What is the Word

baritone, bass clarinet, trumpet and trombone (2014)ca.12”

At the age of 83 Beckett wrote his last poem “What is the Word”. The poem was dedicated to a friend who was suffering from aphasia – a language disorder that includes losing the ability to speak, read, or write. The text bears the marks of struggle and exhaustion. The words stutter forward and appear without context. The poem lacks a coherent subject (there is an obvious absence of any personal pronouns). As the work proceeds the sounds of the individual words become more and more apparent. The materiality of each word becomes exposed and we might even want to call them sound-objects rather than words. Yet despite the lack of cohesion we still feel the text expresses some kind of personal suffering. And rather than peter out the poem grows more aggressive as it moves forward. The words, acting as sound objects, perhaps communicate something else; what is lacking in concrete meaning is made up for in the vivaciousness of the rhythm that is present. There is perhaps a primordial will to life heard in the rhythm of the words, a struggle pushing ahead in the face of meaninglessness. The situation is both tragic and comic, or as with many of Beckett’s texts, a tragicomic.

This unidentifiable place in between suffering and the will to live compelled me to set the text. My setting of the poem is in three sections. The first section attempts to be a “musical reading” of the entire text, word for word, with no extra repetition of words other than what is presented in the poem. The second section playfully explores the text and various vowel sounds constituting the words. The final section is a further breakdown and explosion of the language into both instrumental and vocal sounds.

The failure of Beckett’s text to produce meaning can be read as bleak and depressing, but I tend to read it the opposite way. Beckett’s text is untethered from having to mean anything – I find this liberating. I hope my setting of the text presents both the power of the poem and possible modes of communication when meaning is unbound.

A complete recording of What is the Word is on loadbang’s Old Fire Catch Old Building released on New focus Recordings (2018).

Commissioned by loadbang.