely heavily on imitation. But in a cannon, all of the voices are doing the same thing in the same key, albeit at different times. In a fugue, the subject does not always re-emerge in its original form or original key, and is often changed in some slight way--through augmentation, diminution or inversion, for example (Grove Music Online.) Joyce claimed that "Sirens" was written in the form of a fugue, or more specifically a "fuga per canonem," a statement which has elicited many scholars to go about proving this. Zimmerman, for example, argues that Joyce employs a fugal structure in "Sirens" in order to "question autonomy and simulate simultaneity" (109). Zimmerman begins her piece by differentiating between a regular fugue and a "fuga per canonem," which combines the characteristics of both a fugue and of a canon. Both the fugue and canon rely on imitation, but the fugue uses imitation in different keys. Zimmerman goes on to argue to Joyce creates an eight-voice fuga per canonem by employing what she calls both "verbal simultaneity" and "temporal simultaneity" (112). The two work together in concert. For example, "verbal simultaneity" is the thematic question-answer structure present in a fugue, which Zimmerman sees reflected in the way that Joyce redistributes the theme to different characters in the episode. These redistributions cannot happen at the same point on the page, but they happen at the same point in linear time (temporal simultaneity.) To illustrate this, Zimmerman uses a number of different points in the episode (too numerous to list here), which she shows in a chart detailing both theme and time. In particular, though, she mentions the line "Bronze by gold, miss Douce's head by miss Kennedy's head, over the/crossblind of the Ormond bar heard the viceregal hoofs go by, ringing steel," which has been used by other scholars in discussing the whether or not "Sirens" is a fugue (U 11.64-65). The theme mentioned in this line is completed in the next passage. Together, the lines achieve the affect of a fugue. Zimmerman ultimately concludes that in this method Joyce "offers a new approach to literary narrative" because he allows readers to perceive text "vertically"--understanding several lines at once--in the way we formerly could only perceive music (117).

Grandt agrees that Joyce uses techniques that force us to read "vertically," but disagrees that these techniques imply that "Sirens" has a fugal structure. Grandt begins his argument by stating that it is impossible to tie "Sirens" to any one musical genre, despite the fact that many critics have tried to do so. One problem generated by that approach--tying "Sirens" to one genre--is that critics often focus on the narrative structure of the episode and how it is shaped by music, rather than on the language that Joyce uses. Looking closely at language rather than at narrative and voices, Grandt argues that Joyce uses the theory of counterpoint to employ "Standard English as a kind of cantus firmus on which he impose[s] contrapuntally a new language" (80). Grandt uses "cantus firmus" here to refer to a pre-existing melody line for a new project. The "contrapuntal new language" refers to the way that Bloom plays with alliteration, repetition, compound words, assonance, and onomatopoeia in this episode. For example, he uses the two lines "Bronze by gold heard the hoofirons, steelyringing" (U 11:1) and "Bronze by gold, miss Douce's head by miss Kennedy's head, over the crossblind of the Ormond bar heard the viceregal hoofs go by, ringing steel" (U 11:64). The two lines refer to the same instance of time but are separated by an entire passage of text. As Grandt interprets these examples, the first one is the first voice, and the second one the second voice. The cantus firmus linking them together in Standard English is "Bronze-haired Miss Douce and gold-haired Miss Kennedy, sitting in the Ormond bar, heard through the horizontal blinds of the window the" (80). It is only in joining the two lines together that we understand them. According to Grandt, this changes the way we read. He argues that "with language itself now occupying the center of the novel, the voice emerging from its pages is not longer that of the narrator" (83). What we have instead is the voice of the arranger or composer who is freed from the constraints of standard language, and can invent characters--and corresponding languages--at will. Furthermore, because they have to learn this new language, the text's readers change from audience to participants.

Although Grandt and Zimmerman are arguing different things, both base their arguments on the same important base: theory of counterpoint. Counterpoint is essential to Zimmerman's claims of how Joyce achieves verbal and temporal simultaneity--counterpoint creates multi-voice music, and she is trying to explain the multi-voice effect of "Sirens" that causes us to understand several lines of text at once. Similarly, Grandt relies on theory of counterpoint to explain how Joyce superimposes his own invented language on a "cantus firmus" of Standard English in order to achieve the effect of multi-voiced text. However, Grandt and Zimmerman do not address a key tenet of good counterpoint, and of good fugues: the voices have to work together and answer each other harmonically. Although fugues do follow a specific form that dictates when the "answer" comes in, the art of fugue lies in how well the harmonies work together. What we listen for in a fugue is how well these harmonies interact; how well the answer works contrapuntally with the subject, and how well the three voices can come together when the third comes in. Interaction between the voices is not only what makes counterpoint complicated and beautiful to listen to, but also what defines it as such. If we take the thematic call and answer in text to be an imitation of that form in a fugue, it would seem that "Sirens" is a very poor example of counterpoint.

