Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Thursday, 10 July 2008

In the beginning was the sound… (part two)

Music is the very essence of what things are. – Eli Siegel ('Speech of Moon in the Heart of Ceylon')

Words and music (or Bob and Joe as they prefer to be called)

In 1961 Samuel Beckett wrote a number of radio plays that incorporate music: Words and Music, Cascando and Rough for Radio I all of which incorporated music. I have already written extensively about them so if you want to know the details please check out the various Wikipedia articles. I doubt they've been altered much since I first posted them. The main thing that's common to all three plays is that Beckett doesn't use the music as accompaniment; the music is a character in its own right. A theme running through all of Beckett’s writing has been the impossibility of meaningful expression through words alone and these plays were an experiment on Beckett's part to investigate the relationship between words and music.

If I can focus on Words and Music, in the play Words (Joe) and Music (Bob) play the part of two servants. They’ve probably been together for a great many years and rubbing each other up the wrong way has become a means of entertaining themselves when they’re not performing for their master. Bob is actually portrayed by a small orchestra who responds musically to Joe and his master, Croak. Beckett didn't compose the music himself. John Beckett, his cousin, wrote it based on instructions from the author, himself a more than competent pianist. Other composers have had a crack at it since.

When Katharine Worth asked Beckett about the relationship between the two figures in this radio play, he said: "Music always wins." Similarly, Beckett told Theodor W. Adorno "that it definitely ends with the victory of music". In what way though? Joe is certainly rendered speechless by the end of the play which really emphasises what Beckett was starting to realise, the limited power of words.

There is precedence for this: in Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf (1936) the different characters and animals which the narrator refers to are illustrated by the orchestra and in silent film, music has often been used as a substitute for verbal dialogue, so that we come to associate particular types of music with particular characters. This has carried on into modern cinema with the work of composers like John Williams who, notably from Jaws onward, reintroduced the use of leitmotifs, specific themes to go with major characters.

Beckett considered his writing as musical in both shape and sound. He was not alone in this either. This was something his friend, Robert Pinget, also had strong opinions on and this is evidenced most noticeably in his 1969 novel Passacaglia which is an attempt to transpose into prose that particular musical form.

Music was an essential part of Beckett's life and what I find interesting is my Faber Companion to Samuel Beckett devotes seven pages to 'Music' but only four to 'Waiting for Godot'. Beckett's works often have musical titles like Cascando, Ghost Trio (after Beethoven) and Nacht und Träume (after Schubert) and it is virtually impossible to read a description of one of his works, and that includes the prose works, without using musical terminology. Billie Whitelaw, who has literally had to work with a metronome clicking away while she rehearsed under Beckett, has described Not I as "like music, a piece of Schoenberg in the head" and Footfalls, she says is "a moving, musical Edvard Munch painting".

Anne Atik, the poet (and wife of the distinguished painter Avigdor Arikha) who first met Beckett in 1959, had this to say about him:

Our evenings consisted of music before or after dinner, and poetry in between.

His way of reciting poetry was at the polar opposite of the French school of declamation. In reciting, Sam sang, sometimes crooned; in Apollinaire's refrain "voie lactee," from La Chanson du Mal Aimed, he kept nearly the same line intervals as a blackbird's.

He recited other lines as though they were tone poems, Debussy with a burr, so to speak; or rather, like a lied, which, in fact, in later times, was the musical form he always came back to, those of Schumann, Brahms and Schubert, especially Schubert's Lieder – Beckett as Reader, The American Poetry Review, Sep/Oct 1999

What is interesting about the comment about the blackbird is the fact that the sound poet Bob Cobbing was famous for suggesting "that we should aspire to birdsong". In a lengthy article about Sound Poetry in the UK, Peter Finch begins by referring to Cobbing's statement and then continues:

I don’t think he meant that we should actually sing like birds but rather we should adopt the same attitude they have towards the making of sounds. Loosen the connection between word and meaning, let consciousness’s iron control slip back, allow the air back in. – 57 Productions

In Beckett's œuvre the most startling example of this is the fluttering, gabbling words that pour out of the voice of a disembodied mouth in Not I. In this piece, Beckett made an important point to Jessica Tandy: he hoped that the piece would "work on the nerves of the audience, not its intellect," the words were not as important as the effect, as the sound.

