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Words and Music 8 Samson and Pasolini

My interest in Japanese theatre began when I saw Benjamin Britten’s Curlew River on TV in the late 1960s. I was a big fan of Britten, though not so much of the operas.

But when I encountered his Japanese influenced ‘parable opera’ – set in a Suffolk church but adopting masks and stylised gestures from Noh theatre – I was very excited. At the time I knew nothing about Japan or its musical traditions. I was working at Highgate Public Library, though, and they had books about Noh and Kabuki which I studied. It was a few years later, at university, when I first got to hear genuine Noh music, and later still when I first saw a Noh performance (in Brighton of all places).

Britten said he had been inspired by the ‘simplicity’, ‘economy’ and ‘slowness’ of Noh, and those aspects also appealed to me. But another of Noh’s essential features which fascinated me was the way the actors chanted their lines, using a distinct style of vocal production and a set pattern of micro-tonally rising and falling phrases. Not quite singing, but certainly not speaking, this style of delivery offered a way of presenting words unlike anything I had heard in Western music. The supporting music, provided by shouting drummers and flute, with a chanting male chorus, seemed to be thrown together rather than carefully scored. The different aural strands of the plays ran in parallel, seemingly uncoordinated vertically; no need for a conductor therefore, the whole performance taking on a feeling of fluidity and danger.

In 1978, when I began lecturing at Keele University, I set up a course in Japanese music, for which I had to learn a lot more about the subject; I stayed a few steps ahead of the students, and by the second year I felt less of a fraud. I assembled a fairly good collection of recordings and books.  I was not (am not) an ethnomusicologist, but I enjoyed learning more myself and believed it benefitted the students to be introduced to remarkable traditions which challenged their preconceptions of what music and theatre are.

In 1984, when asked by the vocal ensemble ‘Vocem’ for a new music theatre piece, I decided it was time to make my own homage to Noh, and to bring together that influence with my growing interest in Old Testament tales. I had a text from a Mediaeval ballad on the subject of Samson and Delilah. John Potter had sung it at Keele, and I had the programme with the full text in Latin and a pithy English translation by Clare Russell. In it, Samson – languishing in a Philistine dungeon – recalls his own tale. He describes how strong he was – how he killed a thousand men with the jawbone of an ass; how he fought with a lion; how he tied three hundred foxes together by their tails and set them alight.   He was a thug, then, like many of the Biblical heroes; but also a lover. He recounts his passionate affair with Delilah, and how she tricked him into telling her the secret of his strength (his long hair); how she betrayed him to the Philistines, cutting his hair and rendering him helpless. Now, imprisoned and blind (because the Philistines put out his eyes….), he boasts how he will repay them for what they have done. In the Bible he does so, because his hair grows in prison and his strength returns, allowing him to push over the pillars of the Philistine banqueting hall killing all in there. But in my telling of the tale, I leave him there, pathetically promising revenge with no certainty that his strength will return.

The piece is entirely vocal apart from a few bits of percussion played by the chorus and a saxophone which accompanies Delilah in her song of seduction. I set the English translation of the ballad, using some of the Latin text for supporting choruses. But the telling of the tale is what matters here, and Samson delivers it in short direct statements:

“They attacked with all their might; with spears and swords.

But I was stronger than a thousand men.

With my hands have I slain a thousand men;

With jawbone of an axe have I slain a thousand men.”

Samson is masked. He wears a half mask with big eyes and lashes painted around the eye holes. The mask is also a cap covered in long flowing golden hair. At the climax of the piece Delilah – after seductively forcing Samson to reveal his secret– wields a long knife and slashes off the hair (and the mask) from Samson, revealing a bald head and mucky eye sockets (the singer performs the remaining section of the piece with closed painted eyes).

Samson’s actions are slow and stylised and his vocal delivery is also influenced by Noh. In a rich bass voice he articulates each line syllable by syllable in a slowly ascending microtonal chant with a painful upward glissando on the last syllable, which the chorus sometimes join with a threatening glissando of their own.   Every word of Samson’s text is clear so that none of its detail is lost. The chorus provide depth and embellishment to the narration and enhance moments of drama with wailing and breathing (they are amplified).

Theatrically it is austere, like Noh. Unlike Britten I didn’t feel obliged to impose my normal harmonic or melodic language on the piece (except in Delilah’s song which is in stark contrast to the rest of the drama). I wasn’t sure what the audience of the 1984 Nettlefold Festival in London would make of it. I wasn’t even sure what ‘Vocem’ would make of it, because it was a long way from their normal contemporary vocal repertoire. At the premiere I sat close to the artistic director of the Nash Ensemble, thinking I knew what she would make of it (I may have been wrong). The general response was, I think, one of bewilderment. But about a year later Judith Weir asked if she could programme the Delilah section of the piece at Cambridge, and wrote very complimentary things about Samson in her programme note. The piece was staged at Keele and Philip Curtis (who sang Samson with Vocem) also asked me to write a pocket version of the piece (voice and percussion, no chorus, no Delilah) which he performed in Brussels.

The starkness of the piece reflects the stark simplicity of Noh. But there was another influence. Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1967 film of Oedipus Rex made a huge impression on me as a student. I had studied Greek tragedies at school (in Greek) and I had seen various TV renditions of such plays, usually set against classical backdrops with toga wearing actors employing their best BBC oratory. But here was Pasolini setting Sophocles in a desert landscape beneath a scorching sun, with characters sporting clothing and headwear which looked African, or at any rate exotic. I recall a lot of running, a lot of shouting, and long periods of silence, for example as King Polybus and his entourage progress painfully along empty desert roads before meeting their violent death at the hands of Oedipus. I thought Pasolini had it just right. The tale of Oedipus – who unwittingly kills his own father and marries his own mother – comes from a distant and brutal antiquity. Sophocles may have inhabited the more comfortable environment of 5th century Athens, but the mythical Oedipus lived many centuries earlier – he was a mythical figure even for Homer.   Sophocles contains the horror of the violent acts within messengers’ reports – we do not see any of the violence on stage. In Pasolini we are spared nothing; the story is not domesticated for us.   My attitude to the stories of the Old Testament, in this case Samson, was similar. Let’s not sympathise with Samson too much because he was on the right side. He was a brainless warrior on one side of a complicated inter-racial war. I can’t feel too much warmth towards someone who would send 300 burning foxes into fields of corn in order to deprive a town of its sustenance. Thus in my ‘Samson’ there is no character development, nothing to encourage us to empathize with this Biblical hero. And at the end he is left snivelling in his dungeon:

“Eyes torn out now I am blind; hair all shorn now I am bald; laughed to scorn now I am helpless; but………when my hair grows………”

As for the foxes stunt – it didn’t work in any case, because the price he paid for that was that the Philistines murdered his first wife in retaliation. And as a response to that he escalated the war by killing a thousand men with the jawbone of an ass. It’s a very good job he didn’t have any fighter jets with the capability to execute pinpoint bombing and minimize civilian collateral damage. But he wouldn’t have been interested in those. Carpet bombing would probably be more in his line.

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