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Friday, July 2, 2010

Thorax: Trilobites in Music (Triple Trilobite Special!)

Tony Cragg's trilobitic sculptures.

Welcome to 'Thorax', the second issue of 'the Geology in Art Webzine' entirely dedicated to trilobites.
Curiously, I will start to discuss trilobitic music from...dinosaurs. The first trilobite and the first dinosaur are separated by about 275 millions of years, but it is not possible to forget mesozioc reptiles when dealing with geologic symbols in music. Indeed dinosaurs are a pervasive symbol in modern culture, going far beyond paleontological imagery: from T-Rex to Jonathan Richman (I'm a little dinosaur). Even if no other group of organisms has met with greater success, similar phenomena are also recorded by our beloved arthropods. Trilobites are another paleontological celebrity to have left its mark in music. For instance, they have been cited by Nightwish, which is an award-winning Finnish symphonic metal band.  Indeed Nightwish is one of Finland's most successful bands with more than 7 million albums and singles sold worldwide, 1 silver award, 11 gold awards, and 31 platinum awards. In 'a Return to the Sea' Nightwish picture trilobites and  Anomalocaris:

A star falls down from the darkened sky
Where new worlds are born and die
Kingdom Animalia watches its approaching glow
What it means is soon to be known.


Trilobite & Anomalocaris
The prey and the hunter
Survival of the fittest
Fall of Man

Seadrops foam all empty human skulls
Those on the shores of Atlantis
Darwin's resurrection is witnessed
By turtles he used to play with

Healed and happy She oversees
The Mother
The tyrant's return to the sea

Trilobites appear in 'A Return to the Sea' by Nightwish.

The Brazilian instrumental group  Uakti have distinguished themselves for creating new musical instruments, among which the “Trilobita”. This percussion instrument consists of ten PVC tubes closed by elastic membranes. The tubes are arranged on a frame so that the instrument is played by two musicians facing each other. This ingenious solution allows a significant rhythmic complexity and rapid and profound sound associations. In addition, Uakti have dedicated  an album to trilobites (“Trilobyte”), with a beautiful cover inspired by the tribal world and paleontological  themes.

The Brazilian group Uakti invented the "Trilobita", a very peculiar percussion instrument.

The music band Trilöbit comes from the same country of Uakti, but has little to share with the famous instrumental group. Their music is space rock with strong electronic components, but it difficult to ascertain what role geology has for them. Further research is required; until then I can only point out the ample presence of trilobites in their videos and artwork.
Trilobites inspired another band, 'The Trilobites', which are an Australian power pop/rock  group formed in Sydney in1984. Their first two singles, "Venus in Leather"' and "American TV" reached number 1 on the alternative chart.
Trilobites are pervasive social symbols, as testified by their frequent appearance:  from children television shows (i.e. Nancye Ferguson band) to garage bands (i.e. World of Sound).

Sexy Groove Machine by Trilöbit.

The Trilobites from Sydney, Australia.

Attic Dancers, Trilobite.

World of Sound, a garage band from the Eighties, plays 'Trilobite'.

Trilobite plays "Wildwood Flower", an American song, best known through performances and recordings by the Carter family.

A trilobite song in a children television show.

Another children television show with a trilobite song.

Trilobites are also evoked by Mastodon, a Grammy Award-nominated heavy metal band. Starting from their name, Mastodon give a paleontological touch to their songs, among which are “Trilobite”, “Iron Tusk” and “Megalodon”. Even their artwork presents geological  references, such as the saber tooth tiger and the Megaceros (an extinct giant deer), which appears in their album covers.

Trilobite by Mastodon.

These trilobitic examples explain the fundamental problem that arises when dealing with Geology and Music. Music is full of geological quotations but it has often metaphoric references, related to Geology with different degrees of linkage. Some geological themes (eg dinosaurs, trilobites, volcanoes, earthquakes) have such deep social roots to take symbolic meanings (not always purely geological). However it is important to point out even these cases, as witnesses of the social influence of "geological symbols" in music.

Uakti, Nightwish and Mastodon are clear examples of non-dinosaurian geologic mythologies in music, although the finest example remains “Burgess Shale”, the composition for orchestra by Rand Steiger. 
The author puts into music eight Cambrian organisms, each of which is represented by a section of the work. The author’s words no doubt provide the most appropriate comment to “Burgess Shale”: “The piece begins with an introduction, followed by eight sections, each focussing on one creature, and then a concluding section. Each creature has a particular kind of material associated with it, defined by instrumentation, pitch material, and tempo. Besides having a dedicated section, each creature has its own recurring cycle of appearances throughout the piece. So while the piece progresses through the main sections, little snippets of the other sections interrupt and comment on their progression”. There are no trilobites in the Steiger's composition, but it appears their fierceful hunter: Anomalocaris!

Score image of Rand Steiger's Anomalocaris. Click here for the streaming mp3 of the song.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Pygidium: Trilobites in Literature (Triple Trilobite Special!)

Trilobites, as seen in 1916 by the German painter Heinrich Harder.

