Bloomsday, James Joyce, Kate and The Sensual World

Happy Bloomsday! I thought I’d re-publish this piece I wrote a few years back about Kate’s song, The Sensual World, as I know a lot of you particularly like to listen to it today – on June 16th. Of course we’re spoiled altogether now as in 2011 Kate released “Flower of the Mountain” – her version, finally, with Joyce’s original words. It was a sublime treat. On balance though, I’d say her greatest artistic achievement came on the earlier track. Creative frustration and sheer perseverance blended to forge something truly exceptional. ~ Seán

Off Howth Head and into the flesh...

James Joyce’s Ulysses has long been hailed as a masterpiece since its publication in 1922. The character of Molly Bloom looms large over the events of the single day in Dublin depicted in the story. The novel takes place on 16th June 1904, the day of Joyce and Nora Barnacle’s first date, now celebrated as Bloomsday. It was Joyce’s intention for the novel to have Homeric parallels and Molly, the wife of Leopold Bloom, represents Penelope. Unlike her faithful mythical counterpart she is having an adulterous affair with Hugh ‘Blazes’ Boylan after ten years of celibacy. Her celebrated internal monologue, which concludes the novel, takes the form of eight enormous “sentences”, with only two marks of punctuation in the entire episode. Molly accepts Leopold into her bed, frets about his health, and then reminisces about their first meeting and her first feelings of love for him. The episode both begins and ends with “yes”, a word that Joyce described as “the female word”. Earlier, Leopold had been having a cheese sandwich and glass of Burgundy in Davey Byrne’s pub and thinking of the moment in the spring or summer of 1888 when Molly agreed to marry him, among the ferns and rhododendrons on Howth Head with just a comical nanny-goat to witness it. This deeply romantic reminiscence, parts of which recur several times in Ulysses, includes the description of Molly passing the warm and chewed seed-cake from her mouth to his. Their love, at least sixteen years before, was passionate, erotic and vital.

The Sensual World

More than sixty years after the publication of Ulysses, Kate Bush was working on the follow-up to her 1985 ‘Hounds of Love’ album, which is now widely hailed as her own masterpiece. Around this time Kate had written an instrumental piece of music, a rhythmic melody that strongly suggested the cadence of Molly Bloom’s speech. Kate’s introduction to the final passage of Ulysses had been a 1958 recording of the soliloquy by the Irish actress Siobhan McKenna. Kate was transfixed by the beauty and femininity of the writing. “It’s like this never-ending sentence, this long train of thought, and the only thing that punctuates it is the word “yes” and it very gradually accelerates. I just thought it was one of the most sensual pieces ever written.” The words from the book matched perfectly to the music. “It was just like it was meant to be. The words fitted – they just fitted. The whole thing fitted, it was ridiculous…”

The music was recorded at Windmill Lane studios in Dublin, arranged by Bill Whelan. The featured players were Davey Spillane on uilleann pipes, Donal Lunny on bouzuki, John Sheahan on fiddle, Charlie Morgan on drums and Del Palmer on bass. Kate’s brother Paddy would be credited on the sleeve-notes with playing ‘whips’ on the record, an error he quickly rectified. “I’m actually playing a pair of fishing rods. I wanted to get the impression of a beautiful Irish lakeland and the swishing sound of the rods should conjure the atmosphere of fly-fishing, tweed hats and long Wellingtons.”

Kate’s good cheer at this progress was short-lived however. The Joyce estate would not grant her permission to use the words directly from the book. Attempts to change their minds continued for about a year. “We approached the relevant people and they just would not let me use them. No way. I tried everything. Obviously, I was very disappointed. It was completely their prerogative, but it was very difficult for me, then, to re-approach the song. In some ways I wanted to just leave it off the album. But we’d put a lot of work into it. The Irish musicians had worked so hard.”

Kate with peachDespite this frustration Kate set about completely transforming her song. “I gradually rewrote it, keeping the same rhythm of the words and the same sounds but turning it into its own story.” The piece, now titled The Sensual World, became about Molly Bloom the character stepping out of the book world, a black and white two-dimensional world, into the real world. “The immediate impression was the sensuality of this world. The fact that you can touch things, that is so sensual – the colours of trees, the feel of the grass on the feet, the touch of this in the hand, the fact that it is such a sensual world. I think for me that is an incredibly important thing about this planet, that we are surrounded by such sensuality and yet we tend not to see it like that. I’m sure for someone who had never experienced it before it would be quite a devastating thing.” Later in her career Kate returned to this theme, a euphoric appreciation of everyday experience, on her ‘Aerial’ album in 2005 to huge critical acclaim.

The song opens with the sound of church bells, perhaps echoing Leopold’s proposal to Molly on Howth Head. “I’ve got a thing about the sound of bells. It’s one of those fantastic sounds: a sound of celebration. They’re used to mark points in life; births, weddings, deaths, but they give this tremendous feeling of celebration. In the original speech Molly’s talking of the time when Leopold proposed to her, and I just had the image of bells, this image of them sitting on the hillside with the sound of bells in the distance. In hindsight I also think it’s a lovely way to start an album. A feeling of celebration that puts me on a hillside somewhere on a sunny afternoon.”

Sensual World Video

A piece of traditional Macedonian music (called ‘Antice’) was re-worked to fit the ‘stepping out…’ chorus in the song’s new structure. The song would become the lead single for her new album, also titled ‘The Sensual World’. The accompanying promotional video had Kate, swathed in a velvet gown, dancing hypnotically through woodland as the sunlight turns to dusk, moonlight and back to sunrise again. In interviews in the autumn of 1989 Kate explained that the song and album contained the most positive female energy of her work to date.

“In some ways, like on Hounds Of Love, it was important for me to get across the sense of power in the songs that I’d associated with male energy and music. I didn’t feel that this time. I wanted to express myself as a woman in my music, rather than as a woman wanting to sound as powerful as a man. And definitely the song The Sensual World was very much a female track for me. I felt it was a really new expression, feeling good about being a woman musically.”

Sensual World video

Just as Kate had ignited a renewed interest in Emily Brontë’s novel with the global success of the song Wuthering Heights, it is also likely that many curious souls have taken the plunge into the extraordinary pages of Joyce’s Ulysses (and beyond) upon hearing a woman at the height of her musical powers interpret Molly Bloom’s rich inner life in such a unique and perfect way.

Two excerpts from Ulysses by James Joyce

“…the sun shines for you he said the day we were lying among the rhododendrons on Howth head in the grey tweed suit and his straw hat the day I got him to propose to me yes first I gave him the bit of seedcake out of my mouth and it was leapyear like now yes 16 years ago my God after that long kiss I near lost my breath yes he said I was a flower of the mountain yes so we are flowers all a womans body yes…”

“….and O that awful deepdown torrent O and the sea the sea crimson sometimes like fire and the glorious sunsets and the figtrees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and the pink and blue and yellow houses and the rosegardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses and Gibraltar as a girl where I was a Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I thought well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.”

Sensual World Video

About Seán

Seán Twomey has been running the Kate Bush News & Information site since January 1998.
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