Setting William Golding’s Pincher Martin to Music

This is a guest article by composer Oliver Rudland and Helen Roche

It is a founding principle of the theatre that one should always ‘show, and not tell’. Why, therefore, should a composer choose to adapt William Golding’s existential masterpiece, Pincher Martin, which describes, in excruciating detail, the final flickerings of a drowning naval officer’s consciousness – his life flashing before his eyes as he is overwhelmed by the Atlantic Ocean?

What most drew me to Golding’s novel was the astonishing prose-poetry of his style, and the extreme density of overlapping metaphors which he weaves to create the heightened sensory world of a drowning man, and which induce in the reader the same confusion – as well as his magnificent ability to depict the eerie island world which the protagonist makes his own. As we read the book, we savour Pincher Martin’s isolation and his abandonment to the elements, just as Golding must have savoured the drizzly and temperate calm of English shores; there are so many moments in the novel which simply take your breath away with the author’s unique ability to capture the sensory delights and intricacies of a coastal environment:

‘There was a gentle undertone compounded of countless sloppings of wavelets, there was a constant gurgling and sucking that ranged from a stony smack to a ruminative swallow. There were sounds that seemed every moment to be on the point of articulation but lapsed into a liquid slapping like appetite. Over all this was a definable note, a singing hiss, soft touch of the air on stone, continuous, subtle, unending friction.’

It was passages such as this, with their deep feeling and admiration for the elemental beauty of the sea, which inspired me to find a way to set Golding’s novel to music. Initially, I thought that the resulting work would take the form of a symphonic song-cycle, perhaps somewhat in the tradition of Elgar’s Sea Pictures. However, as I explored the book in more depth and began to arrange the libretto, I discovered, in the midst of this watery epic poem, little vignettes from Pincher Martin’s past, nuggets of intense dramatic potential, which instantly sprang to life for me on the page.

These vignettes immediately presented themselves to me as miniature dramatic scenes which cried out for operatic treatment, and, using them, I was able to devise a structure which passed between Pincher Martin’s existential plight in the ocean and on the island, and the memory scenes from his past life. This excited my dramatic imagination with the idea of presenting the audience with an insight into the nature and chronology of Pincher Martin’s past, through which we could gain an understanding of his character. By focusing on very particular moments from his past, which nevertheless imply a wider narrative structure, the vignettes could suggest to the audience that these scenes were memories which Pincher Martin was experiencing, very much in the way that we ourselves recall events through focusing on particular moments in our experiences.

The idea that things which Pincher Martin experiences on the island – a seagull cry, a flash of lightning – could remind him of something that happened to him previously, such as an emotional outburst or an explosion, suggested a myriad musical ways in which to connect Pincher Martin’s island world with the world of his memories. In this fashion, I was able to mirror Golding’s stream of consciousness technique with a musical dramatic technique which set up a similar chain of associations, so that a cry for help becomes the alarm of hearing a bicycle bell behind one unexpectedly, which becomes the chime of a clock in a study, which becomes Big Ben striking, which becomes a flash of lightning, which becomes the explosion of the torpedo which hits the ship, the overwhelming sound of which still reverberates through Pincher Martin’s disoriented mind as he drowns. Similarly, the sensation of Pincher Martin losing consciousness becomes the Doppler-effect of the engine-sound of a passing vehicle, which becomes the flourish of a seagull’s cry, which becomes the crest of a falling wave, all woven together in a musical tapestry which suggests that these motifs are being heard through water, as his body is tossed in the waves.

What was most astonishing about this process was that it became apparent, as I was creating this musical tapestry, that Golding had already suggested many of these associations in literary terms in the book, since there are many moments in the transition passages between the protagonist’s island experience and his memories which use a similar “crib” to pass from one realm to the other. As Golding reaches the climax of the novel, exploring the extremities of madness into which Pincher Martin is descending, he deliberately uses an over-abundance of metaphor to create in the reader a similar feeling of insanity. Musically and dramatically, I have mirrored this process by recapitulating the musical motifs in their chains of association with increasing frequency and speed.

It very quickly became apparent that adapting Pincher Martin in such a fashion would present significant challenges in terms of staging (as the baritone soloist put it: “One can’t exactly fill the stage with a swimming pool!”). The obvious solution was facilitated by modern technology, replacing the traditional scenic backdrop with a cinematic projection which could pass smoothly between the thundering ocean, the island world, and Martin’s memories, in a way which both reflects his shifting psychology, and which enables us to depict scenes which would be impossible to realise using traditional stagecraft.

Just one example of this technique at work is the scene in a moving motorcar, where Martin attempts to force Mary Lovell into acquiescing to his misplaced desires by driving at a terrifying speed. This immediately suggested the idea of representing the sound of the car engine in the orchestra, the revvings and gear shifts providing the dual function of expressing the scene literally, whilst also bringing his anger and masculine will to life metaphorically. Musically, I have accompanied this scene with continuous unpitched and then pitched fluttertongues in four solo brass instruments, to evoke the sound of a car engine, first stationary and then in faster and faster motion. In terms of staging, this coordinates with the film, in that what is displayed on the screen is the view seen from the back seat of a car, first shaking very slightly as the car is parked in a lay-by with its engine idling, and then changing as the car moves off down the road. This is combined on-stage with the set, which in this case consists of a car bonnet behind which the protagonists will sit, with the backseat view behind them on the film. The bonnet itself is half-car, half-rock-like in substance, so that we can move expeditiously from a scene taking place on the rocky islet to this memory scene in the car, whilst also suggesting to the audience that the rock is actually an imaginary environment created by Martin’s subconscious, and that we are dealing with scenes from his past life, which he is recalling during his purgatorial existence on the island.

Moreover, this use of the cinema screen was confirmed by Golding’s own words – at the beginning of Chapter 13, Pincher Martin himself describes his own memories in terms of ‘film trailers’:

‘”Mad,” said the mouth, “raving mad. I can account for everything, lobsters, maggots, hardness, brilliant reality, the laws of nature, film-trailers, snapshots of sight and sound, flying lizards, enmity – how should a man not be mad?…”’

Even the orchestration, in which I chose to combine percussion, brass and strings (without woodwind) to suggest the steel and water present at the moment of Martin’s demise, was confirmed by Golding’s description of the music which passes through the protagonist’s mind as he dances about the island in his insane glee (emphasis mine):

‘The world came back, storm-grey and torn with flying streamers, and he gave it storm-music, crash of timpany, brass blared and a dazzle of strings. He fought a hero’s way from trench to trench through water and music, his clothes shaking and plucked, tattered like the end of a windsock, hands clawing. He and his mouth shouted through the uproar.’

There were also moments in the novel which had to be cut and could not make their way into the opera, but which nevertheless found their way into some other aspect of the production, such as the grandfather clock which Golding recalls as part of a childish nightmare which Pincher Martin experiences on the island, and which became a part of the set-design for Nathaniel’s study.

Overall, I feel as if Golding’s novel has taken me on a creative journey, and that I have been led at each moment by his words to create a dramatic conception which integrates poetry, singing, music, film, and staging to form a sort of twenty-first century Gesamtkunstwerk, facilitated by the enormous operatic possibilities which cinematic technology can currently offers. Ultimately, transferring Golding’s literary vision into this new form has also helped me to clarify and gain a greater understanding of the work’s moral meaning, and its timeless message of redemption refused.


© Oliver Rudland and Helen Roche

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