Words and Music: Camus, Beckett, Cage, Gould
by Deborah Weagel

Reviewed by Angela Moran


Published by Peter Lang Publishing, 2010   |   160 pages

Words and Music is, primarily, a response to Steven Paul Scher’s seminal ‘Literature and Music.’ The publications of Scher helped found the (imperfectly titled) school of Word and Music Studies, which, as its name implies, focuses on the interconnections between music and language. In ‘Literature and Music’, Scher suggested three vital areas of research for ‘musico-literacy’:  music in literature; literature and music; literature in music. In so doing, the essay had a profound influence on the direction of such interdisciplinary studies in its wake. Seeking to clarify the field, Weagel eschews, with good reason, Scher’s latter categorisation (literature in music), focussing the disciplines’ efforts on the former two categories. For her study, Weagel – traversing the modern and postmodern eras – selects the two writers and two musicians named in her title, contending that their innovations explicate Scher’s groupings and reorient our consideration of music and writings.

To tackle Words and Music is to enter into immediate dialogue with a gamut of research across literature, arts and culture. The title may suggest a mere tale of two halves, but Deborah Weagel’s volume inhabits a far more interdisciplinary space, investigating, as it does, the relationship, the articulation, between words and music. Indeed, by the end of page three of her introduction, she has already referenced eight associated texts. Although such thick-and-fast citations may, at first, seem overwhelming, the theoretical framework is useful when we get started on Weagel’s main narrative. Were it not for the network of works referenced in Words and Music, her distinct case studies of Albert Camus (1913-60), Samuel Beckett (1906-89), John Cage (1912-92) and Glenn Gould (1932-82) may have appeared as a collection of articles instead of a continuous linear development. After all, cross-references between their stories are limited and, where they do appear, are slightly ineffectual and clumsy (eg. ‘Gould was influenced by John Cage’s Silence’). However, given the many allied theories made explicit in the first few pages of her book, Weagel’s biographies of these ‘four powerhouses of the twentieth century’ unfold not in isolation, but are drawn together with a larger body of research.

The French author Albert Camus, Weagel tells us, received little musical training. It is interesting, then, that the first two chapters devoted to him are the most demanding terminologically. Weagel performs a Schenkerian analysis – a reduction of music to its most basic harmonic form, founded on generic tonic and dominant patterns, developed from the theories of Heinrich Schenker – of Camus’ novel L’étranger, allying the sun and sea (as portrayed in the work) with the tonic and dominant harmonies of tonal music. Weagel introduces a similar contrapuntal understanding of L’étranger, where the novelist’s themes are ‘voices’ in a text that emulates what Schenker saw as the essential structure of musical composition. Weagel, utilizing tables and graphics, presents her case schematically and analytically, though those without a sound background on Camus and his work, and the music theories that are applied to it, may find portions of her text impenetrable.

If today Albert Camus is most often associated with philosophy and absurdism, Weagel’s next chapter presents us with a writer whose resonance in music is more established: Samuel Beckett. As Weagel tells us, the Irish dramatist was a proficient pianist and musical enthusiast. Thus, this choice, developing as it does the recent claim by music professor, Harry White, that Beckett used ‘words for music,’ is less novel than the previous study. Strange then, that Weagel’s ‘composing out’ of music in literature is altogether less convincing in this instance. She makes another claim for a Schenkerian analysis – Beckett’s use of silence in En attendant Godot mimics the tonic-dominant-tonic pattern of tonal music – but this one lacks the painstaking detail of her breakdown of L’étranger. Moreover, a double-page spread listing Beckett’s stage directions and their equivalents, as Weagel finds them, in Elson’s Music Dictionary (she marries, for example, Beckett’s ‘angrily’ with the dictionary’s ‘plaintive’) makes for slightly questionable evidence of the (post)modernist writer’s finding inspiration in music.

Nevertheless, the associated literature, theory and scholarship brought to her analysis does indeed pad out Weagel’s most patent arguments. It is possible to appreciate a new approach to Beckett, for instance, especially in its echoing of the ideas of Richard Schechner. In his influential essay ‘Restoration of Behaviour’, Schechner argues that every performance event can be understood as being comprised of ‘strips of behaviour’, which, after they have happened, continue to exist in documents or recordings. Schechner defines performance in its broadest possible terms, such that watching a play and, equally, listening to a piece of music can restore the original established conventions, the behaviour, of the author. Given Beckett’s fascination with both words and music, it is likely that the two did impinge on each other and that a musico-literacy reading of his works for performance indeed restores and reveals much about his character.

The closing chapters of Words and Music are by far the most lucid and accessible for the inexpert. Weagel’s account of the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould is a readable narrative, barely interrupted by the charts, images and covert lines of enquiry that have pervaded the book up to this point. Then again, the exploits of Gould can best be understood as equally sonic as visual. His manipulation of words and sounds for the radio are akin to works of ensemble music with layered instrumental lines, and to works of drama, such as Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls, in which the dialogue is interwoven, leaving the audience to decide which character’s prose to follow. Through Gould, then, Weagel thus continues her performance thread. She touches on the problems of historically informed practice by explaining that a particular triadic relationship occurs between composer, performance and audience that cannot be duplicated outside the live event. In so doing, Weagel parallels the thoughts of Domenico Pietropaolo. In his important article on the procession as a form, Pietropaolo has usefully defined the interrelated components in the live audience’s field of vision. Sight-dependent art, he explains, is received in a three-fold manner, comprising the focal point and two lateral edges of perception for the spectator, who is fed a continually-moving conveyor belt of scenes, never to be repeated. Pietropaolo is not one of those to whom Weagel makes reference in Words and Music, but her rhetoric here is so similar to his that she opens the way for an extension of a visual focal point to the consideration of an aural focal point of interconnectedness when experiencing performance.

Given its extensive preparatory chapter, Words and Music would have benefited from a proper conclusion, rather than the abrupt conclusion that follows Gould’s story. Then again, Weagel’s publication fits within a web of cultural discourse and, in a way, seems to have framed itself so as to allow additional lines of communication to be drawn. Perhaps, just as John Cage employed silence as a ‘positive and productive space’, so too does Weagel leave voids that create active spaces from which further readings can progress.

Angela Moran has recently completed a PhD in Music at the University of Cambridge. Her thesis is an urban ethnomusicological study concerned with the development of Irish music by diasporic communities. Angela’s other research interests include popular music studies, film-music theory and gendered musicology. She is also a competent performer on piano, viola and fiddle.

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