Beckett in New Musical Composition

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It is perhaps unsurprising that certain European Modernist composers and their followers were drawn to the work of Samuel Beckett. In some respects the musicality of Beckett’s later writing relates to the treatment of the voice found in the works of certain composers of the mid-1950s onwards, especially those, such as Berio, Stockhausen, and Ligeti, who abandoned traditional word setting in favour of a more purely musical theatre. Beckett’s use of fragmented narrative, of non-verbal vocal sound, of speeds of articulation that make ordinary comprehension difficult, and of structures of repetition and association that rely as much upon the metrical stresses and sounding qualities of the text as the recognition of individual words, shares with the work of Berio (for example) an understanding of the innate theatre of vocal articulation: the dramatic tension between phonetics and semantics in the verbal production of meaning, and hence the fundamental musical performativity of language.
Nevertheless, Beckett’s influence seems to have surpassed this surface relationship and endured beyond that generation of composers and their immediate successors. Composers and sound artists from a variety of genres and practices continue to draw inspiration from his work, prompting the question: in what lies this continuing appeal? How do the approaches of younger composers relate to and differ from those working during Beckett’s lifetime? Do ‘Beckettian’ thematics endure beyond context, or do recent musical approaches reinvent Beckett for the twenty-first century? This article explores these questions with reference to two recent compositions which take very different approaches: Martin Iddon's head down among the stems and bells (2009, for amplified prepared piano), and Damien Harron’s 2011 work for flute, percussion, piano and electronics, based on Beckett’s last text, What is the Word.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)54-72
Number of pages19
JournalJournal of Beckett Studies
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2014

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