Interview: The Delphic Wristwatch

The Delphic Wristwatch is the project of musician, artist and librarian, Trevor Thornton. It feels like an ode to getting “carried away”, drifting down passageways of thought and tentative thematic tangents, losing intention somewhere in the thread of discovery. A daydream enacted in music and spoken literary text. At a time when the real world feels like an increasingly unpleasant place to occupy, it’s been nice to spend evenings tumbling through Thorton’s collages of astray ephemera. Below, we discuss memories of Disney World, using speech as a musical component and the act of serendipitous discovery.

I realise that The Delphic Wristwatch doesn’t lend itself to an “in-a-nutshell” description, but if you wouldn’t mind having a stab at it…what exactly is The Delphic Wristwatch?

It’s technically an audio podcast, but that really just describes how it’s distributed. Each episode combines a collage of spoken texts (taken from pre-existing sources, primarily those produced by Librivox) with music to create what I think of as abstract radio plays.

I’m a huge of podcasts. They seem to hover somewhere between the transience of radio and the durability of fixed forms of media; a strange juncture between the eternally-renewing now and the accumulation of the past. What do you enjoy about working in the podcast format? Does it enable certain ideas/ways of working that wouldn’t be possible in another medium?

I’ve been making and releasing music on my own for a long time, like a lot of people. In the old days I would make CD-Rs that I mostly gave away, then I eventually stopped doing that and started releasing things online, but still thinking of them in terms of “albums”. I think of The Delphic Wristwatch as one album that is constantly being added to, which is kind of how a podcast feed functions – it’s a series of individual pieces that together comprise a cumulative work, one that is a constantly in the process of becoming something new as it expands.

The podcast’s musical passages have a beautiful relationship with the stretches of speech; it’s very synaesthesic, in terms of how the instruments enact literary imagery and vice versa. Was all of the music composed specifically for The Delphic Wristwatch?

Most of it was. Some bits are taken from older recordings, and some are things I’d written previously and re-recorded for The Delphic Wristwatch, but the majority is composed specifically for each episode.

I understand that you work as a librarian. Am I right to suspect that The Delphic Wristwatch is inspired by your experiences in this profession? I’m curious as to whether the podcast could be seen as analogous to your day-to-day exposure to so many different literary ideas, authors, points in history…

There’s an idea in libraries (and in the world generally, I suppose) called “serendipitous discovery”. This refers to the act of browsing the shelf looking for something and, in the process, finding other things that you weren’t looking for. The way that large, academic libraries are organized, there is a connection between physical proximity and subject relationships – books that are closely related in subject are close to each other in space. As you move through the space you are effectively traversing connections between different ideas, and where you end up may be very different from where you started. This is kind of the way The Delphic Wristwatch works, except the movement is through time instead of space.

You work heavily with public domain audiobooks. I see that the work of Nietzsche crops up more than once. Do you have a personal connection to any of these books?

Some of them. Nietzsche is a difficult one – after he died his sister and her Nazi husband got control of his writings and twisted them into anti-semitic propaganda, which it absolutely was not. He is still often taken out of context for evil purposes. I’m taking him out of context as well, but for more positive purposes, I hope.

Ulysses comes up a lot. I’m not especially well-read but I’ve read that, which was kind of a project. Also The Wind in the Willows: I’ve tried to read that to both of my daughters and they had no patience for it. The sentences are very long.

The episode called “Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight” ends with cut-up selections from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which I’ve never read, but there used to be a 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea submarine ride at Disney World. I’m from Florida and I went to Disney World a lot growing up. They also have The Hall of Presidents there, with animatronic Abraham Lincoln. I discovered the poem “Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight” kind of randomly while searching through the Librivox recordings on the Internet Archive (archive.org), and I put it together with the 20,000 Leagues material to make a kind of play where Lincoln and Nemo are walking around Disney World after hours, in the dark. So, in each of those cases, I have a personal relationship with the original works but in a very indirect way.

Ideally, I prefer using things that I don’t have any particular affinity for, because it removes my personal bias from the process to some degree. I’m really more interested in the emotional impact of the words than I am about their original contexts, but it can be difficult to separate the two.

I’ve been listening to The Delphic Wristwatch at night, and the experience seems somewhat heightened for being half-asleep. My senses feel softer and more pliable; the collages seem to float through me more freely. In your mind, is there an optimum listening environment for this podcast?

Headphones in the dark, I think it’s that kind of thing. The music is pretty dense – there is a lot going on, and the focus is constantly shifting, which I think accounts for the experience you’re describing.

I stumbled across Chris Morris’ Blue Jam recently, which seems to share the principle of using a transient medium to drag the listener, blindly, through the hallucinatory and the unknown. Are there any particular inspirations for The Delphic Wristwatch?

A couple of things. The first is Einstein on the Beach by Philip Glass and Robert Wilson, which is where I was first introduced to the idea of integrating music and speech in this way, treating the speech as an element of the musical composition rather than just having someone speaking over music. The second was the radio show Over the Edge, which is produced by members of Negativland on KPFA in Berkeley, California. The show is produced live and combines (among other things) sampled speech and music. This where I think I first got the idea for using pre-existing recorded speech in long-form compositions.

Where does The Delphic Wristwatch go from here? Do you have a plan to release a particular number of episodes and then stop, or will the podcast go on indefinitely?

I’ve said that if I ever get to 96 episodes I’ll stop, because since each one is exactly 15 minutes long, 96 of them would make exactly 24 hours, and that just appeals to me. I don’t know if I’ll make it that far, though. For now I’m just proceeding one episode at a time. I’ve been a bit sidetracked lately, to be honest, because my country (the USA) just elected a racist TV clown to be its president, and a lot of us are trying to figure out what we can do to make things sane again. I imagine that this will influence the work I do in the future, one way or another.