Roger Marsh Composer

Almeida Words and Music article 1990

From the Almeida Festival Brochure June 1990

Words and Music

A Compositional Paradox

The composer Roger Marsh has written many vocal works including a Joyce setting ‘Not a soul but ourselves’, and has been asked to write a personal note on Words and Music, independent of the views of the Festival. It will be no surprise, in the light of what he says, that his ‘Bits and Scraps’ which is based on Beckett’s ‘How it is’, does not attempt to ‘set’ the text and uses only the spoken voice.


Not so many years ago when all English composers were, or behaved as though they were, Cambridge graduates and men of independent means, it was fairly commonplace to encounter the phrase “…I found this wonderful poem and it seemed to be crying out to be set to music….” What a pretentious lot composers can be. How could one ever imagine that a piece of literature actually required or might be enhanced by the obfuscations of a musical setting?   Certainly something wonderful can happen (though not always) when words and music are combined, but that this is because the musical setting, however sensitive, in some way improves the expressive content of the text is only one of a number of possible explanations. It is probably the least likely explanation in fact, since a text when sung is invariably harder to hear, its narrative harder to follow, than one which is spoken or read. This is true, I would say, whether the text is intoned by a priest or warbled by an operatic soprano – to a greater or lesser degree and each case, as they say, taken on its merits. In any case, programme books for song recitals and introductions to vocal music on radio, provide words or synopses as separately digestible items for this very reason. Music does not help us to comprehend words.

This would suggest that a musical setting is in truth a combination of two systems of communication – one verbal and one musical; and that the two systems remain, to some extent, mutually exclusive. A successful setting, we might suppose, would thus be one in which the ‘meaning’ of the text and the ‘meaning’ of the music are, in some sense, the same. If this is so (and it seems so obvious as to be scarcely necessary to say it) then it follows that a setting might be deemed unsuccessful where the ‘meaning’ of the music and that of the words appear to be at odds (save in exceptional circumstances where such divergence is for some reason deliberate). In my experience such miscalculations occur more frequently than might be imagined. For though it might be impossible to identify precisely, and in isolation, the ‘meaning’ of a musical composition, it could be argued that a serial work for high soprano and piano (to take an extreme example) is unlikely to convey a meaning in any way similar to that of the text of an ancient Shingon funeral chant. Nevertheless a composer whose professional environment inclines him to the former and who finds himself deeply drawn to the mystery of the latter is confronted with a problem which he must recognise. What should he do? In a word: desist. Passion alone is not enough.

If the composer of whom I have just spoken does not desist then, in my view, far from performing a service for the text and for his audience, he displays a culpable lack of respect for the very text which has excited his passions. A mésalliance of this nature is far more culpable, indeed, than the apparently total lack of respect shown by those ‘avant-garde’ composers of the sixties who were rarely inclined to leave a text in the word order (or even syllable order) in which they found it. More culpable indeed than the composer of Roaratorio, whose musical reconstitution of Joyce’s ‘Finnegans Wake’ results in hardly an intelligible word out of some 600 pages. Does not Cage display in this the ultimate lack of respect for an author? It could be argued, and he has himself indicated as much, that Cage’s enthusiasm for ‘Finnegans Wake’ over a period of years is inspired less by the book as structural edifice, or by the historical and literary erudition of Joyce the welder of ideas, than by notions of complexity, simultaneity, playfulness, and – yes – the ‘sound of the phrases’, and by the way that these attributes of the book connect with what Norman O Brown describes as the ‘demilitarisation of language’. While it is perfectly possible to argue that the result of Cage’s collage of sound effects in Roaratorio, and even the elegant simplicity of the Joyce mesostics (Reading Through Finnegans Wake), have little to do with Joyce’s original text, such an argument is superfluous. Cage does not wish to reproduce or enhance Joyce’s ‘message’, nor does he expect his audience to grasp ‘Finnegans Wake’ (which took 17 years to write and cannot be read in a night) through the experience of listening. Cage’s Joyce works are in the spirit of ‘Finnegans Wake’ because they allow the book to make its own further compositions through self-generating processes. This is probably as far removed from the notion of ‘word setting’ as it is possible to get and yet there is, as I have tried to suggest, a sense in which the meanings of the text and the meanings of the music of Roaratorio are, if not the same, broadly compatible. Works such as Roaratorio and, I would venture, the collaborations of Berio with Sanguineti and Calvino, are a contribution not merely to the concert platform, but to the world of ideas. The creative originality of the composition matches and adds to that of the author of the text.

Morton Feldman’s association with Beckett’s work towards the end of his life would appear to have been a historical necessity. Feldman the disciple of Cage and Beckett the disciple of Joyce, both masters of an exquisite minimalism, both fond of endless not-quite-repetition and subdued dynamics, were surely made for each other. Unfortunately for historians such neat parallels bear little scrutiny. Feldman’s approach to music is of a quite different order to that of Cage, while Beckett shares with Joyce little more than a pervasive ‘Irishness’. Furthermore Beckett’s work (and this too he has in common with Joyce) is firmly rooted in a European tradition, and in particular to Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’. Feldman, on the other hand, attempted to work unfettered by any notion of tradition, least of all a European one. That Beckett and Feldman had anything at all in common in terms of the intellectual ‘core’ of their work, seems to me unlikely. Feldman’s use of Beckett’s words is not nearly so radical as Cage’s use of Joyce. On the other hand Beckett himself sometimes appears in his work to step over into the role of composer. While not wishing in to claim that any of Beckett’s work can ever be considered as music, per se, it is worth considering that in pieces like Not I, Rockaby and the wordless Quad, where the walking patterns of the four hooded figures are accompanied only by the sound of shuffling feet and improvised percussion, Beckett is as surely dealing with the world of music theatre as Cage or Kagel. But in Rockaby, too, the composition of the words, the structural use of silence, the inventive permutation of the phrases and their subtly repetitive falling intonation, leaves little room for the ‘enhancement’ of any additional musical ‘setting’. All composers should study Beckett’s later work. Should they, having done so, feel passion rising and the need to ‘set’ Beckett’s words, they should pause, reflect and desist. There may be a number of possible musical responses to these texts, but ‘setting’ is not the most appropriate.

Roger Marsh June 1990