restricted access Beckett’s Speaking Machines: Sound, Radiophonics and Acousmatics
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Beckett’s Speaking Machines:
Sound, Radiophonics and Acousmatics

Samuel Beckett’s radio plays have been widely considered as important contributions to the development of radiophonic writing; however, little is known about the conceptual concerns and material conditions that shaped his writing practice. Overall, it has proved easier to think of Beckett’s radio drama as the natural work of a “pure acoustician” working “by ear”—to cite one of many accounts of conversations with Beckett—rather than as the result of specific collaborations, affinities, and legacies.1 In this article, I situate Beckett’s approach to radiophonic drama differently, in relation to the development of sound and recording technologies. I contend that Beckett’s explorations of sound and listening remained indebted to modernist interests in phonography, and that Beckett’s modernist influences, in turn, enabled his work to implement and further some of the techniques pioneered in specific strands of musical composition during the post-war period. In particular, Beckett’s radio and television plays remain engaged in a reflection on the dramatic potential of acousmatics—a concept defined by musique concrète composer Pierre Schaeffer, Beckett’s contemporary, as “a noise that one hears without seeing the causes from which it originates.”2 The term “acousmatics” was utilized on the French airwaves from 1955 onwards, but Schaeffer was the first to theorize this concept in depth; he presented sound divested from visualized and causal origins as the predicate for a new compositional practice that explored the acousmatic situation generated by the wireless, the tape recorder, and the phonograph.3 Schaeffer’s reflection on acousmatics, in turn, shares important artistic and conceptual affinities with Beckett’s utilizations of disembodied voices and [End Page 1] modernist explorations of the ethereal recorded voice. As I trace these connections, I discuss the residual bearing of Edisonian spiritualism upon Schaeffer’s approach to listening, and I examine the ways in which Beckett developed writing practices that remained tightly associated with modernist representations of sound transmission.4


The conception of All That Fall, the first radio play that Beckett wrote for the BBC, was spurred by the conceptual and technical advances made by Schaeffer and his collaborators at the French broadcasting service in Paris: the play originated from plans and conversations that were driven by the BBC’s keenness to emulate the work carried out by Schaeffer. Schaeffer was then a resident composer and high-ranking administrator at the Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française (RTF, renamed in 1964 Office de Radiodiffusion-Télévision Française [ORTF]), and he founded experimental laboratories such as the Studio d’Essai (later renamed the Club d’Essai) and the Service de la Recherche, which generated much interest at the BBC. Reflecting these transnational influences, the genesis of All That Fall spanned across languages and cultures: the play was written in English, during one of Beckett’s frequent stays in Ussy-sur-Marne, and summoned “boyhood memories” of Foxrock in Dublin.5 The acoustic sophistication of Beckett’s script marked a decisive turning point for the BBC’s work on radiophonic sound: All That Fall provided both a context and an outlet for the BBC’s explorations of the new territories opened up by the magnetic tape. The play’s successful broadcast in January 1957 also granted a critical momentum to the attempts of sound engineers and composers to create a new sound laboratory at the BBC and foster new forms of radiophonic writing. This laboratory would become, in March 1938, the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, formed after lengthy negotiations led by Desmond Briscoe, who became Head of the Radiophonic Workshop, and Donald McWhinnie, then Assistant Head of Drama.

In its endeavor to craft distinctive “radiophonic effects,” the BBC looked towards musique concrète for new models, techniques and practices—even if McWhinnie, upon his return from a visit to the RTF’s Paris studios in preparation for All That Fall, expressed strong reservations about the Club d’Essai’s prioritization of sonic experimentation over the script itself.6 The work on sound and the magnetic tape conducted by Schaeffer and his collaborators was a favored source of inspiration on several levels; in late 1956...