A Chat with Trevor Thornton, Creator of The Delphic Wristwatch


The Delphic Wristwatch is a fascinating project. Combining a wide array of musical influences with narration from various themes, messages, and ideas from literature and philosophy, Trevor Thornton has created something effectively rather difficult to describe in words. Technically, it’s a podcast. But in his own words, it’s more of a “Dadaist dark ride from some other universe’s EPCOT Center.”

Musically, this project features swirling, hypnotic textures that gradually evolve and shift. Thematically, each episode is hard to pin down, and there’s definitely a sense that the interpretation of what all the voices we hear are saying is mostly up to us. Each episode is accompanied by a long list of citations, which features everything from The Adventures of Pinocchio to the Kama Sutra. I asked Trevor some questions about the project, and he certainly does a better job of explaining it than I do:


Tell us about Trevor Thornton.

I’m a librarian, musician and artist, not necessarily in that order, but not necessarily not in that order. I’m originally from Florida where I grew up obsessed with EPCOT Center (more on that later) and music. I lived in the San Francisco Bay area for a while where I played and made music alone and with other people. Then I lived in New York for some years, where I was mostly being a librarian. Now I live in North Carolina where I do some of each.

What inspired you to start this project?

I’d been thinking for a long time about doing something that combined music and “spoken word” – narration, language, talking, whatever. A couple of years ago I hit on the idea of doing this as a podcast, because I realized that, whatever it was, it would resemble a talk-radio-style podcast on some basic level. I also liked the idea of using the mechanisms available for subscribing to podcasts (e.g. iTunes, RSS) as a method of distribution.

The thing I had in mind, which would become The Delphic Wristwatch through a long process of trial and error, had two main inspirations. The first was Einstein on the Beach by Philip Glass and Robert Wilson, specifically the bits that combine spoken texts with music, or rather use the spoken text as part of the music. The second is the Over the Edge radio show produced by the members of Negativland (primarily Don Joyce) on KPFA in Berkeley. Each episode was a long crazy audio collage using both recorded and live sources, built around some central idea or theme or conceit.

Who/what are your biggest musical influences for The Delphic Wristwatch?

I kind of have to answer that in 2 ways. The first goes back to my early EPCOT Center obsession. In its original form (much less so now), EPCOT Center was distinguished by a collection of monumental dark rides. There are still a couple of them there, but the best of them are long gone, though there is ample video and audio documentation. Each ride lasts around 15 minutes, give or take, during which you move slowly through these cavernous spaces filled with animatronic vignettes, films, weird theatrical effects and sound combined to dramatize aspects of some pseudo-educational story. For me, the auditory experience of these rides was and is the most interesting part. Since most of the sound sources in the ride are stationary, the movement of the ride vehicle toward, past, and away from each successive source produces a natural fade-in/presentation/fade-out sequence. There are as many such sequences as there are sound sources, and these overlap and combine according to their spatial distribution. The combination of these sequences defines a temporal form that has both horizontal (one thing happening after another) and vertical (two different things happening simultaneously) aspects. This is the fundamental model for how The Delphic Wristwatch is put together.

That’s the inspiration for the formal structure at the macro level. Then within that structure there are these musical situations, the music proper. The influences on this part are a hodgepodge: Kraftwerk, Brian Eno, Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Terry Riley, Negativland, People Like Us, Madlib, The Bomb Squad, The Octopus Project, The Flaming Lips, Boards of Canada, My Bloody Valentine, George Martin, Martin Denny, Arthur Lyman, Dan Deacon, Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, Aaron Copland, Van Dyke Parks, John Coltrane, John Cage, John Zorn, Jon Brion, Buddy Baker, Joe Meek, cowboy songs, library music, Christmas music, highlife, gamelan, on and on and on.

What hardware/software do you use to compose?

As far as software goes, I pretty much do everything in Ableton Live, plus Audacity for cutting and editing samples. I work on a Mac with a small MIDI controller and a basic USB audio interface. Beyond that, I try to make the most of whatever I have at hand – lots of software synthesizers, a couple of oldish keyboard synths, guitars, effects pedals, things I record on my phone, samples from obscure recordings. I’ve heard that working within constraints like this often produces a more interesting result, and I choose to believe it since it’s really my only option anyway.

It’s fascinating to look through the list of citations you have with each episode, which we hear in the selections of audiobook recordings. How do you go about selecting all these references, and what is the significance of any given reference to it’s episode?

I start each episode with a theme or a set of interrelated themes in mind. I start by looking for sources that relate to the themes, sometimes directly, sometimes very loosely. This is a fairly laborious process, because I don’t necessarily know where I’ll find them, and I end up listening to exponentially more than I will ever use. Along the way I’ll discover passages that appeal to me for some reason but which aren’t really related to the theme, and put these into a pool of samples that I have available to mix in to create some logical dissonance to interrupt the narrative flow or to transition between disparate sections. When I feel like I’ve accumulated enough samples. I’ll start putting them together with the music. This goal in this is not really to tell a story, or to make a case for anything. The themes serve as a context within which a bunch of unrelated or tangentially related ideas are to be understood together. The listener will attempt to make sense of the juxtapositions, to decode the message, or what is perceived as a message. The goal is to provide an experience of mystery, the solution to which exists only in the mind of the listener.

Compositionally, what comes first for you, the music or the audiobook/literary component?

I guess the music, but in putting it together I have an idea for the themes/ideas/subjects that I want to get at in the episode, so while I’m working on the music I’m also gathering material for the talking parts. But I will typically compose and assemble the entirety of the music and then fit the words into it.

What are your goals for the future of The Delphic Wristwatch?

Well, I guess to keep doing it. I’ve set a somewhat arbitrary goal of 96 episodes. Since each episode is exactly 15 minutes long, 96 of them would last 24 hours. These could be put into an infinitely repeating playlist and function as a kind of weird abstract clock, the start of each episode denoting a quarter hour. If I make it that far I will feel obliged to do this, but that will take several years, during which time I imagine that it will evolve in ways that I can’t predict.

At the moment,The Delphic Wristwatch has four episodes:

01: The whatness of a thing
02: Lumo
03: I am a man-horse now
04: Abraham Lincoln walks at midnight