Pollex Christi (Latin for "The Big Digit Of Christ") is a composition by avant-garde music theorist The Mysterious N. Senada. Composed around 1936-1937, shortly before Senada fled Germany for northern Canada, Pollex Christi consists of a series of interpolations of famous classical music compositions, with three "holes" left in the composition, to be filled with music of the performers' choosing.
The piece had never been recorded until 1996 (three years after Senada's death), when The Residents recorded the composition with the assistance of Senada's assistant Max Steinway. Pollex Christi was released as a limited edition EP on what would have been Senada's 90th birthday, May 28th 1997.
Pollex Christi was composed by N. Senada as a "blueprint", ie. a set of instructions on how to construct the piece out of existing works. Essentially, Senada takes sections from other people's compositions and has the performer assemble them into a "house of bricks", much as some of the composers being plagiarized used existing folk music to build their own works on. The difference is that not one note of Senada's composition is original.
Senada's blueprints often had "holes" in them, meant to be filled with whatever the performers felt should fill them. His reasoning, based on his "house" metaphor, was that the people should contribute to the construction of their own homes. Three such "holes" are featured sequentially in Pollex Christi (in parts 1, 2, and 5). It is deliberately very difficult to play, because Senada wanted mistakes to be included in each performance, introducing "unimaginable variations" into the music.
The piece opens with the famous first eight notes of Ludwig van Beethoven's fifth symphony. According to The Residents, Senada was using what is arguably Beethoven's most recognizable motif in order to make the statement "I didn't write these notes, nor, probably, any of the others". It then develops into the musical quotation which forms the bulk and backbone of the work: Carl Orff's Carmina Burana. The piece then interpolates Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle and a sonata by Johann Sebastian Bach, before returning to the main body of Carmina Burana. The entire work ends as it began, with the end of the first movement of Beethoven's fifth.
- Ludwig Van Beethoven - Symphony No. 5
- Charles Ives - Concord Sonata
- Carl Orff - Carmina Burana
- Johann Sebastian Bach - Brandenberg Concerto III
- Carl Orff - Carmina Burana
- Richard Wagner - Tristan und Isolde
- Richard Wagner - Overture To Tannhäuser
- Carl Orff - Carmina Burana (Meadow Dance)
- Carl Orff - Uf Dem Anger, Tanz
The Residents' version
Three years following the death of N. Senada, The Residents met with Max Steinway, life companion and assistant of the late composer and quickly began collaborating together on a tribute to Senada. Steinway shared Senada's Pollex Christi with the group and suggested that it would be perfect for them to interpret. He transferred the composition to MIDI for The Residents, and played piano on the final recording.
When presented with the "holes" left in the composition by Senada, The Residents chose to fill them with well-known television theme songs. In Part 1, they use the theme from "Peter Gunn" by Henry Mancini (which they had previously sampled in their song "Fire" in 1972). In Part 2, The Residents interpolate the theme from "Star Trek" by Alexander Courage, and in Part 5 they use "I'm Popeye The Sailor Man" by Sammy Lerner.
Elements of the piece inspired The Residents to create their next project, the live performance piece Disfigured Night. In the late 2010s, Pollex Christi was identified on Hardy Fox's Hacienda Bridge website as being one of the earliest examples of a Charles Bobuck solo project credited to The Residents.
Release and reissues
The EP was released in May of 1997, in two limited runs of 400. The first pressing was hand-numbered. Pollex Christi was featured in its entirety on the compilation album Best Left Unspoken... Volume One in 2006, and edits of the piece have appeared on various compilations since.
Pollex Christi was reissued on 12" vinyl on 19th September 2020 by Psychofon Records and the Eyeball Museum, in a standard black vinyl edition as as well as a limited edition pressing of 100 on marbled green vinyl. The vinyl edition was released alongside Andrew Hook's biography of N. Senada, O for Obscurity, Or, The Story of N., the first printing of which featured a lime green cover matching that of the limited vinyl.
