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The Music of T.S. Eliot’s Poetry

Integrating text, live performance, sound design and video in a multimedia theatre production of “The Waste Land”

This article examines the interactions between the various modalities — poetic text, live stage performance, sound design and video projection — in a 2013 theatrical production of T.S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land (1922). It particularly focuses on the creation of the sound design for the performance and how this relates to the themes and sensibilities of the poem, its inherent sonorities, and what Eliot called “The Music of Poetry” (1942). It explores the range of musical and compositional strategies employed for the project, from textual analysis to associative methods, and particularly emphasizes the complex interweaving of and interactions between synthetic and concrete sound samples which complement and, it is argued, enhance the “musical’, imagistic and psychological elements within the poetic text. The performance, built on Eliot’s 434-line poem, is a collaboration between Steve Dixon, who produced, performed and created the video projections, and Joyce Beetuan Koh, who composed the music and soundscape. The performance was directed for stage by Tony Knight and was first presented in June 2013, firstly as a keynote performance at the International Association of Philosophy and Literature Conference, National University of Singapore, and then at the University of São Paulo, Brazil during the Experimental Settings: Numerical Audio Visual Culture Conference.

In 2013, the authors collaborated to create a multimedia theatre interpretation of T.S. Eliot’s iconic 1922 poem The Waste Land. The 50-minute performance features a live performer, Steve Dixon, and a complete pre-recorded sound design by Joyce Beetuan Koh, which is linked to a projected full-length movie. On stage, Dixon recites and begins to “relive” the poem, accompanied by Koh’s atmospheric and layered soundscape. On a screen behind him, the poem’s imagery unfolds in an increasingly breathless stream of visuals (produced and created by Dixon). Meanwhile, Eliot’s bizarre characters — from the clairvoyante Madame Sosostris to Tiresias and Cleopatra — appear as movie characters on screen, coaxing, seducing and terrifying the central actor.

The Waste Land has previously had only a small number of staged performances, including a radio dramatization by the BBC in 1938 (Sloane 2001) and a celebrated solo theatre performance by Fiona Shaw (1996, directed by Deborah Warner). Here we will particularly focus on the creation of the soundscape for this new production and the ways in which the different sonic elements and compositional strategies relate to Eliot’s conceptions of poetry and music.

We will begin by examining the inherent structural and aural musicality of the poem and go on to discuss the strategies adopted in composing a full-length sound design to accompany the performance. These range from conceiving direct sonic responses to the poem’s images and rhythms to using dramatic or disturbing sound effects to amplify its narratives and psychological elements. This will lead to a consideration of compositional responses to The Waste Land’s central leitmotifs of water and fire. The final section will focus on how concrete and synthetic sounds are juxtaposed to create different musical and æsthetic effects, which are seen to evoke and emphasize underlying ideas and meanings within Eliot’s text.

“The Music of Poetry”

Poetry has always had a close affinity with the sonic arts and music through their common concerns with auditory elements: rhythms, tempos, dynamics and sonorities. But there are few poems so closely aligned, indeed almost ontologically attuned to the notion of sound design and musical composition as T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. A type of polyphonic tone poem, it adopts a symphonic structure filled with leitmotifs and polyrhythms, and what Lawrence Rainey has called an “insistent stress on music” (2005, 42). Using a fragmented, mosaic structure brimming with cultural allusions, the poem’s abstracted, ambitious and inspired composition might be argued as a direct literary response to Walter Pater’s famous dictum that “all art constantly aspires to the condition of music” (1877).

Besides its inherent structural and “vocal” musicality, the poem abounds with specific musical references. The themes and arias of three of Wagner’s operas are repetitive leitmotifs, while there are direct quotations and references to ragtime songs, water music, whisper music, singing children, nursery rhymes, whining mandolins, birdsong and a record placed on a gramophone to restore normalcy following a loveless, violent sex scene.

