Richard Scott on his first Open Space residency
15th December, 2014
Number 8 Wentworth Road has a blue door. Number 8 Wentworth Road is filled with books – first editions of Gerard Manley Hopkins, Louis MacNeice and William Carlos Williams. Number 8 Wentworth Road has a view of the beach from the kitchen window – a sliver of silver sky above shingle . . .
I have been staying at number 8 for three days now as part of my Open Spaces Residency at Aldeburgh Music and apart from an early morning walk along the sea each morning with a Thermos of tea, I have not left the house. Firstly it’s very cold and secondly I have tasked myself with the somewhat ambitious aim of investigating words and music. In advance of being joined by the composer Maxim Boon and the cellist Alice Dixon in January I wanted to research as many collaborative works that set poetry to music as possible, but this does not include songs. I am looking at all the instances of the spoken word set to music – but I should also be clear that my research doesn’t necessarily include spoken word as a genre. Together, with Maxim and Alice, I am going to be creating a piece which sets poetry to music, which we will perform together in Berlin and London but all my research has planted the seeds of another project which will run alongside this one; as well as creating a theatre piece I will also be using my research, notes and writings to compose a lecture for radio on the pairing of poetry and music. In seeking to find out what we might be able to add to the somewhat hidden and sometimes derided coupling of spoken or performed poetry and music I have uncovered a vast and fascinating history which sought to utilise the human voice in every possible way.
Handel’s legendary pieta aria, ‘He was despised’, was first performed by Susannah Cibber, the great tragic actress of the 18th century. Now perhaps Cibber was also a great contralto but I suspect she partially intoned or spoke the words rather than singing them and she did this to great effect for her performance was indeed the highlight of The Messiah’s premier. So why did Handel want these words almost-spoken, rather than sung – he certainly could have asked any number of virtuosic Italian singers. Well I think that he wanted the words to be the focus, rather than the vocal tone or technique of the singer. Handel was a devout man who must have wanted the audience to really hear and meditate upon the words, ‘He was despised and rejected of men’. I imagine that Handel wanted nothing to come between the audience and this biblical text detailed the earthly torture of Jesus; scripture, to him, was a kind of prayer.
But why set words to music anyway, are well written words not already musical enough? The poet Don Patterson wrote how it would be impossible to set his poetry to music ‘because it had already been set’. He is, of course, exaggerating but we do understand what he means – well written words have their own rhythm, pitch and even a near-melody, so what could a composer add?
At the very heart of setting words to music lies the need for the words to be remembered. Words are difficult to remember on their own, so adding a melody makes them instantly flow into one’s memory – just think of all the folk songs you half-know! The line, ‘the trees they grow so high and the leaves they do grow green’, is immediately rendered catchy and memorable when sung to it’s tune but without it, it would be hard to remember the exact phrase – despite the anonymous’ author’s attempts at assonance and alliteration. But what about those times the composer wanted text or a voice without a vocal melody? What purpose does this somewhat rare coupling serve? This is one of the questions I want to answer whilst at Aldeburgh and it can only be answered by cataloguing and experiencing the various collaborations and artworks that have sought to address the same issue.
‘Music always wins’, said Samuel Beckett whilst he was writing his radio play Words&Music but it doesn’t, not really. Music might be absorbed into the mind faster, music might cause a listener to emote quicker as there is no need for the brain to translate words into sense and then create a physical or glandular reaction; simply put music just prompts pure reaction but scientific studies have begun to show that poetry affects the same parts of the brain as music does. The pitch, the cadence, the rhythm of poetry can cause a listener to emote immediately too. Beckett was being modest – in Words&Music his words, which are not always narrative or easy, are certainly affecting.
Beckett has indeed been something of a jumping off point for me over the last few days, I have listened to Words&Music over and over trying to understand the interplay between Beckett’s words and Feldman’s music and I have begun to realise that at points Beckett abandons narrative sense to let musical form influence his words and word patterning. Joe and Bob speak and converse together in a fugue like fashion and really their monologues are, to my ears, just spoken arias. The way Beckett’s chosen actors also play with and pronounce his carefully chosen words even brings to mind musical settings – Joe and Bob both roll ‘sloth’ and ‘love’ around their mouth as if they were yawning or perhaps even singing.
