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What's in a name?


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kazakKazak, Winston Niles Rumfoord's faithful dog disappears with his master into the finality of the chrono-synclastic infundibulum. Animal lovers in the choir demand his return.We are often asked about the choir's name. The conversation usually runs along the lines, "That's an unusual name for a choir." The obvious answer to this is, of course, "Well, it's an unusual choir," but people always seem to insist on a fuller explanation.

Here are some little known facts about the choir's name for those seeking enlightenment...

sirens of titan bok coverThe first edition of The Sirens of Titan published in 1959The Book - The Sirens of Titan

The name is derived from the title of a novel by Kurt Vonnegut, published in 1959, in which the hapless principal character, Malachi Constant, is subjected to a whole series of catastrophic life changes before, during and after a Martian invasion of earth, particularly in the episode on Mars during which he is called "Unk", although he has understandable difficulty remembering this fact. Most of these events are predicted by the delightfully cynical Winston Niles Rumfoord who is always accompanied by his faithful dog, Kazak.

You can find details of the book here — I have no intentions of even beginning to try to explain the complexities of the chrono-synclastic infundibulum, a fictitious scientific phenomenon which plays a significant part in the story.

unkTruth to tell, there is little or no connection between the book and choral singing.

Sirens in Mythology

Sirens, of course, were creatures of Ancient Greek mythology who sang in order to lure sailors on to the rocks. Various sources cite different numbers of Sirens, between two and five, but the accepted number is usually three: Peisinoe, Aglaope, and Thelxiepeia.

19th century picture of sirensA 19th century representation of sirens by Herbert James DraperInterestingly enough, the original Sirens were birdlike creatures which lived in a flowery meadow (albeit still flying off to attack unwary ships) and really it was only much later, pretty much in Christian times, that they came to be thought of as a form of sea creature, effectively mermaids, luring sailors to destruction with their sinful singing and beauty. This was so much the case that in a number of European languages (Portugese, Romanian, French, Spanish, Italian and Polish) the term used for mermaid is directly derived from sirens.

Probably the best known modern version of the legend is that of Die Lorelei, the woman reputed to live on the rock of that name in the River Rhine, who lured sailors to their deaths by her singing. (It should be mentioned that this rock is situated at the narrowest part of the Rhine between Switerland and the sea. A great many sailors have perished there over the years.)

There are a number of classical songs which refer to this redoubtable lady. However, my own personal favourite is by George and Ira Gershwin whose song, The Lorelei, includes the wonderful line:

"I want to bite my initials upon a sailor's neck"

surface of titan - NASANASA's artist's impression of Saturn as seen from the surface of Titan

Titan - Saturn's largest moon

Titan is the largest of Saturn's moons, which is a fascinating and, probably, under certain circumstances, even useful piece of knowledge. It used to be thought the largest in the Solar System but data from the two Voyager missions showed Jupiter's Ganymede to be slightly larger. There is still some debate about this within the scientific community. There would, however, appear to be complete consensus that Titan would be an unlikely place to come across a choir.

Even more obliquely, the eponymous Sirens of Titan themselves, reputed to be the most gloriously beautiful and seductive creatures in the universe, barely feature in the book.

When all is said and done we just like the name. Actually, it is intended as something of a tribute to its author, Kurt Vonnegut, but that tribute is probably encapsulated within the absolute unlikelihood that a rather dystopian science fiction novel penned in the United States of America in the late fifties could in any way influence the naming of a choir in the West End of Glasgow in 2008. Anyone understanding Vonnegut's rather scornful views on fate and cause and effect would appreciate the irony. Vonnegut died in 2007.

It's also a name that seems to invite inventive adaptations. A favourite example, heard recently was "The Tyrants of Satan".

Crossword enthusiasts will no doubt have already noted that Sirens of Titan is an anagram of often strains and, even less fortunately, first note a sin.

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It is always pitiful when any human being falls into a condition hardly more respectable than that of an animal. How much more pitiful it is when the person who falls has had all the advantages!
Kurt Vonnegut