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Words and Music 14 – Music and Beckett (1)



As a young composer, Beckett was as important to me as Joyce, perhaps more important.  In the early seventies my teacher Bernard Rands, along with a number of my fellow students, read Beckett and talked about his work a lot, especially the new stuff as it came out, which was minimal and exquisite and very exciting.  Vic Hoyland, a composer a few years ahead of me, whose work I greatly admired, bought me Beckett’s latest novella Lessness in about 1971 and it blew my mind.  It consists of 25 paragraphs of similar length, which describe a bleak, empty scene through the constant but unpredictable re-permutation of a few short descriptive phrases, chained together into sentences with hardly a verb in sight, occasionally adding a new idea and a new phrase into the mix.

Ruins true refuge long last towards which so many false time out of mind. All sides endlessness earth sky as one no sound no stir. Grey face two pale blue little body heart beating only upright. Blacked out fallen open four walls over backwards true refuge issueless.

The effect is hypnotic, poetic and touching.  It is like a set of musical variations by Webern – understated, rigorous, spare, beautiful. It is not abstract, though; it is a condensed descriptive narrative which delights in the sound of the words, like a poem.  It is helpfully printed in full here.

In 1973 I went to see the first UK production of Not I at the Royal Court Theatre in London. In the first half we saw Krapps Last Tape – by then a Beckett classic – and then, after an interval, we re-entered to find a black stage with only a disembodied mouth visible, high to stage left.   The mouth spoke, urgently and almost unintelligibly, pausing sometimes to shout more clearly –‘what? who? no! she!’  All the trappings of theatre had fallen away in this piece, and we were left with a rhythmical monologue with clear structural punctuation.  I should add that the performance by Billie Whitelaw, for whom Beckett wrote the play, was staggering, and that she brought to the piece a vocal quality and character (with the faintest Bradford accent) which is an essential part of the realisation of the script.  When I later got hold of the play text, and saw the way Beckett set out the monologue, in short bursts separated by dots, it made me think immediately of John Cage’s Lecture on Nothing from his book of lectures called Silence.  The lectures in Silence are also performance pieces.  They are not music, not theatre, but also not merely lectures.  This hovering between categories is one of the things I found so intriguing about Silence (and the follow up A Year from Monday); at that time I was more interested in Cage’s writings than in his music.  Beckett had the same effect on me: I loved that Lessness was neither novel nor poem, and that Not I hovered somewhere between theatre and music.

Texts like these led many of us to feel that Beckett’s way of working spoke to us as composers.  Not that his work was in some way music, but that his way of composing the texts was musical.

And we were not alone in this. Many composers have since been drawn to Beckett, as they are to Joyce, because of the elusive ‘musicality’ of their writing.  This is a huge topic on which many have written, and no-one more exhaustively than my colleague Catherine Laws.  At this point I would hesitate to make any categorical statement about the extent to which Beckett’s work approaches the state of music, and there is little I can add to the mound of academic literature on the subject.  But I think I can write about the problem of how a composer swept up in admiration for Beckett might respond in their own music.   The problem parallels that of the composer wishing to respond to Joyce.  Joyce was a novelist.  He wrote some poetry, and one rather dull play; but the core of his work, and where his writing is most innovative and compelling, is in his novels.  But you can’t set a novel to music.  In the case of Beckett, he also wrote some poetry, but the core of his work is in his novels and, especially, in his plays.  As with Joyce, the aspects of his work which are so enticing for the composer are not his stories or his characters, but the writing itself.  One cannot take the work and ‘set it to music’; one needs to respond in more creative ways.

There have been, needless to say, some composers who have taken Route 1 and set the work to music in a more or less conventional way.  Around 1980 I was staggered one evening at the Almeida Theatre in London, by a piece for soprano and tape called Not I, by Heinz Holliger, a composer for whom in general I have the highest respect. But in this instance I was shocked and somewhat appalled to find the words of Beckett’s play – his rapid, bullet like script – set to a rather familiar sounding (by which I mean entirely unmemorable) angular modernist vocal line. Leaving aside that the piece was clumsily staged, with the singer fixed in a chair, her mouth painted large, and her eyes fixed on a monitor above the audience from which she could read her music, the piece managed to squeeze out of the play everything which makes it great.  The slower pace of the text, sung in the idiom so fashionable among the European avant-garde in the seventies and eighties (and still the standard fare for modern opera everywhere), stretched the lines out so that the rhythm of Beckett’s text was lost.  Worse still, the particular character so brilliantly brought to the text by Billie Whitelaw, and which every performer of the play must try to match in some way, was reduced to the standard character of contemporary music – the characterless, perfectly centred soprano.  The piece may have had merit musically, perhaps; but as a response to Not I it seemed to me to fall a long way short.

