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To set (upon?) a text

What is it to “set” a text? Is that to be read as in “to set in concrete”? To lock down? To fix permanently—and forever? That’s a gangland murder, at least in the old days: the concrete coffin that reposes unglamourously at the bottom of New York harbor.

Or is it to be read as in “to set a diamond”? To render more beautiful? To position perfectly, in a crafted environment? That would seem more appealing; we all want a crown jewel or two in our lives, and all the better if we ourselves make the crown.

But there is still that element of fixity. The jewel in the crown is, after all, in the crown, locked down, clasped, burnished. It has been cut and positioned to be seen at its best, placed into an object that itself is reserved and protected: the jewel in the crown, the crown in its glass case, the crowning jewel of a collection on display.

With a human body the question is much easier; no one would argue that a person is better situated in a block of concrete than outside, walking around, behaving as only that person can. (Except, of course, those who desperately desire that behaviour to end.) But a jewel—now that’s different. Can one really argue that the jewel is better left as a stone on the beach, to be tossed at will in the tides of life—now here, now there, uncut, abraded, entangled in seaweed? Surely a jewel requires a setting.

So . . . what is a text? Is it more like a jewel or like a person?

Many composers would like to assert that texts are jewels. This justifies their work, after all: musical settings make texts shine more brightly, focus light on their deep beauties, reveal the inclusions that characterise them. Composers embrace respect for the poetic “work,” however much they might deny it to the musical canon.

That doesn’t stop composers from editing or repeating or rendering unintelligible the texts they set. But, they might ask, doesn’t a jeweler cut the stone to suit the setting? Doesn’t the jeweler decide what to illuminate, what to hide? We do no damage; we simply enhance.

No! the poet might say. The poem stands by and for itself; it requires nothing else. All the crafting has been done, and the jewel is complete; no setting, no cutting is required. Don’t surround our words with strings and bars. The caged bird may still sing, but it sings for its keeper. Leave our poems alone.

There are middle grounds. Composers and poets can co-create: think of Britten and Auden, Stein and Thomson, George and Ira Gershwin. Or composers and poets, independently, can approach neutral terrain bearing picnic baskets rather than shields. A poet can sketch an approach to the musicking of texts; a composer can approach the languaging of composition.

In recent years my long-time preoccupation with these and related questions has led to a close study of William Butler Yeats. Yeats had a tin ear (he said) and didn’t understand or appreciate music. He despised (he said) the “setting” of texts, which imposed structures and contours utterly foreign to the poet’s work. Yet his poetry is intrinsically sonorous, powerfully rhythmic, and elegantly structured. It is . . . well . . . musical.

Yeats made his way to that middle ground, and his picnic basket came to contain a method for chanting—not singing—his texts, accompanied by a self-designed instrument he dubbed a “psaltery.” My own basket contains various tools for deconstructing the sound—not the meaning—of language, wrapped in a tattered weave of received harmonies and gestures.

We have met. I would like to think the encounter left neither of us damaged and enabled the poems and the sounds to take on new qualities that we both can embrace. Alas, Mr Yeats is not available to express his views—but you can.

My Crazy Jane—treatments (are they settings?) of the seven poems that open his Words for Music Perhaps—are the last event on a two-day mini-festival that takes place in York on July 3rd and 4th. For details, see

Please come!

Concrete or crown? . . . Let me know . . .

One response to “To set (upon?) a text”

  1. Roger Marsh says:

    It is a shame, isn’t it, that we are stuck with this phrase ‘setting’. I think your ‘musicking of texts’ and ‘languaging of composition’ are very useful terms. I think they much better describe what I’ve been doing for the last forty years, anyway.

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About the author

William Brooks is a composer and musicologist.  His interest in William Butler Yeats began in response to an Irish Arts Council commission and first resulted in Everlasting Voices, a thirty-minute music-theatre piece for the Irish duo Sound-Weave. Since then he has published a chapter on the topic (in Artistic Experimentation in Music, University of Leuven…

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