NWR Issue 79

Soundtracks and Scores

Welsh writing has been marching to a different beat since devolution: the last ten years have seen confident experimentation on the part of writers, bold dissent within the literary establishment and a growing number of literary lists being developed by Welsh publishers. Add to that the burgeoning export of Welsh fiction and poetry beyond the UK in various European languages and the increasing number of writers working as freely in English as they do in Welsh, and the literary and critical landscape is almost unrecognisable in comparison with the outlook a decade ago.

As the new generation matures into its own literary establishment, certain dominant trends are emerging. One of those trends is the growing significance of popular culture in creative work generally. Recent issues of New Welsh Review have explored the various ways in which new writing from Wales is breaking down the barriers between high and low culture, as well as between different art forms. One area, though, that has received scant attention so far is the connection between music and writing. And yet music - its influences, lyrics and rhythms - is present in the very fabric of novels by, say, Matthew David Scott (whose Playing Mercy was longlisted for the inaugural EDS Dylan Thomas Prize), or Hayley Long - her second novel, Kilburn Hoodoo, was published by Parthian last year. A whole swathe of authors from Wales are now working in a rich new cultural register.

This issue looks beyond the Cool Cymru phenomenon to work by writers whose rootedness is made out of both belonging and alienation, whose politics are very much of a post-industrial Wales (rather than the How Green Was My Valley variety), and whose authentic, in-your-face - and, yes, 'raw' - voices are informed by a complex web of musical references. Patrick Jones is perhaps best known for his connections with the Manic Street Preachers, but a closer look at his output shows how his collaborations with the Manics work both ways: the Manics' James Dean Bradfield has composed the soundtracks that accompany several of Jones's plays, for example, and music continues to inform Jones's work as a poet and playwright at the deepest level.

Patrick Jones is one of several Welsh writers, including Gwyneth Lewis and Menna Elfyn, who have been commissioned in recent years to work with the Welsh National Opera. In fact, the WNO can be said to have single-handedly nurtured a whole group of literary librettists: Penny Simpson's article on the WNO's active commissioning programme in this area ('Opera and the Word') also shows how it has succeeded in bringing opera, traditionally a high art form, closer to popular (or at least to youth) culture and certainly closer to community groups and audiences.

While it is true that music is gaining ground in new writing, as Sarah Morse argues in her article on Rachel Trezise, Hayley Long and Clare Potter ('She Sings of a[n Iron] Maiden'), it is clear that there is a submerged history to this aspect of Welsh writing in English that has yet to be fully explored by the critics. Sarah Morse tantalisingly draws attention to Gwyn Thomas's short story 'Gazooka' as a literary forerunner to Trezise's Dial M for Merthyr - both are focused on music, located in the same geographical area and rooted in the same tradition of an 'American Wales'. There are other works written well before 1997 that could usefully be placed along a line plotting the beginnings and development of this strain of Welsh writing in English, such as Dorothy Edwards's novella Winter Sonata, first published in 1928, which combines musical content with an ambitious attempt to bring music right into the very form of the writing.

Conversely, there are some very successful contemporary writers whose creative roots are in music first and foremost. Charlotte Greig, who made her literary début last year with A Girl's Guide to Modern European Philosophy (Serpent's Tail), is a singer-songwriter who made several albums before publishing her first novel. An extract from her memoir is published in this issue, and her collaboration with Rachel Trezise - I Sing of a Maiden, a show combining monologues and a short film with performances of traditional songs - is discussed by Sarah Morse in her article. Following sell-out runs at Chapter Arts Centre in Cardiff last year, I Sing of a Maiden will be reprised at the Laugharne Weekend at the end of March. Further details of the festival can be found on the 'Preview' pages of this issue, and at www.thelaugharneweekend.com.


previous editorial: Back to the Present
next editorial: Free For All


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