I can recall nothing that I've ever read that says that Beckett wrote to music but I've forgotten far more than I can remember about his life and work. Which brings us neatly to the next topic:

Background music (What do composers listen to when they write?)

Probably the main way in which music comes into play with writers is at the time of writing. I think the simplest way to illustrate the various points of views is with a few quotes culled from the Web:

Margaret Mayo: I’ve been writing to music today. Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. It’s amazing what a difference it makes. Inspiration flows so much more quickly.

Sheyna Galyan: Writing to music helps the words flow, I've found, and eliminates the echoes of badly written sentences bouncing around in my head. The trick, however, is finding the right music.

Jeffrey Thomas: I very much like writing to music without vocals. It’s more like I’m writing the words to the song, then. It’s more like a real movie soundtrack to the action unfolding on the silver screen of my monitor. And I often listen to actual movie soundtracks while I’m writing.

Scarlett Thomas: Music tends to be what I do when I'm not writing, though. I can do academic writing to music, but I can't have it on when I'm writing fiction. I get over-excited and think I'm writing something great when it's actually shit.

Jason Lusk: [W]riting to music serves more than one purpose. If you use it for inspiration, music can help you relax, or it can put fire in the blood, depending on what type of inspiration you want. But music can drown out the rest of the world, helping you find the isolation you need to compose.

J.L. Murphey: Even with sadness, you follow the words and music through the piece. When I'm writing sadness, or depression or lost soul passages, it has to be Mozart's Requiem or Beethoven's Für Elise. To me there is nothing so downcast or broken. It will bring tears to your eyes. When I look at my writing of these scenes, I want my readers to feel what the character is feeling.

S.P. Somtow: The reason I was able to switch easily back and forth between writing and music was that I didn't really change the creative process. The basic structures of my writing are still musical structures. I see plot strands as musical themes, and develop them the same way. My writing is writing that I hear.

Willy Vlautin: You know I wrote a whole novel to soundtrack music but it didn't turn out so hot. I had to throw it out. So I don't let myself listen to music anymore while I write. It sure was fun though. It was a real blast, but the writing was slop – a real constant sloppy that had never happened before.

Stephen Clarke: If I listen to music, I can't concentrate on the words I’m writing. I play guitar and bass, so if I’m sitting at the computer trying to write, I’ll be playing the bass line in my head or working out the chords.

Gayle Brandeis: I have a hard time listening to music while I write, especially if the music has lyrics—the words from the song fill my brain and make it hard for me to squeeze any other words in or out. My husband is in two bands, and they sometimes rehearse at our house. For a while, I couldn't write while they played—there was just too much sound reverberating through the walls (and my husband plays pedal steel guitar, which creates a frequency that seems to cancel out thought for me, kind of like a dog whistle)—but I've become so familiar with their music, I can tune it out now if I have to get some work done.

Words and music and me (The soundtrack to my life)

I'm not sure where my love of music comes from. I have way more tapes and CDs than I have books. It wasn't from either parent. They both had no problem singing around the house (my dad thought he sounded like Bing Crosby, my mum like Gracie Fields) but they didn't own a record between them. When I was a kid we had an old gramophone but I was thirteen before we got our first record-player. Like I said at the start, I used to use an old reel-to-reel to listen to music before that.

For me, it depends what I'm writing how much background noise I can tolerate. At the moment I'm writing this to the dulcet tones of Top of the Pops 2. When I was younger I could write to anything; Deep Purple, Pink Floyd, Genesis, Rick Wakeman were some of my favourites but you could just as easily hear Khachaturian, Rachmaninov or even Duke Ellington blaring out the Quadraphonic music centre's speakers; I was never out of the local record library.