Eliot’s himself wrote of the importance of music in his work — his first poems were called “Preludes” while his last masterpieces were “The Four Quartets.” In his essay The Music of Poetry (1942) he describes a “musical poem” as one that has “a musical pattern of sound and a musical pattern of the secondary meaning of the words which compose it, and… those two patterns are indissoluble and one” (quoted in Chancellor 1969, 22). In our performance of The Waste Land, three new patterns are added, which we hope will likewise join harmoniously with the two pre-existing elements to become “indissoluble and one.” These new elements are a complex sound design, a full-length movie and a live performer playing the poem’s narrator and several of its characters. Both singly and in combination, each of these elements add fresh types of “music” to the poetic mix — distinct new rhythms, tones, sonorities, dynamics, consonance and dissonance.

Strategies of Composition

In composing the sound design, a number of different approaches and strategies were employed. Some involved close textual analysis and conceiving sonic responses to images, symbols and (explicit or implied) meanings. Others adopted a more intuitive and freeform approach of associative thinking and aural imagination. A central strategy and æsthetic that emerged was to combine and counterpoint concrete and synthetic sounds, which is described in detail below in the section titled “What the Thunder Said.”

One of the starting strategies was to analyse the poem in relation to its specific musical allusions and references. A primary aim was to identify features that are intrinsically musical, or that directly reference musical scores and genres, as well as words or stanzas that potentiate musical manipulation. To take an example, the inherent musicality of the following passage (lines 346–358) provided a clear guide and impetus for a specific type of musical manipulation:

If there were water
And no rock
If there were rock
And also water
And water
A spring
A pool among the rock
If there were the sound of water only
Not the cicada
And dry grass singing
But sound of water over a rock
Where the hermit-thrush sings in the pine tree
Drip drop drip drop drop drop drop
But there is no water

While the irregular phrase structure prompts the composer to respond with a mixed meter organization, the rhythm and repetition of words — water, rock, drip, drop — also suggests a quick and lively tempo. The section conjures aural images of water, in varied forms, and initial planning for this section involved using concrete water sounds. This served both to complement and counterpoint Dixon’s video images for the section: a montage of images of dry rock faces with one single shot of a flowing jet of water from a primitive hose extruding from a rock. The final sound sequence uses three distinct water sounds: water flowing from a spring, water cascading into an echoey, subterranean cave, and the reverberant close-up sound of a single water droplet. The first relates directly to the hose image (operating as if it is diegetic sound) while the latter two reflect the text’s obsessive desire for water amongst the desert rocks on screen. The sounds thus appear like aural desires or mirages that “haunt” the arid film scene.

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Video 1 (1:20). Excerpt from Steve Dixon and Joyce Beetuan Koh — The Waste Land (2013).

The sense of frustration and confusion expressed by the text’s repeated conditional phrases such as “if there were water and no rock” (348–49) also suggested a disturbed psychological state that could be further explored in the sound design (Video 1). This involved creating an increasingly intense collage structure progressing through the three pre-recorded samples. The movement from one to another become increasingly dramatic not only by virtue of the changing tempi and characteristics of the water sounds but also through their associated emotional qualities (gentle gushing, hard splattering, ominous dripping). As the sequence builds, the final water droplet sounds are compressed and heard in increasingly quick succession, evoking the sense of accelerating distress and panic inherent in the text. The climax is reached as these rounded sounds become rudely interrupted by the intervention of sharp and jarring metallic sounds as a block of ice is splintered and crushed in a machine. The sound then cuts to silence, for the final, fatalistic line to be delivered: “But there is no water” (359).

Another example of the use of constructing a sequence of different water sounds to dramatic effect occurs in the short (10-line) fourth part of the poem, entitled “Death by Water”:

Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell
And the profit and loss.
A current under sea
Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell
He passed the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool.
Gentile or Jew
O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.

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Video 2 (1:22). Excerpt from Steve Dixon and Joyce Beetuan Koh — The Waste Land (2013).

