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.