Holliger also produced two ‘chamber operas’ based on Beckett plays.  One is based on Come and Go, in which three ladies in wide brimmed hats sit together in a row and exchange unspecified confidential information in a sequence of pairings in such a way that each possible pair discusses the third member of the trio.  The play is concise at about 4 minutes.  Holliger’s 1977 opera sets the play in three languages, for 9 sopranos and ensemble, and stretches it out to 30 minutes, presented in three movements with long instrumental interludes.  In his 1988 version of ‘What Where’, Beckett’s last and most austere drama, Holliger constructs a seven movement work lasting 35 minutes which pits five male voices (one of them on tape) against four trombones and two percussionists playing a huge range of drums, gongs and other noise making instruments.  The resulting piece is dark and slow, with growling trombones and deep tam-tam strokes; it is dramatic, enveloping, hypnotic and a powerful musical experience.  But the essence of Beckett’s play is lost.    Beckett’s What Where is terse, repetitive and formulaic.  It lasts around 5 minutes. As in Come and Go, each actor appears, leaves, returns in strict sequence. Their lines are more or less the same; each is interrogated with exactly the same form of words, as though they are in possession of some secret they will not reveal.  A disembodied and objective narrator sets the scene in deadpan monotones, describing their entrances and commenting on the accuracy of their performance.  The play’s effectiveness depends on the words, on their repetition and, in this instance, the lack of character.  Called Bim, Bom, Bem and Bam, they are deliberately faceless, emotionless and lacking in expressiveness.

In Holliger’s opera these lines are sung by trained operatic basses and baritones.  The deadpan delivery of lines like ‘I switch on’ and ‘you gave him the works?’ are accompanied by urgent dramatic instrumental gestures, and sung in the usual clichéd modern operatic manner.  The singers are all on-stage all the time, and the principal lines are often accompanied by supporting vocal accompaniment.  The essence of Beckett’s ‘one by one’ sequence of entrances and exits is thus lost.  But so is the text; it gets swallowed up in the musical edifice; stretched, developed, transformed.  The clarity of text and unadorned composition of actions, those things which engage the creative attention of the composer in the first place, have been buried under a carpet of elaboration.

If the result of such an adaptation is a compelling new musical and theatrical experience, does it matter that the essence of the original text is lost?  Some would say it doesn’t.  But I would argue that this is the wrong way to respond to Beckett; that assigning pitches to the words and destroying the rhythm of the text is not the way to go.  Beckett got rid of all the theatrical trombones and tam tams, and to me it seems disrespectful to be putting them back.

Heinz Holliger Come and Go/What where







7 responses to “Words and Music 14 – Music and Beckett (1)”

  1. Bill says:

    The in-between: that’s where enlightenment occurs. Any attempt to stitch over the in-between (or, worse yet, to discard or legislate against the things that define the in-between space) impoverishes the world and its people. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Beckett or refugee cultures: cherish the difference, the inability to apply known categories. Nothing—and especially no person—should be made to become something other than what it is.

  2. Roger Marsh says:

    Thanks Bill. Can you develop that thought into 1500 words……?

  3. Clare says:

    “What is a door doing when it opens onto a door? And above all onto a door one has already passed through, in the passage of what comes to pass, in the passage to come?”
    J. Derrida – Archive Fever

    As to Holliger’s ‘Not I’, yes, monochrome might be the most diplomatic way of putting it (my own score has languished for years in the bottom of a filing system – where it will remain for the foreseeable future I suspect), and yet the lieder are effective – poetry and music – chains of traces in a hypertextual dance of fragments unfolding on themselves.

  4. Roger Marsh says:

    Hi Clare, thanks for your response. I will be careful opening doors from now on. I wonder if you would like to write something for this blog page? With your wealth of experience singing new music, I’m sure you must have a lot to say that would be of interest to all of us.

  5. Neil luck says:

    Very interesting article, thanks. I also don’t think I’ve ever heard an account of Whitelaw’s ‘Not I’ from a composer who was at the actual performance. Was there much of a draw for British composers for this work at that time? Or were you in an enlightened niche?

    • Roger Marsh says:

      Thanks Neil. Well, we were an enlightened bunch, of course! I think I wasn’t really aware at that time of many composers latching on to Beckett. I do know that when I got to California in 1976, Ken Gaburo had been working on a staging of ‘Play’. Not a composition, but a staging which really went to town on the ‘musicality’ of the play. I’ll write a bit about that in the next blog…..

  6. Catherine Laws says:

    In response to Neil’s question: I can’t comment on composers responding specifically to that staged production of ‘Not I’ (though there are a number of musical responses to, or versions of, the play), but in this country, at that time, lots of experimental composers were very much into Beckett. I’m thinking of composers (most often composer-performers) such as Michael Parsons, Chris Hobbs, John White and Gavin Bryars, many of whom were teaching in art schools. Not much of what they did has traces: little in the way of extant scores let alone published pieces or recordings, since a lot of it was, I gather, little devised performance pieces derived from bits of Beckett’s writing or scenes they liked, such as some of the permutational looking and walking in the novel ‘Watt’, or the sucking stones section of ‘Malloy’. But the interest persisted. Of course, with John Tilbury it then emerged again much later in life, when he started acting in Beckett plays and making his own versions of others, using his own voice and music (and sometimes directed by Howard Skempton). (That’s just a snapshot, of course: there were lots of other responses at that time, both in the UK and beyond.)

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