BEYOND THE TEXT – HOW TO ENHANCE DYLAN THOMAS’ WORK
Music has been much used in Shakespeare’s works so why not Dylan Thomas’?
I will try to make an incomplete but impassioned case why music and poetry including poetic prose as used in my father’s play for voices, Under Milk Wood, can well do without the addition of music. My suffering in this regard should prove part of the case.
Ever since I returned to England in 1970, I have been approached by modern composers to listen to Fern Hill or more obscure poems arranged to music. My first experience was to be approached by an earnest American graduate who wished to use “If my head hurt a hair’s foot” in an original musical composition, using the words as a loose lyric for the music. In those early days returning from a long stay in Italy, I must have been somewhat naïve. I agreed to accompany him to the recording studio where his pre-recorded composition was overlain somehow onto a reading of the poem. Last minute, I was informed that the reader would be me and requested a moment to look at the poem. A more obscure poem about a child’s fear of causing his mother pain in birth could not have been chosen from my father’s poems. For me the meaning was almost impenetrable at such short notice so that I must have read it clearly but without understanding. This was no problem as the music was dominant and drowned the words effectively. The young artistic entrepreneur then revealed his plan. Because I had read the poem no royalties would be expected as a beneficiary. The reason that poem and a couple more had been chosen for the recording was that it was little known to the general public and therefore doubly immune to the payment of royalties. In any case, the young man told me, he’d spent his last dollars on the recording and was sleeping on friends’ sofas as a result. I had a sinking feeling that this sort of situation was going to be inevitable now that I was living in London and not in faraway Sicily or even Rome. Cheap flights to these destinations were still to happen in the future.
My foreboding was increased when asked to read “Fern Hill” at a public function for the Welsh Development Corporation. It would take place at the Hilton and feature clog dancing and harp playing which made me slightly uneasy. However, the fee of £30.00 was an inducement and I turned up in a long cotton Laura Ashley dress and a copy of Dylan’s Selected Poems. Immediately before I closed the evening with my reading, a band of merry clog dancers filled the floor and skilfully demonstrated how you can dance in uncomfortable wooden shoes. I would have to change the mood skilfully and dreaded being helped by the except the harpist. I was lucky that time as the harpist topped and tailed by did not over-ride the poem with a tinkling waterfall of background musak.
That occasion kick started my own poetry performance career and I was asked by any number of different organisations to give a reading of my father’s poems. Included were literary festivals and groups as well as entertainment spots at art galleries or even book launches of biographies about my father. My constant dread was to be requested (after all the arrangements had been made) would I mind a quiet musical accompaniment as I read
the poems. My fear was often justified as three piece flautists or recorders drowned the words. By the end, I had to ask that the musical interludes were just that… a musical item between not during poems. Nowadays, unless it is a reading abroad with translations so that Fern Hill can take 10 minutes to read with its translation, I insist the music is kept to three slots: beginning, interval and end.
Under Milk Wood, a play to be heard – but mostly seen, integrates songs into the text with words by my father and music by his friend, Swansea composer Dan Jones. These seem to work very well and give a little break from the richness of the text in so much that the words are song-like in scansion and use simple, often childlike words. The director Michael Bogdanov was the first to add Welsh folk songs for the glee party mentioned in the play to great effect. Nearly all the productions I see nowadays include additional music such as the UMW Jazz suite by Stan Tracey directed by Malcolm Taylor, a veteran of these productions, played as the audience settles itself and during the interval. These productions I can only recommend but I have also suffered all singing and all dancing(the expression used by one of the performers of Under Milk Wood. On a slightly higher level one hopes, The Welsh National Opera has also approached the literary trustees to sing Under Milk Wood. I await the outcome.
Returning to my experiences abroad, I have now new artistic decisions to make regarding my own poetry. As a result of teaching creative writing to school children in Turin, one of the teachers, Lidia Chiarelli Actis (who later became my official translator) introduced me to her husband, a part-time painter, Gianpiero Actis. He was keen to illustrate some of my poems and in this way we have to date had dozens of exhibitions based on Word and Image.
The local civic council became involved and subsidised events in which painters all over Turin were invited to illustrate a surreal poem of mine, The Object. The response was surprisingly positive with nearly a hundred painters of every imaginative style taking up the invitation. Lidia, herself a poet, has also experimented with a Canadian artist who works over the internet. I wouldn’t be surprised if music will be part of future collaborations.
In conclusion, I have to admit that the cross-fertilisation of the different arts: words, illustration and music can work if thought out and executed sensitively. This appears to contradict my initial assertion that music and poetry (and as it happens images) cannot enhance each other. They can and do as experience has taught me.
AERONWY THOMAS, 2008