Monthly Archives: August 2015

photo by Olesya Zdorovetska

The Waste Land

Happy Days Enniskillen International Beckett Festival
Sunday 2nd August 2015

Anna Nygh – voice
Orla Charlton – voice
Frank McCusker – voice
Stanley Townsend – voice

Nick Roth – saxophones, objects
Alex Bonney – cornet, electronics
Elliot Galvin – keyboards
Tom McCredie – double bass
Simon Roth – drums

Text by T.S. Eliot
Music composed by Nick Roth
Directed by Adrian Dunbar

The T.S. Eliot Foundation, granting the rights for the first ever official setting of the poem, stipulated that the music and text must exist interstitially.. My original idea had been to underscore the text (in a similar fashion to A Way A Lone A Last and Finnegans Wake), but this decision (with hindsight made in excellent judgment) meant that the compositional process had to take entirely a different course.

In order to exist with any significance amongst the five exceptionally dense verses of the poem, the music had to simultaneously surmise and anticipate the text whilst also creating radial points of reference to the poem as a whole. Thus each of the six pieces composed for the setting takes the text as a beginning, as an end, and as a world in and of itself.

There is a chain of events leading to the first setting of the Waste Land being an interpretation in jazz, starting with Sean Doran’s curatorial move to make T.S. Eliot the counterfoil to this year’s edition of the Happy Days Enniskillen International Beckett Festival, and this leading to Adrian Dunbar’s instinctive decision that the Waste Land was the text he wanted to work with. Also the connection with jazz came from Adrian initially…for him the poem was in the spirit of the Jazz Age and so carried with it all of the rhythms and references that were contemporary at that time…the poem was written in 1922. But this of course pre-dates many of the modern associations with jazz…it is definitely not bebop, not even really the swing era. It’s ragtime.

The overture was a representation of the Latin inscription at the head of the poem, referencing the myth of Sibyl at Cumae. Sibyl was a prophetess of Apollo who would divine by throwing oak leaves in the air…the improvised cluster in the upper-register of the piano (after the third ‘belle noiseuse‘ chord, a dedication to Michel Serres) was this moment for me, as it determined harmonically the entire evolution of the piece. This also provided the inspiration for the live rustling of oak leaves, set alongside the field recording – actually the band in a rowing boat on the Thames in Richmond a few months earlier…coincidentally the same stretch of the river that the last piece of film footage opens with. The theme of the river is also very strong throughout the work, and a lot of the other recordings made reference to this.

For me, Eliot’s poetry has many more parallels with Joyce than with Beckett…I think that they share a kind of kaleidoscopic porousness in terms of references to contemporary and historical texts. Beckett’s work is more solitary, more self-contained as a universe. Eliot and Joyce can seem like mirrored halls at times, whilst Beckett is a single mirror on an otherwise empty wall. Certainly in the Waste Land there are myriads of references to other texts…Eliot himself gives the citations in his own notes. And these references are not only literary, but also musical. So it was important I felt that the music should react and respond to these directly, as well as being moved and inspired by the linguistic modality. A good example of this is the line “O O O O that Shakespeherian rag—It’s so elegant, so intelligent“, which is a direct quote from a tin pan alley song that was popular in Eliot’s day, ‘That Shakesperian Rag‘ by Dave Stamper (Jos. W. Stern, NY, 1912). After a bit of a search, I managed to locate the original manuscript and was able to use this as a point of departure for the second piece ‘Burial of the Rag‘. Actually, in the 7/8 section that accompanied the first segment of film footage, the chord sequence comes directly from the rag, but slowed down beyond recognition. I felt that the film footage, which is original colour scenes from London in the 20’s, was so strong and powerful that it needed to exist in its own time. That is why the music changes so drastically when the film enters, so that the rag and the footage don’t exist simultaneously.