- Part 1 (5:09)
- Part 2 (5:19)
- Part 3 (2:54)
- Part 4 (2:17)
- Part 5 (3:29)
When first introduced as a "composer" to the artists-who-were-soon-to-be-known-as-The Residents, N. Senada quickly explained that he was a poor composer, but an excellent "architect." He explained that he built "houses of bricks." His bricks were chunks from the works of various composers.
"I am not the composer of the bricks, I just cement them together," he said. "I am the composer of the house. It is the house that is important: its form, its usefulness, its sense of joy."
N. Senada thereby explained his most important theorem, which, in 1935, launched him into Pre-Post-Modernism. His native Germany had no idea what to make of him, citing him as a plagiarist, a thief, and a cultural pagan. Nonplused, N. Senada agreed, but asked, "If a man steals philosophy from many great thinkers and combines them into a new philosophy, is he not yet another great thinker?"
A great thinker he was, but that proved of so little value in prewar Germany that in 1938 he moved to Northern Canada to escape what he perceived as a nation gone mad. He continued to think, but refused to create new compositions, stating only that the music in him was "too frightened."
Though most of his work was destroyed, some of his compositions, which he called "Blueprints" did survive. Much of his published philosophical writings can still be found in libraries.
Pollex Christi, which means either "The Big Toe of Christ" or "The Thumb of Christ," is one of the Blueprints that N. Senada brought with him to Canada. Written in 1936-37, it stands as a model of N. Senada's philosophy.
It is a massive collision of Germanic themes. "Stealing from the best," he would say. He meant that the composers he admired most: Wagner, Beethoven, Orff, Bach; had also lifted folk tunes to integrate into their works. He felt that music was constant and he was merely another in the long human line bringing these ancient tunes into the present.
Not one to hide, even for a moment, behind the romantic illusion of "the artist," he launched Pollex Christi unabashedly with the opening four notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. These are arguably the most well-known series of notes in history. Beethoven made a statement when he wrote those notes.
He wished it understood this was the entire piece of music in its most perfect form.
N. Senada used the same four notes to tell the listener something entirely different: "I didn't write these notes, nor, probably, any of the others." Therefore, this music was not about notes.
Sections of Pollex Christi, and his other works, were difficult to perform because he felt that the pace of life in 1936 was so much faster than the music had to be played faster as well. N. Senada's belief was that the attempt to play his compositions at impossible speeds became their most interesting aspect.
"It will continually offer unimaginable variations," he would say.
"If the audience wants perfectly played music, let them listen to angels. Human music should stumble along most pitifully." Pollex Christi was particularly known for its pitiful, though plaintive "guitar tuning" solo.
The most curious aspect of N. Senada's compositions, Pollex Christi included, were the holes. If he were indeed building brick houses, then he intentionally left out some of the bricks. He believed it was imperative for their happiness that the person who lived in a house contribute to the building of that house.
These compositional spaces required the performer or conductor to "fill in the holes."
The type of hole-filler he encouraged were short popular pieces that were in contrast to the surrounding composition. He often said that those were the only parts he truly enjoyed when he heard his work performed.
As this is the first recording of Pollex Christi in its 60-year history, N. Senada, who would have been 90 this year, must be pleased to hear something other than perfectly played angel music.
This recording could not have been realized without the aid of Max Steinway, N. Senada's life companion and assistant. Max not only provided the Blueprint but explained it to The Residents. About half of the composition was input into the computer by Max, and it is Max you will hear pounding away on the piano.
- N. Senada
- Max Steinway
- Charles Bobuck
- Hardy Fox
- O for Obscurity, Or, The Story of N.
- Best Left Unspoken... Volume One
- Pollex Christi at The Residents Historical
- Pollex Christi at Discogs
- Pollex Christiat Psychofon Records
|The Mysterious N. Senada|
(1907 - 1993)