Although there are a lot of characters and voices in the episode, they do not communicate very well with each other. Mostly, we see this in the form of unanswered questions and evasiveness. When a man known as "the boots" brings the barmaids their tea, he asks them who they are looking at through the window and they refuse to tell him, saying that they will "complain to Mrs de Massey on you if I hear any more of your impertinent insolence" (U 11: 98.) Later, another of the men, Lenehan, tries to get one of Miss Kennedy, one of the barmaids, but fails--"no glance of Kennedy rewarding him yet he made overtures" (U 11: 243). When she finally answers one of his questions, it is only to mock him, telling him that if he "asks no questions [he'll] hear no lies" (U 11:335). This line becomes significant later in the episode, too, when Bloom lies about a letter that he is writing to Martha (U 11. 911). Lenehan then tries to engage Simon Dedalus in conversation about Stephen, but Dedalus also mostly ignores Lenehan. The examples of these failed interactions only continue to accumulate throughout the episode. These conversations are hardly reflective of the question-and-answer structure essential to counterpoint, because although the dialogue is present, it is not fulfilling to any of the characters. Although musical lines in counterpoint often work against each other, they do so to create harmony, which seems to be missing here.

Ordway argues against the idea that "Sirens" is a fugue, and claims that it would be better read as a sonata. Although Ordway is quick to point out that the claim that "Sirens" is a fugue is "understandably derived from Joyce's descriptions," he finds it "problematic for many reasons" (85). Ordway goes on to point out the technical differences between a fugue and "Sirens," emphasizing that the prelude of a fugue does not relate to the fugue in same way that the overture to "Sirens" relates to the rest of it. Although Ordway accepts that "Sirens" has multiple voices, he argues that three independent do not necessarily establish a fugal structure; to mimic a fugue they must interact in a specific way that he feels is impossible in literature. Rather, he argues that considering the episode in a sonata form is not only a more accurate musical analogy, but also gives us insight into character dynamics, particularly the dynamic between Bloom and Boylan.

Instead of relying on polyphonic voices, the sonata has a more narrative-like form divisible into three parts: the exposition, the development, and the recapitulation, which Ordway argues converts more naturally into literature. Ordway establishes Bloom's "Bloo" as a the tonic key and Boylan's "jingle" as the dominant key, and shows us how these interact in ways that parallel the sonata form. Ordway highlights these interactions between the two with examples such as "Bloom heard a jing. A little sound. He's off. Light sob of breath Bloom sighed on the silent bluehued flowers. Jingling. He's gone. Jingle. Hear" (U 11.457-58). The wordplay suggests that these two voices are the most important ones in the episode. Looking at the episode through the sonata form allows us to concentrate on Boylan and Bloom's interactions as the most important in the episode, rather than considering the less-important barmaids as their own fugal voice. Although Ordway contends that Joyce may have come as close as possible to writing literature in a fugal form, he concludes that that this reading is simply not the most useful way of reading the episode. We derive more from the episode if we look at it through the lens of a sonata, rather than through the lens of a fugue.

Although Ordway is not looking at the episode as an example of counterpoint, the problems with seeing the episode as an example of a question-and-answer form still apply. Even if Ordway dismisses the other voices in the episode as less important than the voices of Bloom and Boylan, he still must reconcile the fact the voices in "Sirens" are not really talking to each other, and that most of the conversations fail to take off. For example, Ordway claims that if "Sirens" is a sonata, then Bloom is the tonic and Boylan the dominant. But in a sonata the tonic and dominant interact harmonically--the piece usually travels harmonically from the tonic to the dominant and then back again, ending in a kind of tonic cadence. In "Sirens," however, Bloom and Boylan never interact. Although we could interpret the episode as mirroring the sonata form in that Boylan enters and leaves the bar and the episode concludes with Bloom (the tonic) by himself, the dominant and the tonic still do not interact the way that they would in an actual sonata. We could also interpret the sonata form as an example of the tonic triumphing over the dominant, but again, this kind of interaction simply does not exist in the episode. In claiming that Bloom's and Boylan's voices are the most important in the episode Ordway highlights an important theme, but the voices fail to interact in a way that is particularly musical.

