Headaches Among the Overtones


Samuel Beckett produced some of the most powerful writing – some of the funniest but most devastating – of the twentieth century. He described his plays, prose and poetry as ‘an unnecessary stain on the silence’, but the extraordinary combination of concision and richness in his writing stems from his peculiar sensitivity to the sounds and rhythms of words. Moreover, music forms a part of Beckett’s comic aesthetics of failure: it plays a role in his exploration of the possibilities and failures of the imagination, and the ever-failing attempt to forge a sense of self. No wonder, then, that so many composers have taken inspiration from Beckett, setting his words to music or translating into music the dramatic themes or contexts of his work. Headaches Among the Overtones considers both music in Beckett and Beckett’s significance in contemporary music. In doing so, it explores the relationship between words, music and meaning, examining how comparable philosophical concerns and artistic effects appear in literature and music of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

The book is substantial and is in two parts. The first deals with the role of music in Beckett’s work, both actual music and the idea of music, initially posited as a model to which his writing might aspire and later employed in a more complex manner to aid the exploration of memory and subjectivity. The second part of the book is concerned with Beckett’s influence on composers. This comprises a substantial overview, followed by 4 studies (2 of Feldman’s large Beckett-related works, plus Kurtág and Richard Barrett).