Welcome to the 'Triple Trilobite Special', a series of three issues covering trilobites in art. I decided to name each issue from trilobite anatomy:  'Cephalon' will deal with visual arts, 'Thorax' will take into account music and this issue - 'Pygidium' - is dedicated to literature, with particular focus on poetry.
Among the geologic subjects used in poetry, trilobites occupy a privileged position. The reasons are evident: the seductive charm of these ancestral creatures, their curious morphology and the grace of their librigenae. Kenneth Gass has been recently seduced by trilobites, and wrote a volume entitled “Trilobite Poems”.
Here is a snippet:
While breaking open rocks one day,
I found something that made me stay,
To see if I could find some more
Of what I’d never seen before.
— from Mackenziurus lauriae by Kenneth Gass

How to comment on these verses? David Rudkin (Royal Ontario Museum) expressed his opinion in “The Trilobite Papers”: «[These] verses reflect much of the joy and wonder that all trilobite workers share, but that we seldom express».
Trilobites (and many other geologic items) illuminate the poems of Clark Coolidge, an American poet with an  explicit interest for Earth sciences. Coolidge authored several geologic works, either in prose or in poetry (“Smithsonian Deposition & Subject to a Film”, “A Geology”, “The Book of During”, etc.). His untitled poem  from 1970 says:

ounce code orange
trilobite trilobites
— from the collection 'Space' by Clark Coolidge

Coolidge’s poem is undoubtedly visual, apparently impenetrable, a liminal experience between concrete poetry and sound. The hardcover edition of “Space”, the collection including the trilobitic poem, describes Coolidge’s poetry as follows:
“At first glance, Clark Coolidge’s poems appear to be completely impenetrable parades of apparently unrelated words arranged in meaningless patterns across the page. If you keep reading, though, the poems begin to have a strange effectiveness, and eventually you begin to see the words themselves in an entirely new and exhilarating way”.
Trilobites are found in another visual poetry collection by mIEKAL aND. The author describes his visual poems as “typo-fossils embedded with syntactical mysteries & multiple possible references, missing links between semantic precision & indecipherable code”. Hence the title of the collection, “Trilobite”. In this work the typographical arrangement of words is an important means of expression, often accompanied by the drawing of a trilobite. If you are interested in, it is possible to read the entire work on the website of Xexoxial editions.

The "typo-fossils" of mIEKAL aND. The work was originally published in 1983, the pictures come from the 2006 online edition of 'Trilobite'.

The aforementioned examples illustrate the role of trilobites as “paleontological catalysts”. Together with ammonites and dinosaurs, these extinct arthropods are the quintessential icons of paleontology, evoking the symbolic and philosophic values of this discipline. This is particularly evident in the poems of the Victorian period, when paleontology and fossils were a sort of fashion. These aspects were accompanied by the  evolutionary quarrels that followed the revolutionary theories of Charles Darwin. These elements (fossils and evolution) are the main focus of the satirical “Lay [=song] of a Trilobite” by the Victorian poet May Kendall.
 An excerpt:
A mountain’s giddy height I sought,
Because I could not find
Sufficient vague and mighty thought
To fill my mighty mind;
And as I wandered ill at ease,
There chanced upon my sight
A native of Silurian seas
An ancient Trilobite.
— from ”Lay of a Trilobite” by May Kendall (1887)

Even before “Lay of a Trilobite” fossil arthropods had raised poetic inspiration: for example in “Ode to a  Trilobite”, written by Timothy Conrad in 1840.
And since the trilobites have passed away
The continent has been formed, the mountains grown
In oceans’ deepened caves new beings play,
And Man now sits on Neptune’s ancient throne.
The race of Man shall perish, but the eyes
Of Trilobites eternal be in stone,
And seem to stare about with wild surprise
At changes greater than they yet have known.
— from ”Ode to a Trilobite” by Timothy Conrad (1840)

Victorian Trilobitic Poems in my book 'Geology in Art'.

Trilobites have been cited also by the master of science fiction: Howard Phillips Lovecraft.  Even though geology is used sporadically in his writings, Lovecraft shows to be intellectually influenced by  geologic themes, including Deep Time. “At the Mountains of Madness” is probably Lovecraft’s most geologic story as it revolves around a geologic expedition in Antartica. Here weird fossil remains are discovered: “Appears to indicate, as I suspected, that earth has seen whole cycle or cycles of organic life before known one that begins with Archaeozoic cells. Was evolved and specialized not later than a thousand million years  ago, when planet was young and recently uninhabitable for any life forms or normal protoplasmic structure.  Question arises when, where, and how development took place.”
— H.P. Lovecraft, “At the Mountains of Madness”

“At the Mountains of Madness” was partly inspired by the geologic findings made during the polar expedition  of Richard Evelyn Byrd, which took place in 1928-1930. Lovecraft mentions the explorer repeatedly in his  letters, remarking at one point on “geologists of the Byrd expedition having found many fossils indicating a  tropical past”. The main character of “At the Mountains of Madness” is the fictional character William Dyer, Professor of Geology at the notorious Miskatonic University.William Dyer’s expedition was to be particularly adventurous and the character would appear in another of Lovecraft’s tales, “The Shadow Out of Time”:
“In certain of the sandstones, dynamited and chiseled after boring revealed their nature, we found some highly  interesting fossil markings and fragments; notably ferns, seaweeds, trilobites, crinoids, and such mollusks as  linguellae and gastropods - all of which seemed of real significance in connection with the region’s primordial  history.”
— H.P. Lovecraft, “At the Mountains of Madness”

 Trilo Temporalis, a trilobitic steel sculpture by Jud Turner.