Roger Marsh Composer

Bits and Scraps 1979/1981

A composition for four amplified voices, tape and lighting director.  Based on Samuel Becket’s novel How it is (Comment c’est).

Composed for Electric Phoenix and first performed by them at The Roundhouse, London in 1979.

In Bits and Scraps four vocalists are seated in a square, back to back.  Soprano, alto, tenor and bass sit facing North West, North East, South East and South West. They are mic’d and they perform without scores. There is a continuous low murmuring hum on tape.   A single spotlight dimly lights the area, fading up and down repeatedly; when it is down there is blackout.  In addition there is a director, unseen, who very quietly speaks lighting instructions into a microphone eg ‘light up….’, ‘light down…..’ ‘light in 10 seconds…..’ ‘and slowly down……’ ‘right down…..’ etc.   In blackout the singers sit with heads bowed forwards.  As the light rises they slowly raise their heads with a slow inhalation of breath, and mutter or sing quietly.  As the light fades they slowly lower their heads again, with a slow exhalation.  This pattern repeats throughout the piece, the phrases and the vocal content varying in length, though getting gradually longer towards the end.  The texts which the singers mutter are all fragments from How it is, phrases like ‘murmur in the mud to the mud….’, ‘only one voice here, yes, mine, yes, when the panting stops….’ and so on.  In the darkness of the pauses, a single voice is sometimes heard to comment with remarks such as ‘natural order more or less, bits and scraps, I say it as I hear it’.

Sung notes and short fragments of melody begin to appear, and eventually some of these fragments merge into a direct quotation from the piano accompaniment to the final song of Schubert’s Die Schöne Mullerin (The Brook’s Lullaby) in which the brook sings to the despairing lover who has drowned himself in it. The vocalists sing the words ‘und der himmel das oben, wie ist er so weit’ (and the sky above, how vast it is) to a slowed down vocal version of the piano chords which accompany that line at the end of Schubert’s song cycle.

I have written more about the piece and its relationship to Beckett here:

Words and Music 16 – Music and Beckett (3) (cmrc blog article)

I also briefly describe the ‘solo’ version of the piece which I made a couple of years later for John Potter to perform alone. In this most of the vocal material is on tape with only a few un-amplified spoken passages. John premiered it at the October Gallery in London (May 1983), and then took the piece to The Triangle, Birmingham and the Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester. I think I liked the solo version more than the ‘live’ quartet version. Theatrically it was much clearer.