Words and Music

  • Posts

    Ho, What a Beano! – Why set the same poem twice?

    by David Power David Power is a former PhD student.  His latest project is the CD ‘A Hundred Years of British Piano Miniatures’ which goes on worldwide release on the Naxos Grand Piano label on Friday 12th October 2018 and includes his own ‘Eight Miniatures from the late 1990’s. Full details here – https://www.naxos.com/catalogue/item.asp?item_code=GP789   […]

  • Projects

    Words and Music

    This project brings together writings and compositions which interrogate the issue of combining words with music.  An ongoing series of articles by Roger Marsh, William Brooks and others, addresses the many ways in which composers go beyond conventional word setting routes,  exploring significant instances of writers crossing into musical territories and composers composing with words.  […]

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    Words and Music 16 – Music and Beckett (3)

    Beckett’s 1964 novel How it is (French Comment c’est) is less well known than the earlier novels.  Where novels like Watt and Molloy retain the semblance of a narrative and paint characters (however eccentric they may be),  How it is begins the move away from the real world into a strange, Dante-esque realm, where nameless beings struggle to perform pointless rituals.

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    Words and Music 15 – Music and Beckett (2)

    The play of Beckett’s which first captured my imagination was the one called ‘Play ’.  A man and two women, their heads protruding from huge funeral urns, are interrogated by a spotlight which switches rapidly from one to another.  When the light shines on them they speak, when it moves away they stop.   The women, either side of the man, are his wife and mistress, and all three now inhabit a region beyond death. Each recalls their side of the triangular relationship – the wife her suspicions and confrontations, the mistress her contempt and disappointment, and the man his attempts to placate both women.

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    Tracing the Net/Netting the Trace

    Roger’s recent blog on Holliger’s settings of Beckett, and Bill’s reply, prompted me to offer a few thoughts on the subject of (fairly) recent examples of text and music for voice, with or without piano – or song, if you like to call it that. I’m curious to see how deconstructive strategies derived from the […]

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    Words and Music 14 – Music and Beckett (1)

    As a young composer, Beckett was as important to me as Joyce, perhaps more important.  In the early seventies my teacher Bernard Rands, along with a number of my fellow students, read Beckett and talked about his work a lot, especially the new stuff as it came out, which was minimal and exquisite and very exciting.  Vic Hoyland, a composer a few years ahead of me, whose work I greatly admired, bought me Beckett’s latest novella Lessness in about 1971 and it blew my mind.

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    Words and Music 13 – Il Cor Tristo

    In the late nineties I was producer for the Naxos Audiobook recordings of Dante’s The Divine Comedy in a new English translation by Benedict Flynn.  The reader was the extraordinary Heathcote Williams who died in July 2017. I knew nothing at the time about Heathcote, his poetry, his political writing or his acting; but I […]

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    Words and Music 12: What is a Song?

    We read all the time that our society is ‘more divided than ever’.  I don’t need to reference that – it’s a common trope, and not just in the UK but in the USA and across the world.  The inequalities and racial tensions are there for everyone to see.  But more divided?  I doubt that.  Our great castles and cathedrals were not built to house the poor, and even within living memory violent civil wars and extreme racial segregation should give us pause for thought.

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    Words and Music 11: British Values and Joe Steele

    As a school governor I have to approve policies which include the teaching of British Values.  I find this deeply troubling, but there’s nothing I can do about it. What are British Values?  Apparently they are ‘democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, mutual respect for and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs […]

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    Words and Music 10: Pierrot Lunaire – Voicing Albert Giraud

    In 1997 I made a new singing translation of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire.  I did it because I wanted to mount a staged performance of the piece in a way that would allow a British audience to understand the texts, and the existing translations were not good to sing.  The early (and most famous) translation by Cecil Gray, for example, has some horrors: ‘a phantasmagorical light ray’ (no 3) is one; even worse is ‘a chlorotic laundry maid’ (no 4).

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    Words and Music 9 Pierrot Lunaire: re-discovering Albert Giraud

    Every student of 20th century music knows Pierrot Lunaire, one of the iconic masterpieces of 20th century music.  If you are reading this and you don’t know it, go away and check it out and I’ll catch you later.

    Pierre Boulez, when asked to name the two most important pieces of modern music, had no hesitation in citing Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire op 21.  The influence of Pierrot was huge – even Stravinsky had to admit its importance.

  • Posts

    A little snow

    “Words matter”, wrote Roger Marsh once in this blog. I agree with that. I do like words. Moreover, in this already gone winter the word ‘Snow’ came across in a curious and special way. First, it was my expectation of looking at white landscapes in this -for me- new country, so far away from mine […]

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    A new lease of life

    One of the joys of working in cmrc is the opportunity to collaborate with so many interesting and talented creative artists.  It has been my privilege over the years, since long before the existence of cmrc, to collaborate with some outstanding performers.  While still in my twenties I found myself working with musicians like Alan Hacker and Barry Guy, and in my thirties with Linda Hirst and John Potter.  And these were collaborative experiences, because from them I learned new ways of thinking, and because they didn’t just take my music and ‘do it’ – they probed and interrogated my ideas, and together we found a way to present the music which was new to all of us.