Another problem with definitively labeling the episode as a fugue, as counterpoint, or as a sonata is the ending. The ending of "Sirens" is thematically disappointing--there is no real climax. Bloom leaves the bar just before Ben Dollard finishes singing "The Croppy Boy" ballad, and becomes aware of the gassy effects of the cider that he drank in the bar. He then runs into a neighborhood whore that he has previously had an encounter with, but manages to avoid meeting her directly. The episode concludes with Bloom farting, while the noise of a streetcar covers up the sound. Although the ending of the episode is ironic, it is not thematically climactic and does not have a lot of thematic connections with the rest of the episode. It also fails to capitalize on any of the tensions within the episode, such as the tension between Boylan and Bloom, or between the men and the barmaids. This being said, though, it would be difficult to create climactic interactions between the characters given that we see hardly any "real" interactions between any of the characters in the rest of the episode. The fact that the ending is not dramatic, though, makes it difficult to relate the ending directly to any musical genre. In particular, the endings of most musical forms have more interactions between the tonic and dominant. A fugue, for example, usually concludes with several chords, often one of them being the dominant. No counterpoint line would end with a single, solitary voice, nor would a sonata. Although all of the forms would likely end in the tonic key, there is simply not enough of a climax between the tonic and the dominant, or between the different voices. It is almost as if Joyce is highlighting the lack of tension by not capitalizing on it.

We could treat this absence of tension between the voices as a kind of musical silence. The unspoken in the music in Ulysses proves to be important in a number of ways, often in relation to Bloom's repressed feelings about Boylan. Although the novel is rife with musical examples, there are also a lot of instances where Joyce deliberately leaves out verses of song. We see this, for example, in "Those Lovely Seaside Girls," which Joyce references throughout the text. "Those Lovely Seaside Girls" is a song associated with Boylan, whom Bloom suspects she is also sleeping with. We learn that the song is associated with Boylan from Milly's letter, when she tells Bloom that she hears "Boylan' about those seaside girls" (U 4.408). Yet beyond that, we never actually hear from Bloom that the song is associated with Boylan. At one point, as he thinks about the lyrics of the song, the phrase "friend of the family" appears to enter Bloom's thoughts, and we can conclude that he means Boylan. But he never directly associates Boylan's name with the song, and it is this missing reference to Boylan that suggests that he will be very important to the narrative. In addition, this "silence" further suggests that Bloom is incapable of speaking Boylan's name, or of thinking about the consequences of Boylan having an affair with his wife. Given that Bloom physically runs away from a Boylan in a later episode, it seems logical that he is deeply repressing his feelings about Boylan.

In addition, some of the missing lines of the "Seaside Girls" song (Joyce only quotes a few) also serve to bring out related themes in the novel. For example, the only lines that appear on the page are "All dimpled cheeks and curls,/Your head it simply swirls...Those girls, those girls,/Those lovely seaside girls" (U 4. 437-43). Although Bloom associates these lines with Milly and her burgeoning sexuality, it is curious that Joyce chooses not to note the earlier lines of the song, "You fall in love of course upon the spot/But not with one girl, always with the lot." This line speaks much more to the novel's themes of love and infidelity, and Bloom's own insecurities about Boylan and Molly. Later on, in Episode 13, Bloom references the same lines from the song as before, this time while thinking about Gerty MacDowell, a girl he admires only from a distance. Again, it is in the lines not referenced that Joyce suggests infidelity--this is the closest Bloom comes to being unfaithful. Judging by the number of times in Ulysses that Bloom himself references different parts of the song, it seems safe to assume that Bloom is familiar with all of the verses. Joyce omits deliberately omits these lines, then, not only to highlight their thematic importance to the text, but also to represent Bloom's own repressed emotions regarding Boylan and infidelity.

This kind of musical "silence" is not restricted to songs and song lyrics; we also see it in musical examples of chords and notes. The most striking instance of this is in Episode 15, when Stephen plays a "series of empty fifths" on the pianola (U 15.2073). An empty fifth contains only the tonic and dominant notes of a chord, and lacks the third that is necessary to make the chord major or minor. Caught in limbo, the chord at least partly mirrors the chaotic nature of this episode, which features hallucinations, objects that come to life, and a general lack of control. Also, the traditional rules of counterpoint discourage the use of consecutive perfect fifths because they create parallel melody lines that lack the voice leading of contrasting lines. Instead of each line of music working together in harmony, the lines are parallel to each other and never cross. This harmonic reality mimics the miscommunications rampant in Ulysses; throughout the novel we see characters interpret the same situations in different ways, and never discuss their discrepancies. Many of these discrepancies surface in "Sirens."

