Listening high and low: Yeats, Joyce, Beckett and the condition of music in Modernist Irish literature

Adrienne Janus

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter (peer-reviewed)peer-review


The distinction between European classical or ‘art’ music as high culture and that of popular music, whether traditional or contemporary, as low culture, resides not only in the distinction between an elite and a mass audience, but also in distinct spaces and modes of listening: in the first case, the concert hall, where the dominant mode of attentive, silent listening tends to hear music as an expression of an ineffable individual or communal Spirit (that in turn may be indexed to language, interpreted, mastered, and controlled); in the second case, the pub or outdoor music festival, where background or distracted listening tends to hear music as a sound-event in which affect and bodily movement (resistant to discursive control) take precedence over spiritual reflection or expression. If, as musicologist Harry White has argued, the political polarisation of classical and traditional music in Ireland allowed modern (post-revival) Irish literature to become the preserve of the Irish musical imagination, how do the spaces and modes of listening associated with ‘high’ classical music and ‘low’ traditional music become transferred to, negotiated by, and presented in the works of Irish modernists such as Yeats, Joyce and Beckett? How do we read or ‘listen’ to these difficult works: in the mode of ‘high’ culture, as attentive, silent reading that tends towards interpretive mastery and control; or in the mode of ‘low’ culture, where we allow ourselves to be distracted by the affective energies and acoustic pleasures potentially unleashed in any reading of these works?
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationIreland and Popular Culture
EditorsSylvie Mikowski
PublisherPeter Lang
Number of pages20
ISBN (Electronic)9783035304770, 9783035394719
ISBN (Print)9783034317177
Publication statusPublished - 2014

Publication series

NameReimagining Ireland
ISSN (Print)1662-9094


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