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    Lost in Translation: a miscellany

    I. Big Tam’s bakery, somewhere in Glasgow. A clear, crisp, mid-January morning: puddles litter the street outside and the shop window glows warm and friendly in the sunshine. A Customer enters, examines the treats on display beneath the counter, then jabs her finger at the glass. Customer:    Izzat a doughnut or a meringue? Big […]

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    Words and Music 8 Samson and Pasolini

    My interest in Japanese theatre began when I saw Benjamin Britten’s Curlew River on TV in the late 1960s. I was a big fan of Britten, though not so much of the operas. But when I encountered his Japanese influenced ‘parable opera’ – set in a Suffolk church but adopting masks and stylised gestures from Noh theatre – I was very excited. At the time I knew nothing about Japan or its musical traditions. I was working at Highgate Public Library, though, and they had books about Noh and Kabuki which I studied. It was a few years later, at university, when I first got to hear genuine Noh music, and later still when I first saw a Noh performance (in Brighton of all places).

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    Words and Music 7 The Song of Abigail

    The Song of Abigail (1986) is a melodrama. Not in the sense of the moustache twirling nonsense of the Victorian melodrama, but in the 18th century sense of spoken text with music. There are a few major 20th century pieces of this sort – such as Debussy’s Le Martyre de Saint Sebastian and Schoenberg’s Ode to Napoleon. And of course there is Pierrot Lunaire (Schoenberg’s not mine) which is described as a melodrama, and has a bit of both definitions – spoken text (sort of) and histrionic performance. The Song of Abigail has some singing in it, but most of the text is spoken, in order to tell a quite intricate story very clearly.

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    Words and Music 6 Lamentations

    Songwriter David Breslin, replying to my first Words and Music blog, raised the issue of Latin settings: “Whenever I set a poem in English to music, it seemed only fair to make the words as clear as possible. This ruled out or made tricky many kinds of musical device, and made the idea of writing my own ‘text’ simultaneously with the music too tempting to resist. And yet, I certainly have no objection to hearing complex polyphonic Latin settings!”

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    On White (seven fragments after Edmund de Waal)

    What is the sound of white?

    Edmund de Waal, the ceramic artist whose eloquent porcelain installations are inextricably bound up with this colour, asks the question early in The White Road, but offers no answer.

    I am no synaesthete; I am no more able to respond than de Waal. In any case, the question is, strictly speaking, nonsensical. But it is an intriguing proposition. If we could hear the colour of milk and snow and clouds and sunlight, what music would it make?

     

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    Words and Music 5 Silly Love Songs

    My grandparents on my father’s side were Russian Jews. They fled from persecution in the Ukraine at the beginning of the last century, making the perilous journey by sea (does this sound familiar?) heading for the USA. My grandmother became ill, though, and only got as far as Southampton. My father, born in London, grew up in a practising Jewish household, but during his teenage years renounced his religion after witnessing domestic violence meted out to his mother for unwittingly intruding on a religious observance which was strictly men only. My father later married a non-Jewish girl and our family practised no religion at all.

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    Words and Music 4 Not a soul but ourselves……

    Around 2001 I was invited to give a presentation of music and readings at the annual International James Joyce Symposium in London. A few weeks before the event, I returned to my office one afternoon to find a message on my ansafone from Stephen Joyce, the author’s grandson. “Mr Marsh” he growled into my machine “This is Stephen Joyce. I understand that you are planning to present some musical settings of my grandfather’s work in London. I believe that the music you are planning to play is by …..…(he mentioned the name of a composer I had never heard of at that time). My wife and I detest this composer’s work, and what is more my grandfather – my grandfather – would have detested it too. I forbid you to play this music and if you go ahead with this event you will be sued.”

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    Words and Music 3 ‘Dum’

    The vocal pieces I wrote during the 1970s cannot be said to offer clear unadorned narrative. But they did quite consciously turn away from the idea of straightforward vocal text setting, and they were mostly designed for unconventional voices. In York I wrote ‘Dum – a vocal percussive fantasy’, initially for my composer friend Steve Stanton to perform, although eventually I performed the piece myself. Though a vocal piece it requires no singing.

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    Words and Music 2 James Joyce

    I was 21 when I first met Berio. My teacher Bernard Rands introduced me to him in the green room after a Queen Elizabeth Hall concert.   “This is my pupil Roger Marsh” he said. “He’s just written a piece on Joyce’s Ulysses. Berio looked interested. “Really?” he said. “Which part?” “The whole thing” I replied. Berio chuckled and said “You’re a brave man”. I didn’t get a chance to explain myself, but it didn’t matter. He had already forgotten me.

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    Words and Music 1 Words Matter

    Words matter. I start there because sometimes I think composers forget it. Sometimes I think that singers forget it too. Sometimes I think that if I were the author of a libretto or song lyric I would wonder where my words had gone when I hear them sung.

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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 […]