The Waste Land

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

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