Research Seminar

Wednesday 25 November 2015, 4.00PM

Speaker(s): Dr Catherine Laws (University of York)

Interference: the sound of collaboration in Beckett’s early radio work for the BBC.

Samuel Beckett’s radio plays of the 1950s and 1960s explore the significance of sound, music and listening. Music plays a dramatic role in Esquisse Radiophonique (Rough for Radio 1), Words and Music and Cascando, while extracts from Schubert’s lied ‘Death and the Maiden’ are used to underline both the thematics and the affective qualities of All That Fall (1956). In all his radio plays, Beckett exploits the particular, ethereal nature of radio sound, simultaneously immersive and distanced. In his earlier work, he had sometimes used failure to tune up or tune in as a metaphor for the impossibilities of meaningful expression or communication. The material conditions of pre-digital radio listening, which required us to tune in, attempting to avoid interference, provided a new context for these preoccupations.

This supports the prevalent view of Beckett as a sophisticated composer of radio soundscapes. However, materials in the BBC’s Written Archive at Caversham reveal quite how collaborative these plays were. The BBC production team for All That Fall, led by Donald McWhinnie, was already deeply involved in radiophonic experimentation, influenced by everything from contemporary musique concrète to techniques developed for the Goon Show. Many of those aspects of the play now regarded as so remarkable should, I argue, be attributed as much to McWhinnie as Beckett. This invokes wider questions of collaboration, authority and control in the creative process.


Catherine Laws is a musicologist and a pianist specialising in contemporary music. Much of her research focuses on the relationship between music, language and meaning, with a special focus on the musicality of the work of Samuel Beckett and composers’ responses to his texts. She has published a range of articles on these topics, and her book, ‘Headaches Among the Overtones’: Music in Beckett/ Beckett in Music appeared in December 2013 (Editions Rodopi). Other research interests include: contemporary music performance practices; music theatre; subjectivity and embodiment in performance; processes of collaboration; the relationship between critical theory and contemporary musicology; music and gender.

Location: I/D003