Little Islands of Melody and Silence

Benjamin Dwyer performing at New Music Dublin 2020. (Photo by Olesya Zdorovetska)

Little Islands of Melody and Silence

Composer and guitarist Benjamin Dwyer's new album on Diatribe records, 'what is the word' – featuring Dwyer, Barry Guy, Maya Homburger and actor Conor Lovett – is the result of a renewed engagement with all of Samuel Beckett's output. Mark Fitzgerald reviews.

In a marked change from previous years, the 2020 New Music Dublin festival handed over a considerable proportion of its programming to Nick Roth and Matthew Jacobson from Diatribe Records. The resultant ‘Diatribe Stage’ was tucked away in a small room lacking any soundproofing, down a long corridor, as if to highlight its peripheral status. Despite this, the Diatribe Stage managed to provide most of the biggest talking points of the festival, including what was, for this writer, one of the musical highlights of the festival, a performance of Benjamin Dwyer’s what is the word. As with the other performances featured on the Diatribe Stage, Dwyer’s work has been released on CD and as a digital album, giving listeners the increasingly rare luxury to get to know a work by an Irish composer in more detail through repeated listening. The album also contains six residua (after Beckett) for solo violin and five disjecta (after Beckett) for prepared guitar. All three works date from 2019.

The three pieces on the album are the result of a renewed engagement by the composer with all of Beckett’s output. In interview, Dwyer has explained that it was the aesthetic of Beckett’s late work in particular, his animation of the leftovers of a worn out language, the paring down of this language to its bare essence, his constant questioning of what language meant and the search for the nothingness behind language, that inspired these pieces. Above all Dwyer is fascinated by the relationship of the work to silence and how this might be utilised in a musical context.

Dwyer describes his residua as following Beckett’s ‘aesthetics of reduction and in particular, his slow edging away from the logic of linguistic thought towards a deliberate imprecision of textual meaning that places words and their aftermath in a coterminous relationship.’ The disjecta, which share the same aesthetic concerns, concentrate on what Dwyer describes as ‘elements of guitar that are often considered unwanted... phantom notes, upper partials, noise, residual fretboard sounds’. In some pieces the exploration of how to draw music from silence is relatively literal, such as in the first of the residua where the violin gouges out a series of Gs before the piece is subsumed in the silence again or the fourth one where a series of musical gestures act like stones dropped in a pond, each one rippling its way into nothingness. The disjecta explore an extraordinary range of colour from the ‘normal’ sounds of the plucked strings in the fourth to a huge array of metallic and wooden sounds on a prepared guitar in the first. Both collections also contain little islands of wistful melodies turned over repeatedly and one of the fascinating things is discovering the connections between pieces in these two collections and also the main work, as gestures and material are shared and examined from different angles across the three pieces.

Head on
In what is the word, Dwyer tackles Beckett head on using three late texts for this ‘triptych with interludes’. The opening movement utilises neither, the text Beckett provided Morton Feldman with for his eponymous 1977 opera. The second movement entitled ‘On!...Still!’ uses lines from Worstward Ho (1983) while the third part of the triptych is a setting of Beckett’s last poem What is the word (1988). Between each of these movements there is an instrumental interlude. Setting Beckett to music poses huge challenges to any composer not just because of the intellectual weight of the text but also due to the musicality of the prose. Many actors who collaborated with Beckett recalled how he would ‘conduct’ a rehearsal with punctilious attention to the tempo at which words were delivered and the length of pauses. The importance of this aspect of Beckett’s work is highlighted by any performance that rides roughshod over his carefully composed melodic lines. Charles Sturridge’s 2006 production of Endgame at the Gate Theatre was a perfect example of how the delicate structure of a Beckett play can be completely destroyed by a performance tone deaf to the inner music of the words, resulting in a loss of wit, dramatic tension and meaning. Dwyer’s solution to the problems of setting Beckett is to give the lines to an actor who can project their natural rhythm unhindered by any musical straightjacket. In this performance the texts are given outstanding performances by Conor Lovett who deftly negotiates everything from the torrent of twisted language in Worstward Ho to the delicate pathos and beauty of What is the word.

Dwyer’s music forms a deftly constructed dramatic arc. In neither, Beckett’s words emerge gradually from a series of isolated notes and then individual phonemes. ‘On!...Still!’ begins with what seems at first the most conventional music of the score, as insistent irregular rhythmic patterns are set up before, in a dramatic coup, the Beckett text explodes across the foreground bringing the musical clockworks to a halt. In the last movement the words of Beckett’s final poem are gently cradled in a tender lullaby by the three instrumentalists before a dark disintegration into silence brings the work to a close. Dwyer’s ear for colour is to the fore in the two interludes, as the instrumentalists utilise various extended techniques sometimes within loosely aleatoric structures, the most extreme being found at the opening of the second interlude which could be mistaken for manipulated tape music rather than acoustic instruments. Yet the interludes also act to bind the work together, notably when the octave Es from neither reappear at the centre of the second interlude, reminiscent of those sudden numinous octaves sometimes found in early Ligeti.

what is the word is an intensely dramatic and moving half-hour piece that impresses the listener with its consummate combination of ambition and accomplishment, while the disc as a whole is one that repays repeated listening and deep engagement. Maya Homburger, Barry Guy and Dwyer himself give exemplary performances in which one senses their absolute commitment and unity of purpose. At a time of great uncertainty for the arts community and when even the future of the Lyric fm CD label, which has intermittently supported living Irish composers, is in question, Diatribe is to be commended for releasing such a major new work so quickly.

To purchase what is the word, visit

Published on 21 May 2020

Mark Fitzgerald is a Senior Lecturer at TU Dublin Conservatoire.

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