Semantic fluidity: Samuel Beckett, repetition and modern music

McGrath, John
Semantic fluidity: Samuel Beckett, repetition and modern music. PhD thesis, University of Liverpool.

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Music abounds in Irish literature. Whether these sounds be the “thought-tormented” music of Joyce’s “The Dead”, the folk tunes and opera that resound throughout Ulysses, or the four-part threnody in Beckett’s Watt, it is obvious that the influence of music on the written word in Ireland is significant. Although the study of words and music is a field in relative infancy, the recent pioneering work of Daniel Albright, Harry White and Eric Prieto has enlivened critical engagement with musico-literary studies, and inspired me to explore a number of questions. In particular, I am interested in the Modernist transgression of generic boundaries and the suggestion that, during the twentieth century, the segregation of artforms, promulgated by Gotthold Lessing during the Enlightenment, began to break down. I explore the ways in which this transmediality manifested itself in Irish literature. Initially, White suggests, the protectionism of Irish cultural-nationalism meant that traditional music appeared to dominate both Irish society and its literature, to the neglect of contemporary musical infrastructure, which led to the appropriation of musical devices into literature: and yet, there also appears to be a hidden desire for a Romantic intangibility like that of music, a longing for a less explicit, non-representational form; a desire that is fulfilled in hitherto coded, or secret ways. Beckett was himself an accomplished pianist and the presence of music manifests itself in three distinct ways in his work. First, actual musical quotations such as those from Beethoven and Schubert inhabit his texts. Second, structural devices like the da capo are metaphorically employed. Third, and perhaps most striking yet most neglected in terms of scholarship, is the development in his later prose, of something I term “semantic fluidity”, an erosion of explicit meaning brought about through an extensive use of repetition and influenced by Beckett’s reading of Schopenhauer’s philosophy of music. It is this third category that becomes the basis of my explorations, and a progressive taxonomy of repetition is developed that can be applied transmedially to both music and literature. Engaging with a wide range of repetition theory and musico-literary issues, this thesis compares the use of the device in various forms of literature and music, from alliterative verse and refrains to minimalism and noise. Beckett’s writing has attracted the attention of numerous contemporary composers. New music based on his novels, plays and poems has ranged from direct settings of his text to abstract instrumental pieces, from opera to solo prepared piano. In order to investigate why composers have been drawn to the writer’s work, the second part of this thesis focuses on the Beckett-inspired music of experimental composer Morton Feldman and the structured improvisations of avant-jazz guitarist Scott Fields. The importance of Beckett’s work in modern music will be positioned alongside the author’s own musical aesthetic, in order to address the larger issues inherent in the field of word and music studies. Repetition—one of the key factors in musicians’ connection with Beckett—will be explored theoretically in order to question what happens when repetitions in words are translated into music beyond Beckett.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Additional Information: THESIS ACCESS RESTRICTED UNTIL 01 AUGUST 2019 DUE TO STUDENT REQUEST RECEIVED ON 20.01.15. (CM 21.01.15) Date: 2013-09 (completed)
Uncontrolled Keywords: Word and Music Studies, Repetition, Music, Irish Literature, Samuel Beckett, Morton Feldman, Scott Fields, Improvisation, Musicology, Transmedial, Intermedial, Interdisciplinarity, Modernism, Experimental Music, Jazz, Popular Music Studies, Aesthetics, Music and Literature
Depositing User: Symplectic Admin
Date Deposited: 31 Jul 2014 10:03
Last Modified: 17 Dec 2022 01:32
DOI: 10.17638/00016693
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