The third piece ‘T’s Blues‘ is another way of dealing directly with musical elements in the piece, although here those musical references also have wider literary connotations. As students of the poem will know, there is a strong connection to Wagner’s ‘Tristan and Isolde‘, the opera from which the hugely influential ‘Tristan’ chord derives. I was hoping that a listener might catch the quote here…in the melody the cornet directly states the melody from the first six bars of the Tristan overture but with the ‘Tristan’ chord itself voiced over a major-third root as a 9/13 chord. I think that there is a affinity between the sense of suspension that Wagner achieved in his music of this period and the suspension inherent in the blues as a form.

Whilst I felt a certain duty to bow to these references in the setting, I also felt that it was important that the work also had something new and unique to it, and the fourth part ‘The Fire Sermon‘ represented this for me. You can’t say the word ‘burning’ five times to a jazz musician and not expect a certain response…and that response will always be contemporary, it will always be in the moment, and of its time. I loved the super-imposition of the free section in this with the Ruttmann – the first abstract film to be publicly screened…from 1921. In the fifth part I wanted to get closer into the text, and prise apart the language with a serious of sonic portraits. And then when Adrian decided that he wanted to close the piece with the second piece of film footage, I really wanted to just close sonically with the sound of a 16mm projector (provided by Benjamin Rowley of Bog Bodies) and let the film speak for itself…that felt more balanced somehow.

For an in depth analysis of the literary references embedded in the text see

Little Woodland Heights

Little Woodland Heights

Developed in association with the Arts Council of Ireland,  The Ark A Cultural Centre for Children, California Academy of Sciences and the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA), Little Woodland Heights is an immersive educational environment that explores fundamental tenets of Ecology, Botany, Phyllotaxis and Anthropology, employing music and visual art as translative epistemological devices for mapping scientific data into embodied languages intuitively accessible for primary-age students.

The work is expressed in a facilitation pack, and is delivered in seven development sessions, a field trip and a final performance. Each project is led by a facilitator who works in close collaboration with the class teacher and classroom assistants. This incremental development of the piece provides a vehicle for the ensemble and facilitator to collaboratively evolve a process-based performative score. At the conclusion of the process, the performance takes lasts one hour, including time for introduction and discussion.

The project integrates a network of topics from the Sciences (forest canopy ecology, tree architecture, phyllotaxic pattern, anthropological studies) and the Arts (music composition, performance and literacy, sound art and the visual arts), developed specifically for children aged 8-9 years old (3rd Class in Irish primary schools system), with the structure providing mechanisms for developing complexity according to variable levels of input from the participants.

The research phase of the project was conducted in an artist residency at the California Academy of Sciences, where the project was presented to the scientific community at the first annual Forest Solutions Summit (January 22nd 2015). The first pilot programme was subsequently realised on the 27th April 2015 at The Ark, Dublin and the 28th April at Rathfarnham Educate Together National School (RETNS). The second phase optimised the work for delivery to average primary class sizes through deeper integration of the visual aspect of the programme, and including introductory workshops for 150 facilitators around Ireland as a pre-cursor to National-level training. The two-phase pilot scheme will reach completion at the Irish Museum for Modern Art on October 22nd 2015.

In ‘How Forests Think’, Eduardo Kohn states that “self-organizing dynamics are distinct from the physical processes from which they emerge and with which they are continuous, and within which they are nested.” ¹ In ecological terms then, “species composition and tree size distributions become more diverse with increasing stand age” and “with increasing age stochastic processes play increasingly important roles in creating structural complexity” ².  In linguistic form, although beautiful, these ideas are prohibitively complex for primary curricula. Yet the practical lessons of forest canopy ecology offer many simple and easy to understand analogues that can demonstrate the natural logic of emergent pattern. Similarly, such forms find expression quite naturally in musical and artistic discourse – indeed the very structure of music making, or any making for that matter, is itself a clear expression of both self-organising dynamics and stochastic processes, to one conversant in these languages.

Little Woodland Heights provides a mechanism for learning about the living world through the translation of ecological, botanical, phyllotaxic and anthropological concepts into musical and visual languages. This translation process is child-centred and fosters meaningful personal relationships that provide for deeper engagement with the network of ideas embedded in the piece.

