IASPM 2014: ¿Dónde está: The Creative Role of Alfreda Benge in the Music of Robert Wyatt

¿Dónde está: The Creative Role of Alfred Benge in the Music of Robert Wyatt

Robert and Alfie (the knife is due to the fact that she was chopping onions shortly before the photo was taken, and the image became one of his main publicity shots for the album)

Marcus O’Dair

ABSTRACT: To many journalists, ‘Alfie’ is simply the woman who picks them up from the station when they come to interview her husband—or, at most, the woman who inspired Sea Song. My paper will aim to document Benge’s multi-faceted role, which may be far more active than mere muse. I will examine her role in the studio (drawing on interviews with Wyatt and Benge themselves, as well as with several other musicians and the engineer Jamie Johnson). This paper will discuss Benge’s pivotal role in securing deals (with Virgin, Rough Trade, Hannibal/Ryko and Domino) as Wyatt’s de facto business manager, and her contribution to the visual presentation of his work (she has designed the cover of every album since 1974’s Rock Bottom). Her creative contribution is evident in the work itself; since 1991’s Dondestan, Benge has written lyrics for a number of the songs that appear under her husband’s name. What is the power dynamic that governs their relationship, both professional and personal? Is the critics’ relative neglect of Benge’s contribution due to sexism, or are there other issues at play? To what extent should her album cover be seen as part of Wyatt’s—or Wyatt and Benge’s—artistic output (Machin, 2010)? Finally, what is the relationship between writing, singing and authorship, particularly in relation to the cover versions Wyatt himself records, and the increasing number of other artists who, in turn, cover his songs (Solis, 2010)?

Marcus spends some time situating Alfreda ‘Alfie’ in the context of Robert’s work (including the photo above) and provides some biographical context on both individuals, noting that Alfie iteratively and gradually became his manager.

Today’s presentation focuses on lyrics – (the affinity Alfie has for Robert’s music and her contribution of lyrics) and the fact that she has designed all his album covers for many years.

The lyrics began as diary entries, became poems, and were then word-set by Robert. There is a sonic difference between songs written entirely by Robert and those that are co-written via Alfie’s lyrics. Alfie’s lyrics affected Robert’s creative process, partly because the creative process (of word-setting) is different from other methods of songwriting.

Marcus notes that Alfie doesn’t really sing (although he cites a small number of RW examples where she contributes small vocal fragments and backing vocals) and suggests that the lack of vocal contribution is one of the reasons that Alfie is not particularly publicly acknowledged. Moore’s Song Means (2012) is cited, discussing the centrality of the role of the singer in the listener’s ear.

RW’s elusiveness and the rarity of his guest spot performances are noted. We return briefly to Alfie’s anarchist/Marxist politics and Marcus discusses this influence on RW’s own politics and work. His ‘invisible band’ (various pop stars who contribute one by one to his tracks without necessarily meeting) is observed. We see a photo of his honorary doctorate (along with Tim Berners Lee).

To creative collaboration. He cites Vera John-Steiner, and cites Nicholas Cook’s view that ‘creativity is distributed across the participants in musical practice’, noting that this challenges some romantic notions of creativity.

We conclude with some cover artwork, and Alfie’s contribution to these is noted, along with her influence on the musical projects they represent. The unusual nature of their relationship is, Marcus suggests, one of the drivers of RW’s work. “There is no Robert without Alfie”.

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