BLOG Amy McCauley

NWR Issue 103

‘Dylan Live’ in Aberystwyth

Dylan the animal, the trickster, the myth. Done, you might say, to death. But the form matters: the form counts for everything. That’s what Thomas himself might’ve said. The presentation, the form, the texture of language itself. The experience and the performance.

Alors, this presentation of Thomas’ life, work and influence as a hybridised, frenetic interplay (and overlay) of vocals, double bass, rap, bilingual rivalry and fragmented narrative operates as much to explode our ideas about form as to challenge our idea of who Thomas was and what his contribution to literature – and music – might realistically be.

On then, to the theory at work behind ‘Dylan Live’. It is simply this: that Thomas’ trips to New York in the early nineteen-fifties – four in all – acted as a sideways linguistic catalyst for (and contribution to) what we now call hip hop. Professor/saxophonist Daniel Williams’ idea is that music and the spoken word evolved in conversation with one another at this time. In this way, they poured into a shared hybrid genealogy, with both forms reciprocally influencing one other and shaping the future of a new musical genre.

When Thomas visited New York, for example, Bebop was the (already hybridized) musical form he encountered there. Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Tad Dameron were pioneering a fusion that embraced improvisation and fragmentation – as exhibited by its nervy restless style – and which, crucially, reprioritised the blues as a structuring principal. It was, you could say, the music of the id, the savage, the mongrel. A rough mix which threw swing out of the window and paved the way for a more spontaneous musical experiment.

Williams, then, takes the figure of Dylan Thomas and maps Thomas’ own ‘primitive’ poetry onto the primitive musical energy of Bebop. The extent to which Thomas really did contribute to the development of hip hop and rap is debatable; but the parallels Williams draws between the raucous energy of Bebop and Thomas’ own poetry-as-performance are fascinating, not least because the ideas are presented as a living, breathing, collaborative machine.

New poetry – from Aneirin Karadog and Zaru Jonson – merges in the production with Stravinsky translated into jazz; Thomas’ poetry loops and merges with hip hop by Ed Holden; Daniel Williams’ thesis tumbles into Huw V Williams’ bass which ricochets off Ewan Morris Jones’ images. The overall effect is of history being translated into a future version of itself. Indeed, the sensation I had was not of looking back into the past, but of feeling the past look through me to the future.

In many ways, of course, Dylan Thomas – both romantic and modernist in attitude – was the future. His influence on poets is undoubtable; but ‘Dylan Live’ also draws attention to the influences on Thomas himself – from Yeats to Rimbaud to Joyce. This literary inheritance itself potentially establishes a kind of extended literary genealogy for rap and hip hop which travels right back to the roots of literary modernism. The ideas are interesting and the performances propelled forward by the rich and multi-faceted engagement with Thomas as a man, a writer and an influence on today’s poets and musicians. Zaru Jonson has a natural powerful presence on stage while Aneirin Karadog buzzes with a sort of strange mordant energy. Rap, reflection, antagonism, history, jazz and images: they all jump onto the spoken text of the lecture. What I most appreciated, however, was the exploration of Thomas’ life as a persona – his own self-created myth. This, of course, means acknowledging that Thomas remains something of an archetype; a slippery projection onto which we hurl our ideas and desires. But perhaps, as ‘Dylan Live’ demonstrates, this doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing.

Amy McCauley is a contributor to NWR, print and online.

‘Dylan Live’ forms part of Literature Wales’ Developing Dylan project, the official educational strand of the Dylan Thomas 100 celebrations and is funded by the Welsh Government’s Department for Education and Skills. The spoken word element, by Daniel Williams, in ‘Dylan Live’ is developed in full in an essay, “‘The White Negro”? Dylan Thomas and the Beats” in the summer edition of NWR, published on 25 May. We will also publish online on that date an interview with Daniel, which will include images, video and music from the production in rehearsal and from the Aberystwyth University campus performance on 26 March reviewed above.


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