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  • Headaches among the Overtones: Music in Beckett/Beckett in Music by Catherine Laws
  • Arthur Rose
Headaches among the Overtones: Music in Beckett/Beckett in Music. By Catherine Laws. (Faux titre, 391.) Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2013. 508 pp.

Since her contribution to Samuel Beckett Today/Aujourd’hui, 6, in 1997, Catherine Laws’s essays have provided some of the most interesting interventions in the interdisciplinary field of words and music yet seen in Beckett studies. This book, which consolidates much of Laws’s work from 1997 to 2013, provides an important response to Mary Bryden’s excellent edited collection, Beckett and Music (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998). Unlike many of the contributors to Beckett and Music, Laws (herself author of an essay in that collection) is a musicologist, and the attentiveness to musicology as a discipline is one of the distinguishing features of Headache among the Overtones. The book serves as an antidote to much casual talk about music by providing a rigorous theoretical basis for what music in Beckett might actually be. It moves our understanding of Beckett and music beyond simplistic metaphors towards a ‘direct engagement with the music as well as its cultural mediation’ (p. 18). It does so in a language which is glossed for the lay reader and is expressed in the clearest terms, but which does not sacrifice its intellectual integrity. Typical of this clarity is Laws’s subtle close reading of the quotation that lends the book its name: ‘On the face of it, with “overtones” he implies that critics are superfluous […]. But any musician knows how important overtonal frequencies are: they determine the quality of a musical sound’ (p. 9). The first section of the book considers Beckett in the light of his early treatment of Beethoven in Dream of Fair to Middling Women to his later treatment of the same composer in Ghost Trio. The subsequent examination of Schubert consolidates the theme of Part One, which begins with an introduction to Beckett’s treatment of music (through his Proust), followed by close readings of Beckett’s engagement with Beethoven and Schubert. Part Two acts as a formal counterpoint to Part One: it considers the use of Beckett in contemporary music with close examinations of Morton Feldman, Richard Barrett, and György Kurtág. While both sections of the book display a certain interdependence, they do also stand separately. The book can therefore be approached in three different ways: for its interventions on Beckett and particular writers and composers, for its broader sections on music in Beckett or Beckett in music, and for its book-length narrative on the correspondence between Beckett and music. Certainly, the book can be read as a whole in this way, yet one senses nonetheless that the different aims of its two major sections would have been better tackled in separate studies. [End Page 414]

Arthur Rose
University of Leeds


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