Music and Poetry

On the meeting of music and words in In the Ranelagh Gardens, the collaborative project of poet Macdara Woods and composer Benjamin Dwyer.

Despite much loose talk about the music within poetry, or the poetic quality of great music, wherever music and text actually share a space, one is confronted with their incompatibilities.

In his recent, fascinating study, Making Words Sing, Jonathan Dunsby points out that even in nineteenth-century lieder (or by extension, much older song), where both music and poetry used reiteration and recurrence, they did so in spectacularly divergent ways (pp 16-18). Is it more difficult, or easier, to set poems to music today, now that poets and composers have divested themselves of standard forms (such as the sonnet and the sonata) and repetitive elements (including rhyme and regular phrasing) as part of the fabric of their art? In fact it is probably not greatly different; the pacing and unfolding of tension in poetry without music will always differ utterly from the unfolding in time of music that ‘sings’ the same poem. But so much more is experientially at odds between the two art forms.

What I notice when considering the differences between listening to poems and listening to music, particularly on the new collaborative CD featuring poet Macdara Woods and composer Benjamin Dwyer, In the Ranelagh Gardens, is that music tends to close down the mind, while poetry opens it up. I find, though it could just be because I listen to music professionally and to poetry amateurly (such a word should exist), that music takes up all of my consciousness, and shuts out words and images – my mind refuses to wander – whereas poetry requires the mind both to visually imagine and to create logic out of ellipsis. (In fact, highly abstract music – music that challenges all musical logic such as Morton Feldman’s – can also throw you into the active, creative mode of ‘making it make sense’).

Some listeners’ minds do go off into visual or emotional imaginings, but all listeners share a loss of conscious control in listening that is akin to dreaming. This, and the shutting off of one’s interior monologue, are remarkable attributes, even if they are secondary, of music.

By contrast, a good poem is packed tight with possible thought, like a seed that germinates in the mind. Macdara Woods’ poetry certainly excites the mind into a lot of activity, and in ‘Locksmith’ he both does this and refers to it with:

My neighbours have declared themselves apart / Behind electric gates / It comes and goes / We all are prisoners of the heart at base / My poem is when / The tumblers in the lock fall into place.

My point is that different parts of the brain go to work for the different art forms, and in different ways. That is another reason why music and text are so opposed. Philosophers, recognising this, have divided the arts into fine arts, which represent human expression and thus includes poetry, and decorative arts, including music.

In elucidating aspects of how the relationship of music and poetry have been seen in the past, Dunsby refers to Nietzsche’s view that it would be absurd to set poems to music. As Nietzsche put it:

What an inverted world! An undertaking that strikes one as if a son desired to beget his father! Music can generate images that will always be mere schemata, as it were examples of its real universal content. But how should the image, the representation, be capable of generating music?

What Nietzsche appears to be saying here is that, although it was the normal practice to set existing poems to music, the fundamental primacy of music, and its lack of emotional specificity in our reading of it, suggests that it would be more suitable to write the music first and then write a poem around it afterwards. That doesn’t seem a terribly convincing argument nowadays, but this was the age when philosophers were very much concerned with the essences behind the appearance of things, and he is also saying that the essence of music is non-emotional and of a higher order than words, because they are specific (of course words in poetry became so much less specific soon after Nietzsche’s time).

In the Ranelagh Gardens
Ben Dwyer and Macdara Woods have produced a CD that seems aware of all these problems, and sidesteps the issue neatly by simply alternating pieces of music and poems. The listener can decide to create relationships or not do so, between the music and the words. The CD is laid out formally (in the shared territory of the arts forms) as a cycle, it runs: musical piece, four poems, musical piece, four poems, and so forth ending with a piece of music. Interestingly, the first 20 tracks belong together (four guitar compositions by Dwyer, Apuntes sin títulos I–IV, alternating with sets of four poems by Woods) while the remainder incorporates poems and music from elsewhere. I expected this to register as a sharp discontinuity at track 21 (it continues to 32 tracks in all), but it does not. The rhythm of music, four poems, music, four poems, carries you along, and the use of a large piece to close makes a satisfactory whole, although it is a huge amount to take in at a sitting.

The music works well around the poems, and the first section seems to have been written around, or in response to, the text. The music in that piece is all for solo guitar, and the pieces are short. With short pieces, a composer has a lot of structural freedom: an aphorism can be unbalanced, disjointed, quirky, in a way that palls in a longer piece. Dwyer uses this freedom well without abusing it; the music has the freshness of improvisation, but with a sureness of gesture. After this, there are longer pieces, Parallaxis and Crow (Improvises), where in spite of that last title, the overall structure follows simple planned lines: it is only the local structure that appears to improvise.

There seems to be a coincidence of approach taken by the poet and the composer. Both come across as strongly instinctive creators, who don’t take an interest in showing off the techniques of their respective crafts. A feeling is created that the content should stand or fall without audible struts. Of course, this itself is often a stylistic decision, but here it seems to be motivated out of feeling – feeling that bearing witness to the realities of the mind is too serious for tropes. For both Woods and Dwyer, style and technique exist as tools; keep as long as useful, season through use, etc. There is also a sense that both have a similar outlook on values. In the poetry this is far easier to pinpoint of course: there is a constant sense that the reported word has value as a tumbler in the lock of a life lived – whether the speaker is drinking beer in the park, or watching passers-by on the same street day after day, the bum note of judgment is avoided.

One might wonder: are composers in general shy of text setting these days? In fact the answer is yes, less vocal music is being written than in the past. Some of this is to do with music’s increased abstraction, and so is related broadly to this discussion. Also, I, at any rate, find much contemporary vocal music far less compelling than the old stuff. It seems to me that the explosion of possibility in new music has to be met by the sort of explosion of vocal usage that Berio’s music exemplified. Dunsby introduces the term ‘transvocality’ to describe this historical interplay of instrumental and vocal writing, and notes that it has not been so well served recently, even by composers such as Boulez and Carter… but that is another day’s work.

Making Words Sing: Nineteenth- And Twentieth-Century Song, by Jonathan Dunsby (Cambridge University Press, 2004)

In the Ranelagh Gardens, Macdara Woods and Benjamin Dwyer, CD GAM0002 (Available from and Tower Records from 11th March)

Published on 1 March 2005

John McLachlan is a composer and member of Aosdána.


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