Due to the lack of interaction between the characters, I argue that parallel perfect fifths are the closest musical analogy we can make to "Sirens," and that this reading is a more accurate interpretation of the episode than as counterpoint, a fugue, or a sonata. In fact, Joyce first references the idea of parallel fifths in "Sirens" itself. Right after Bloom leaves the bar, the remaining five men (Lidwell, Simon Dedalus, Bob Cowle, Kernan and Ben Dollard) raise their glasses to toast each other. Joyce write that they "chinked their clinking glasses...first Lid, De, Cow, Ker, Doll, a fifth:" (U 11:1271). The "fifth" here must refer to a perfect fifth--usually the term does not refer to a numerical count of bodies but rather to the interval. However, a fifth here is impossible given the physical situation in the room. A perfect fifth is only two notes, and is lacking in the third that would make the fifth into a major or minor triad. However, if there are five people in the room, then the missing third is present. It is entirely illogical to refer to five men sitting together as a fifth. Joyce's purpose in creating impossible situations--such as likening a musical fifth to a situation in which five people are present--seems to be to draw attention to it.

We have already looked at several examples of the failed interactions and miscommunications in "Sirens," but perhaps the most striking instance is between Bloom and Molly. At one point in the episode, Bloom is reminded of Molly and remembers an evening with her. He recalls that "her crocus dress she wore lowcut...Told her what Spinoza says in that book of poor papa's. Hypnotised, listening" (U 11:1057). As Bloom remembers the situation, Molly is drawn in by his words, hanging on to every word he says about Spinoza. In "Sirens" we never hear Molly's perspective, so we have no reason to doubt what Bloom says. But when Molly does speak in "Penelope," we hear a different version of that night. According to Molly's version, she was "fit to be tied...with him on the other side of me talking about Spinoza and his soul thats dead I suppose millions of years ago I smiled the best I could all in a swamp leaning forward as if I was interested having to sit it out" (U 18.1111-15). Bloom thinks that Molly was completely enthralled by his conversation; in fact, she was bored. The phrase "all in a swamp" refers to the fact that Molly's menstrual period suddenly started, and she was much more focused on that than on what Bloom is saying about Spinoza. The phrase "sit it out" here suggests that Bloom's discourse on Spinoza was more than boring to Molly--that it was physically painful for her to sit and listen to him talk. This is not an example a failed interaction in the way that the conversations in "Sirens" are failed interactions, though. By all accounts, the conversation that night in the opera house was not a failure--Bloom talked, and Molly listened. However, the way that both characters have completely different understandings of the situations seems representative of parallel fifths. Although Molly may have a sense of what Bloom was thinking that night, Bloom completely understands what Molly was thinking. In this way it is as if each is moving along parallel paths that never meet, and miss all points of harmonic contact and comprehension.

The missing third--the interval that would make the triad major or minor--is also significant in this episode, in that it speaks to the theme of the Trinity. There are numerous examples of unrealized Trinities in Ulysses that are missing a third. These examples include the Bloom family, now that Bloom has sent Milly away, and the potential Trinity between Molly, Bloom and Stephen. In this episode, though, it seems most likely that the Trinity is Bloom, Boylan, and Molly, with Molly as the "missing" third. Although Molly is not physically present in episode 11, her name comes up often in the episode, mostly in Bloom's thoughts. In fact, most of what happens in the episode (the plot, the conversation) reminds him of Molly in some way. He remembers various performances she has had, as well as small details about her, such as her snore. We can only conclude that Molly is on Bloom's mind as much as she is in the episode because of the presence of Boylan. Bloom is fully aware that Boylan and Molly are meeting each other later that day; when he first sees Boylan, his only thought is "Not yet. At four she" (U 11:352). These two fragments are a reference to the time that Molly and Boylan are supposed to meet--he has become obsessed with the meeting, and it fuels his incessant thoughts of Molly in the episode. Although Boylan is only in the bar for a brief period of time, there is unquestionable tension between him and Bloom (which we are only privy to from Bloom's perspective.) When Boylan leaves, Bloom "heard a jing, a little sound. He's off. Light sob of breath Bloom sighed" (U 11. 458). The phrase "light sob of breath" suggests that Bloom has been tense from the moment that Boylan walked into the bar, and can only breath once Boylan is gone. "Sob" also suggests that he is sad about the situation. We are most aware of Molly--the missing third--through the other points in the triad.