For the production, this narrative of a drowned sailor is depicted using a film sequence that centres on the statue of a heroic mythical figure within a fountain in Trafalgar Square in London. The first part of the soundscape appears to be (but is not) diegetic, using a concrete recording of water gushing to correspond as realistically as possible with the imagery. This is layered with the hum of traffic and the close-up sounds of flapping wings, synchronized visually to birds flying across the screen frame. Over the course of the sequence, the gushing sounds transform into bubbling water effects, evoking the sensation of being underwater, as though drowning. This effect has been prefigured during an earlier sequence where the clairvoyante Madame Sosostris’ prophesies and warns to “Fear death by water” (line 55). The sequence ends with a surprising and visceral sonic effect in synchronization with the onscreen image, a “focus-pull” from the statue’s head to the fountain water behind him. At this point, the previously quiet, low-pitch “underwater” sound suddenly and shockingly cuts back to the high-pitch “gushing” sound, and at maximum volume (Video 2).

Leitmotifs: Water and Fire

Eliot has his own recurring literary and musical leitmotifs in The Waste Land and the themes of water and fire are particularly prominent. Water is arguably the central leitmotif, linking many of the poem’s images, characters and allusions. This includes explicit references to Wagnerian operas from the songs of the mermaid Rhinemaidens (Das Rheingold, 1869) to the young sailor’s opening aria in Tristan and Isolde (1865). Four lines of his song are quoted exactly in Eliot’s poem (lines 31–34).

Frisch weht der Wind
Der Heimat zu
Mein Irish Kind,
Wo Weilest du?

In response, Koh has used an excerpt of the harmonically luscious Prelude (bars 71 to 83) to “accompany” Dixon, who on stage sings the sailor’s aria to Wagner’s original melody. The reasons for the musical choice are two-fold: firstly, the descending trembling quality of the lower strings anticipates the tragically ill-fated love affair and the image of the desolate and empty sea [“Öd’ und leer das Meer” (42)]. Secondly, the continuous rising phrases of the higher strings evoke the erotic and sensual undertones of the Hyacinth garden episode that follows.

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Video 3 (1:01). Excerpt from Steve Dixon and Joyce Beetuan Koh — The Waste Land (2013).

This musical section has been transcribed for a string quartet with mutes to accompany Dixon’s onstage interaction with the “hyacinth girl” (presented as an actress in the authors’ work) who appears on screen and has a dialogue with him (Video 3). The ethereal sonority of the muted strings suggests a breathlessness and heightened sense of reality, emphasizing the episode’s exploration of youthful sexual awakening.

Fire is the poem’s other central recurring leitmotif, and different samples of crackling fires were used to create a range of visceral and psychological effects. It is the very first “musical” effect heard in the performance, accompanying the poem’s famous “April is the cruellest month…” opening. The sound is electronically processed in different ways, but continually evokes a sense of edginess and unease, providing an unsettling underscore to the first 18 lines, in deliberate contrast to the film projection which shows beautiful images of grand, rolling European landscapes through the seasons.

The use of fire sounds within the score is later used as a metaphor for lust, and underscores one of the sections alluding to the mythological story of the rape of Philomel (lines 97–103). Fire is an important theme and metaphor in The Waste Land, which Cleanth Brooks has linked specifically to “the sterile burning of lust” (1939). “The Fire Sermon” is the poem’s third and longest section, which concludes with a meditation on the difficulty of transcending earthly desires, Buddha’s insistent chant “burning burning, burning burning” (308) and St. Augustine’s plea to God to “pluckest me out” [of the fire] (309). In the performance of this section, Koh’s sound design of layered fire effects is combined with the diegetic sounds of chanting and fire from the video imagery being played on screen. This shows a male performer in a trance walking into a small bonfire and sitting down in it, during a sacred dance performance in Bali, Indonesia.

“What the Thunder Said”

A three-minute section of the poem’s final section, “What the Thunder Said” demonstrates the way that the soundscape is conceived to develop according to a progressive, accumulative structure interweaving and interrelating both concrete and synthetic sounds.

The swarming “hooded hordes” of people (line 369) are interpreted on screen as scurrying ants in macro lens close-up, accompanied by heavily processed synthetic insect sounds (Video 4). As the film shot changes to a volcano, this gives way to the “organic” concrete sounds of chirping crickets, while the synthesized sounds metamorphose into violently accented zipping sounds in synchronization with birds who dart and fly across the scene. The bird sounds metamorphose again into concrete city bird sounds as the names of “falling” cities are read out (374–76).

