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A Season In Hell

The complete session


"... About thirty years ago I was in a bar in a small Mexican town where a French actor gave a thoroughly eccentric performance of some of Rimbaud's poetry to a musical accompaniment. He didn't include the prose poem A Season in Hell, probably because it defied even his eccentricity and powers of performance. Later, it seemed to me that radio was the ideal place to try to find expression for its insistent, wild, knowing autobiographical voice and emotional complexity.

I asked the composer Elizabeth (Liz) Purnell to read it, and she leapt at the chance to respond to such an extraordinary piece of writing.

I knew I'd have to make fierce cuts to fit it into half an hour, and had imagined I'd drop the songs which appear about two thirds of the way through the piece, as they seemed to me to be the most problematic elements in a pretty knotty piece of writing. But when we talked about it, Liz argued convincingly for at least some of them to be left in, and I realised when she talked about wanting to set them for Robert Wyatt that she was absolutely right. We decided on the three we both felt would work best, based on instinct rather than any literary judgement; literary judgements about the poem itself are so disparate and interpretations so varied that it was liberating not to have any orthodoxy to follow. Liz says she wanted the songs to suggest a kind of alter-ego Rimbaud, speaking from beyond the grave, and that she asked Wyatt to sing them because of his sense of spontaneity, his interest in poetry and the wonderful delicate nature of his voice in the high register.

She went to record them at his house in Lincolnshire, where she set up a microphone in his front room, ignored the background roar of passing lorries and played him the backing track on her laptop as he sang. Robert was keen to sing the songs mainly in the original French - something I hadn't envisaged, but was charmed when Liz brought the recordings back. Liz knew she was pushing him to the top of his register, but he went for it, and with lots of fag breaks and cups of tea, they got the recordings done over an afternoon and the following morning. One of the most enjoyable recording sessions she's ever done, she says - and not a lorry to be heard in the background. "

Andrew Downs

An excellent analysis of this radio programme

Three poems sung by Robert Wyatt