This idea of locating a third point only through the perspective of the other two points is similar to the idea of parallax, the astronomical method of measuring celestial distance. Joyce first mentions the idea of parallax in "Lestrygonians," and it is often cited as a key concept to understanding Ulysses. More specifically, parallax is the concept of locating an object by observing it from multiple positions. An object, then, is only located through the perspective of two viewpoints. Therefore, all three objects or viewpoints are dependent on each other; we can only locate each of the objects by using the other two. The connection of the concept to the novel is clear--there are a lot of different perspectives in Ulysses, and we read the novel expecting that it will lead us to a single truth. Parallax is similar to the idea of parallel fifths; it is only in looking at both the tonic and the dominant that we can see what the third of the triad is. Without establishing these relationships, the chord is nothing but empty, floating that bear no relation to each other harmonically. Parallax also seems to be a way of understanding how Joyce sets up "Sirens." It is impossible to understand the beginning of "Sirens" until we understand where and how those fragments tie to other parts of the episode. And, as Zimmerman points out, it is only in looking at the beginning along with the later corresponding parts of the episode that we can understand what is happening in the episode. Based on the connections between Bloom, Molly and Boylan in this episode, both parallax and the idea of parallel fifths seem to be at work.

However, it is the opposite of parallax, rather than parallax itself, that is at work in the novel, and this holds true for musical interpretations of "Sirens" as well We read the novel expecting the multiple perspectives to lead to a single truth or explanation, and they do not. Joyce does this throughout Ulysses--he sets up readers to expect an answer from an episode, and then does not deliver one. Even the title of the novel suggests this. Although the work bears a lot of similarities to Homer's Odyssey, the two works are very different, and Bloom is not a direct representation of Ulysses. We see this false parallax in comparing the perfect fifths to the Trinity, as well. Although we can hypothesize that the missing third points to a specific character, there is no direct evidence to suggest it. Similarly, the structure of "Sirens" ultimately does not link to one specific musical form. There are aspects of fugal structures, counterpoint, and the sonata form in "Sirens;" however, the episode cannot be definitively defined by any of them. I argue that parallel fifths best define what is happening musically in the episode, but parallel fifths is more considered a problem in counterpoint than it is a musical form. Time and again, Joyce suggests the structure, but refuses to provide easy answers for readers.

There are undeniably a number of musical structures at work in "Sirens." Although I ultimately disagree with Zimmerman, Grandt and Ordway that "Sirens" has one particular musical form, I agree with parts of their arguments. The multiple voices in "Sirens" are similar to the voices in musical counterpoint, and the way that Joyce plays with temporal simultaneity and thematic simultaneity is similar to the structure of a fugue. Likewise, Ordway's argument that "Sirens" is a sonata gives us a different reading of Boylan and Bloom's interactions. However, ultimately many of these scholars fail to relate their arguments to the broader scheme of the novel. Why does it matter that "Sirens" is a fugue? Why does it matter that there are multiple voices at work, or that the themes in the episode appear and reappear? Examining the episode not as one musical form but as a series of perfect fifths, however, relates back to the larger scheme of the novel in that it highlights the failed interactions between the characters. These miscommunications are rampant not only in the episode, but in the entire novel. Ulysses is sometimes described as a novel about men talking to other men. It could just as well be described, though, as a novel about men not talking to other men. There is no climactic moment of understanding between Bloom and Stephen, or between Bloom and Molly, and at the end of the novel a lot is still unsaid between most of the characters. The episode can by no means be summed up as merely a series of perfect fifths, but viewing the episode through this lens deepens our understanding not only of the relationships between the characters, but of the entire novel.

Citations and Related Sources

Allen, Stuart. "‘Thinking Strictly Prohibited’: Music, Language, and Thought in Sirens." Twentieth Century Literature 53, no. 4 (2007): 442–459.
Bowen, Zack R. Musical Allusions in the Works of James Joyce: Early Poetry Through Ulysses. Albany: SUNY Press, 1974
Grandt, Jürgen E. "‘Might Be What You Like, till You Hear the Words’: Joyce in Zurich and the Contrapuntal Language of Ulysses." Joyce Studies Annual 14, no. 1 (2003): 74–91
Kramer, Lawrence. Interpreting Music. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011
Ordway, Scott J. "A Dominant Boylan: Music, Meaning, and Sonata Form in the ‘Sirens’ Episode of Ulysses." James Joyce Quarterly 45, no. 1 (2007): 85–96.
Slote, Sam. "Joyce and Science." In Palgrave Advances in James Joyce Studies, edited by Jean-Michel Rabaté, 162–82. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.
Zimmerman, Nadya. "Musical Form as Narrator: The Fugue of the Sirens in James Joyce’s Ulysses." Journal of Modern Literature 26, no. 1 (2002): 108–118

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