Jerusalem, Athens, Alexandria,
Vienna, London,

For the subsequent “whisper music” sequence (from line 379), the birds’ “voices” transpose to a woman’s whispering, synthetically treated to also evoke the sense of a wind. This aims to establish an association between the sounds of the wind and human breath, which share similar sonic qualities and are suggestive of the imageries of life and death. As Brooks puts it, two paradoxes — that “living devoid of meaning is death” and that there is in “sacrificial death, an awakening to life” — permeate the poem” (1939).

In the next sequence (“bats with baby faces” [380–85]), the whispers are accelerated and change pitch, while new layers are added to the texture with whispery wind sounds and the synthetic flapping of wings. By the end of the sequence, the woman’s whispers turn into painful wails and deadly cries, in grotesque correspondence to the “voices singing out of empty cisterns and exhausted wells” (385).

Concrete sounds return with a fanfare of church bells as the chapel (“perilous”) is revealed on screen, and the synthetic flapping wings transpose into the concrete sounds of real pigeons. On film, they are seen to flap around and land upon the Karyatides statues that surround the chapel, and the sound is amplified to unsettling, menacing effect.

The chapel section’s sinister overtones and themes of dryness, death and decay are emphasized and heightened through the sonic treatment of the woman’s whispers and the flapping wings. These two elements are then transformed and dramatically accelerated as the poem (and film) segues into the image of a cockerel, whose (concrete) morning call announces a violent rainstorm. The woman’s synthetic whispering metamorphoses into a radically different type of “vocalization” — the concrete staccato squawks and clucks of chickens — while the sound of flapping wings are slowed down and treated to become harder and more percussive, firstly suggesting a cock fight, and then distant thunderclaps.

As rain begins to fall, the bass sounds become even deeper and more reverberant. They then transpose into a heavily synthesized improvisation around Wagner’s watery E-flat opening to Das Rheingold, which is employed as the performance’s key recurrent musical leitmotif.

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Video 4 (4:36). Excerpt from Steve Dixon and Joyce Beetuan Koh — The Waste Land (2013).


Paul Chancellor suggests that what Eliot once termed the “music of poetry” is indispensable to The Waste Land’s meaning and that “purely aural qualities such as rhythm, sonority, verbal orchestration, and tempo” are keys to unlocking its ideas, symbols and significance (1969, 21). Dixon and Koh’s production consciously seeks to utilize sound design to provide further sonic layers that will enhance an audience’s understanding and appreciation of Eliot’s text, and reinforce its currency and relevance for a contemporary audience.

In his article, Chancellor describes Eliot’s work as “poetry in which two dreams cross — a dream in words and a dream in music” (Ibid.). He also reflects that music offers a constant reminder to the reader that poetry is similarly a “performance” and that “only by experiencing it as complete sentient, imaginative human beings can we arrive at its meaning” (Ibid., 31). While the “meaning” of The Waste Land will always remain difficult and multifaceted, the extra “dreams” added in this production — a parallel movie, live performance recitation and full-scale sound design — aim to provide a new experience of The Waste Land that stimulates the audience’s imagination and helps to invoke and uncover the poem’s nuanced and multiple meanings.

Live performance, film and sound design intersect and fuse with the two “dreams” [words and music] that Chancellor conceives as central to Eliot’s work. It is hoped that these new elements serve to effectively interact, commune with, complement and uplift the poem’s language, characters and images. The two prime research objectives have been to produce a distinctive and meaningful new articulation of The Waste Land, and a performance that celebrates and encapsulates what Eliot himself called “the music of poetry.”


Brooks, Cleanth. Modern Poetry and the Tradition. Chapel Hill NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1939.

Chancellor, Paul. “The Music of ‘The Waste Land’.” Comparative Literature Studies 6/1 (1969), pp. 21–32.

Pater, Walter. “The School of Giorgione.” Fortnightly Review (October 1877).

Rainey, Lawrence. Revisiting “The Waste Land”. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2005.

Sloane, Patricia. “Richard Wagner’s Arthurian Sources, Jessie L. Weston, and T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’.” Arthuriana 11/1 (Spring 2001), pp. 30–53.

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