Nowadays I can't write fiction if I'm listening to music with lyrics though I'll be honest I'm not sure how much I actually listen to what's being played once I start getting into my work. I have distinct memories of putting a CD on and discovering that it had ended without being aware of any music actually happening. To be honest, in the early days the reason for the music was to drown out the rest of my family. I was quite lucky to have a room downstairs that was effectively an office.

My favourite composers these days are the likes of Philip Glass, Arvo Pärt and Einojuhani Rautavaara though I also listen to a lot of soundtracks (James Newton Howard and James Horner are favourite composers). I have to say I've never put on music to suit what I'm writing or to put me in a particular mood. It's a thing that never occurred to me until I read on-line about people doing it.

That doesn't mean I don't think about writing in musical terms. I used to write music in my teens and early twenties and I work in exactly the same way, starting with the first note/word and moving on until the end. I mean that, there should be a natural flow from beginning to end, like a symphonic poem.

Conclusion (Hurry up, Jim, I'm reading this in my tea break)

There is a short essay by Timothy J. O’Shannassy – a Graduate School of Communication and Creative Industries, University of Westminster – called The Modern Novel as a Performance Event in which he discusses how we may regard contemporary fiction as a musical form. The example he uses is part of the novel Great Jones Street by Don DeLillo. I'll jump straight to his conclusion (it's a bit wordy but bear with him):

Upon identifying onomatopœia and audiovisual metaphor as performative qualities within the DeLillo text I have suggested the reader will more likely draw upon acoustic memory when apprehending this monologue. Thus I have noted the possibility of the reader being influenced by musical conventions when making sense of onomatopœia and the audiovisual trope. Hence we might understand how questions concerning musical form become relevant when reading particular literary works. I can thereby gesture toward musicology as a disciplinary means by which we may better understand what we hear when we listen while reading certain examples of the modern novel.

I told you it was wordy.

What is clear though from all the above is that writers cannot escape music. They may not work with it blaring in their ears but they can't get it out of their heads. It influences the flow of their words and the form they choose to use. Words and Music may, as Beckett presents them, squabble from time to time but like most of his other pairs, they're stuck with each and are going to stay stuck with each other for a long time.


Rachel Fox said...

Fascinating first section about Beckett and music. Maybe you'll get us all hooked on the old guy yet...

Jim Murdoch said...

You could do an awful lot worse, Rachel. What I respect so much about him was his willingness to change. His early work suffers because of his loyalty to Joyce who, as you know, is complicated in his own way. But Beckett didn't stick with what he knew, he allowed himself to develop and become his own kind of writer who was - surprisingly - a lot less interested in words than you'd expect for a writer. Considering who I am and how I write he's a odd kind of hero for me to have.

Rachel Fox said...

Odd kinds of heroes are the best (if not the only) ones worth having!

Anonymous said...

No more heroes anymore! And it's Beckett's horror of adulation and fierce personal privacy that gives final substance to my interest in him beyond the works (which I would count as the greatest of post-war theatre.)

There's only one piece of music that I might have playing deliberately when writing - 'Discreet Music' by Brian Eno. Wordless, without rhythmic pulse, truly ambient. But, yes, Glass, Pärt, Reich, John Adams may set a mood, or underpin a mood already in place.

Unknown said...

You're right, quite wordy, but a very enjoyable post. I was a bit daunted at first, but it was a great read.


Jim Murdoch said...

Dick, I can see behind all the ambient stuff there's a Stranglers fan lurking in the dark. Me too. I'm actually not sure if I've heard Discreet Music – he wrote so much. You should give his brother Roger Eno a go too. I've got three of his albums but the one I listen to the most is Voices although I don't think there are actually any voices on the album.