Through the translative process, the child learns core tenets of contemporary scientific thought through the development of important musical and visual fundamentals. This symbiotic bond is both a new and an old form of learning; to study tree architecture through rhythmic clave mapping, to explore phyllotaxic pattern through melodic frequency, or to conceive of ecosystems phenologically through formal structure are all ideas unique to the work. Yet to understand our world through careful study of its elements and their relationships, and for these to form a societal practise, is something inherently human.

Both Art and Science are learnt most efficiently, and pursued most keenly, when they provide an immediate social impact for their participants. Thus, collaborative STE(A)M projects provide epiphytic environmental hubs where the children may develop their skills and understanding of the world as a totality.

The way that we learn will become the way that we teach. If our primary aim is to provide the healthiest environment for the development of childhood learning to ensure that future generations are environmentally informed, have a deep sense of cultural vibrancy, and are capable of independent and direct engagement with the living world, then we must look to projects that drive the evolution of education in contemporary society in ways which address this array of themes simultaneously.

In our era of rapid development and global urbanisation, the world’s natural environments, resources and biospheres have become increasingly impacted by human activity. Scientists argue that “the overarching driver of species extinction is human population growth and increasing per capita consumption. How long these trends continue—where and at what rate—will dominate the scenarios of species extinction and challenge efforts to protect biodiversity.” ³ Ecologists seek to discover not only the impact of our actions on the planet, but also the driving forces behind these actions, leading ultimately to questions of a sociological or anthropological nature. In ‘The Ecological Thought’ Timothy Morton argues that “if there is an inevitable experiential dimension of ecology, there is an inevitable psychological dimension.”  4

Critically exploring the dual hypothesis that humans have the capacity to be a potentially destructive force to their own environment, whilst being simultaneously endowed with a unique capacity to understand, change and delineate their own internal decision-making process, the aim of this project is to provide a mechanism for children to experience enhanced ways of expressing the endlessly intricate patterns and forms in nature through translative languages that encourage meaningful and lasting social discourses and durable ethical frameworks.

The project posits the notion that music, and the wider arts, are equally valid ways of understanding the realm of information that the world presents us with; and in terms of child engagement, may prove complimentary to standard linguistic / numerical educational techniques as additional ways of developing and expressing understanding. In fact the Arts and Sciences, as a dual mechanism for understanding the world, are inseparable and symbiotic by nature. As such, the project positions itself within the STE(A)M movement.

In seeking to educate, empower and inform thousands of children, teachers, musicians and artists across Ireland on a national scale, this project attempts to make a difference that is not a mere drop in the ocean, but a rain falling after drought. By providing a network that enables and encourages children to form embodied relationships with aspects of the living world that we find in our own immediate environment, the work seeks to address new perspectives and priorities in the next generation and to inspire a behavioral shift towards more sustainable and deeply engaging ways of living in our world.

Perhaps the best summary of the project and its aims are found in the inspirational words of its scientific advisor, Dr. Meg Lowman – “Perhaps that is the ultimate goal of canopy research – all scientific research for that matter – to produce a sense of the vast and the infinite and to promote our sense of wonder, a curiosity that needs to be fed by experience to be longlived.” 5

¹ Kohn, E. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press (2013). How Forests Think.

² Hiroaki T. Ishii, Robert Van Pelt, Geoffrey G. Parker, Nalini M. Nadkarni (2004). Age-Related Development of Canopy Structure and Its Ecological Functions. Forest Canopies, Second Edition

³ Stuart L. Pimm, Clinton N. Jenkins, Robin Abell, Tom M. Brooks, John. L. Gittleman, Lucas N. Joppa, Peter. H.Raven, Callum M. Roberts, and Joe O. Sexton (2014). The Biodiversity of Species and Their Rates ofExtinction, Distribution, and Protection. Science.

4 Morton, T. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press (2010). The Ecological Thought.

5  Margaret D. Lowman and H. Bruce Rinker (2004). Introduction. Forest Canopies, Second Edition.