But what was a source of conflict and competition to Beckett, his worry over music winning, was something of a mystic fusion to Rilke who saw all poets and singers as descended from Orpheus, who was himself the son of the muse Calliope – ‘Song is being. For the god, a simple matter. But when are we? Rilke’s answer to this mighty and disturbing question was simply, ‘Once and forever it’s orpheus, whenever there’s song’: Any creative person expressing themselves is the same, is a child of Orpheus and is thus descending from a muse. Words and music are both pure expression so they are perhaps the same or at the very least utterly intertwined.
Some composers, like Schoenberg and Goebbels, perhaps used narrators and the spoken word when the themes of the work were just too dark to allow a sung melody that might detract from or add too much of the inevitable musical pathos. Schoenberg’s Survivor in Warsaw sees a Jewish man left for dead in the street by the Nazis, and the effect is one of hard-hitting historical reportage, it sounds like fact whereas a song or melody in its place might have sounded like emotion or opinion. Goebbels uses Gertrude Stein’s poetry in Songs of Wars I have Seen to express complex thoughts of how growing up amid war and political revolution might impact one’s own character. Both pieces are hard to listen to as they seem to want to connect to the listener in a more visceral way then a song would imply. There is no ease here, no melody with which to help the text be swallowed with. And when Arvo Pärt set Robert Burns heartfelt and moving words, ‘My heart’s in the highlands’, a home-sick paean to Burn’s native Scotland, the singer barely moves across any intervals, the text is mostly set on one repeated note – despite there being no melody to speak of, his piece is so emotive and moving. Perhaps Pärt didn’t want any more emotion in the piece than necessary or perhaps he, like Handel, didn’t want the oscillations of vocal tone distracting from the important text. The methods and reasonings of composers when dealing with spoken texts are so varied and extraordinary that researching them is completely edifying and refreshing.
But I have uncovered comedy too, Woodie Guthrie, who pioneered his Talking Blues, wanted to bring light-hearted life stories to his listeners to distract them from depression, long working hours and poverty. His spoken pieces are full of witty lines like, ‘If you wanna get to heaven I can tell you what to do, you grease your feet with a mutton stew’. And Guthrie speaks his words with something approaching pitch and a very clear rhythm. And amidst all this I haven’t even spoken of Schoenberg and Berg’s invention and use of Sprechstimme, which certainly added gravitas to the cannon of spoken words and music. They were looking for something dramatic, dark and utterly new and they found it – their compositional technique of having a singer follow rhythm and rough pitches, but allowed the performer to slide up to and away from the desired note still sounds shocking and different. It confuses our ears, which associate it with a troubled state of mind or anguish, for that’s when our voices usually find a melody of their own. This sound world certainly suited Pierrot Lunaire and Wozzeck, but this new technique was not without it’s troubles – Boulez wrote, ‘ the question arises whether it is actually possible to speak according to a notation devised for singing. This was the real problem at the root of all the controversies’, for neither Berg or Schoenberg left crystal clear instructions on how their sprechstimme should actually sound, it is, as with most spoken word set to music, down to the performers nuanced and informed interpretation.
And further to Sprechstimme and Talking Blues, I have also been aurally wading through Baroque recitative, parlando, rap, African Griots, spoken word, Nina Simone, My Brightest Diamond, Christopher Logue, Tony Kinsey and Henry Purcell. There is no end of sounds that the human voice can make or indeed no end to the uses for those varied sounds, so why do we naturally think of music and words as song? There is no clear historical path, certainly Sappho sung her poetry accompanying herself on the lyre and this is thought to be the beginnings of lyric poetry, but why then is lyric poetry only spoken and recited now? And the earliest travelling storytellers and historians were thought to accompany themselves on drums or any type of percussion they could find as they meandered across continents, to add drama and pulse to their stories, but again history is rarely now sung or spoken over a beat. I have no answers yet but I don’t really want them right now, I have a whole year at Aldeburgh Music to uncover more truths, more collaborations and even make my own collaboration. I have always been obsessed with the interplay between words and music and these days at number 8 Wentworth Street, with it’s sliver of sea view and cabinet of first editions, have only increased my passion.