The Nobel Prize-winning poet on opera writing, music and Caribbean speech melodies. This article by Derek Walcott originally appeared in the October 2008 issue of Gramophone.
Classical music was there when I was growing up in Saint Lucia and there was a pretty high level of experience. Some people would perform it privately; in particular traditional English songs were sung. And classical was not strange to any of us because it was played a lot at school and college and many of us were exposed to the strong choral traditions in the Caribbean (though I didn’t sing).
The context for all that though was a great mix of all different kinds of music. There were the local rhythms, calypso, zouk music. A great deal of Spanish and French-influenced music. That was the background. I learnt to move between different musical styles.
When I went to university in Jamaica, the professor asked me what I liked, and I replied, “Dance of the Hours, and Les Sylphides.” I thought I was talking on a very high plane! So, as I quickly discovered, I didn’t have any thorough knowledge at all. Even if my knowledge is limited, in terms of appreciation, Mozart swings! We understand that in the Caribbean. The brightness, vivacity – and that goes for Bach too. We assimilate this music into our own traditions. To hear a steel band playing these classics can be terrific.
Beyond music itself, though, melody in speech in the Caribbean is very strong – at times so strong that it is incoherent. It is felt very deeply and has its own melody in me. In the Caribbean we often parody that speech melody in our music, simply by following the tunes of the language. I’m a Caribbean writer and everything that goes with the Caribbean Islands goes with me – strong melody, a deep sense of rhythm, all this is part of my nature. Some allegedly “advanced” cultures look at these traditions and shun them. I’ve had students in the US, for instance, say that they don’t want to work with ideas of melody because it can’t work for them. So they don’t use rhyme in their writing, structure as an idea borne out of rhythm they see as old-fashioned.
In the Caribbean, being “old-fashioned” is considered a good thing. Harmony, rhythm, shape, they are all there in our novels and plays as well as our music. What has happened culturally elsewhere seems to me almost disastrous – when I see two squiggles and am told it is a painting. Many of my students find it very hard to write a sonnet, again because they feel that ideas of structure are old-fashioned. They look at the likes of William Carlos Williams and say that he brought freedom to writing. In fact he was a fine structural talent and he did the opposite, imposing a very strict monosyllabic discipline to what he was writing.
Yet this idea of anything being “classical” in the Caribbean doesn’t really exist, because you have to be backward as an artist. There’s nothing unusual about this; Picasso wasn’t avant-garde, he would say himself that he was old-fashioned.
Going back to your roots isn’t an academic notion, it’s a real thing. I wrote a version of The Odyssey, and the approach to Capri is physically quite similar to that at Saint Lucia. So coming home each time I have something of the same experience that Odysseus might have had seeing his homeland from the sea. Beginnings last, they are important. That’s why Bach works, whether on a steel band or played by a modern orchestra – he was the beginning of so much.
I’m working with a fellow poet, Seamus Heaney, on my first opera project, The Burial at Thebes, to be staged at Shakespeare’s Globe in London, among other places, in October. I will be directing, Dominique Le Gendre will be composing. I want to see from the inside what happens when great language and great music join – how can you get to that level of radiance? In opera the poetry is not the only thing that counts. But since there is poetry in music, and music in poetry, it will be an entirely natural alliance.