And, Brady, glad to see you weren't put off. I'm writing a post at the moment about poetry and art and some of the quotes are just so off-putting. I really hate people who wrap up what they have to say in pretentious waffle. I include them because they're a part of what we writers have to contend with. It's also what scares our potential readers away and a warning to us to remember who we're talking to.

Art Durkee said...

S.P. Somtow says it best in this list, for me. His prose IS very musical. ("Starship and Haiku," an early and little-known novel is explicit about the linkages between the arts and life.) Of course you know I think very highly of Beckett, and his use of music as a character. In another way, "Krapp's Last Tape" uses a similar characterization of the verbal and non-verbal together making meaning, while the verbal alone is insufficient. (I've pretty always agreed with this.)

As a composer, I often listen to nothing when I write or play, as I need the silence for the music to rise up from within. For poetry, pretty much the same thing happens. I mostly listen to music when I make visual art. The deeper I get back into my creative process, which has been deflected by life a lot lately, the more I rely on silence.

Jim Murdoch said...

Art, I suspect that a part of it at least is getting older. When I was in my teens and twenties I had music on all the time but as I've grown older I've come to appreciate silence more. Looking back a lot of the times I never heard what was actually playing, not properly. I heard the click of the tape coming to an end, I got up, changed it over and the next thing I knew I was doing it all again twenty-odd minutes later.

Dave King said...

I'm with Art in that I prefer to have silence when I'm writing, but like to have music when I'm making visual art. Becket has long been one of my heroes, and I can relate absolutely to his suggestion that meaningful expression is not possible through words alone, and much of what follows in your post follows on from that proposition. However, there is a reverse side to the coin, a side which I find increasingly disturbing these days: so often it seems to me that with lesser writers (and let's face it 99.99% are lesser writers) the music is getting in the way of the words.

Jim Murdoch said...

Beckett's radio plays were a real eye-opener to me, Dave, and I got to see a whole different side to his thinking. His canon can be broken down into distinct sections both in subject matter and how he tackles that subject matter. I see him as a man searching, struggling to find an appropriate means of expression. It was a great pleasure to listen to them and then study them and, finally, write the Wikipedia articles on them; before I started there was no reference to his radio works at all. Understanding them better has been a help to appreciating his approach to later works. It all really comes down to a word I use a lot in relation to poetry: structure. Structure is more easily identifiable in a musical composition but that doesn't mean that text-based works can't be described using similar terminology.

Dave King said...

I have just discovered an interesting article in today's Guardian, Joathan Coe writing about the relationship between words and music, and specifically about his project to write the words of a one hour play to a (pre-existing) High Llamas play list. He speaks of it as "spoken musical theatre". You can read the article here

Molly Brogan said...

For me it boils down to - how many of the reader's senses can you excite at once while keeping them in the rhythm and flow of the piece? There is a greater depth to their experience if you can completely involve them.

On stage or film, you are charged with exciting the senses directly, and through imagination - the double challenge. In print, your words excite the senses through imagination. And yet, there is a spirit to the words that speaks to the soul of the reader, and moves them in ways beyond the mere word. As Leonard Cohen would say, "there's a blaze of light in every word, it doesn't matter which you heard, the holy, or the broken Hallelujah." Molly Brogan

Jim Murdoch said...

Interesting article, Dave, though I have to say I was more interested in the scraps of details about Stan Tracey's suite inspired by 'Under Milk Wood' and Laurie Anderson collaboration with William Burroughs – I've been a fan of hers for a long time.

And, Molly, good ol' Leonard to the rescue. My wife – who has everything he's ever recorded – and I sat one morning last week and listened to snippets of ' Hallelujah' from off YouTube after hearing k.d. lang sing it at the end of a televised concert. You've reminded me of a documentary about him where he talked about his writing technique and just how long it takes him to refine his lyrics. A compliment that was paid to me by someone who read an early draft of my first book was that I always used the right word for the job. They should've seen the thing then I'd finished interrogating every sentence. To my ear the whole book flows like a musical composition from the first word to the last and that's what I look for in good writing.

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