Words and Music 15 – Music and Beckett (2)


The play of Beckett’s which first captured my imagination was the one called Play.


A man and two women, their heads protruding from huge funeral urns, are interrogated by a spotlight which switches rapidly from one to another.  When the light shines on them they speak, when it moves away they stop.   The women, either side of the man, are his wife and mistress, and all three now inhabit a region beyond death. Each recalls their side of the triangular relationship – the wife her suspicions and confrontations, the mistress her contempt and disappointment, and the man his attempts to placate both women.  The dialogue – more properly three interrupted monologues – is funny, although the macabre setting and speed of delivery  (‘toneless’ and ‘rapid throughout’) negate the humour somewhat.  Halfway through there is a change of tone; they begin to speak of their current predicament and to direct questions to the interrogating light: “Are you listening to me?” “Is it something I should do with my face?” “Why go down?  Why not keep glaring at me without ceasing?” “When will all this have been….just play?”  

Written in 1963, Play is, of all Beckett’s plays, the most ‘musical’, with choruses, counterpoint and large scale repetition.  At the start of the play we see all three characters illuminated and all three simultaneously deliver a chain of 17 bullet-like phrases. Each part in this Chorus (Beckett’s own description) is different, but all begin with the word ‘Yes’:

W1 (wife)         Yes strange     darkness best    and the darker      the worse             till all dark  etc

W2  (mistress) Yes perhaps    a shade gone     I suppose               some might say    poor thing etc

M    (man)         Yes peace        one assumed      all out                     all the pain           all as if   etc

We hear no words clearly, although W2’s ninth phrase is a ‘faint wild laugh’ and M’s eighth is ‘(hiccup) pardon’ and these leap out of the texture.

This short chorus is followed by a blackout and a pause of 5 seconds (Beckett is precise about length of pauses). Then all three are illuminated again, and all three simultaneously speak their opening lines, but are cut off after only a few words:

W1      I said to him, Give her up –

W2      One morning as we were sitting together

M         We were not long together –

After another blackout and another 5 second pause, the dialogue begins in earnest, but the principle of cutting off speeches in mid-flow, or before they have got going, continues. The monologues are treated contrapuntally, like the voices in a Bach fugue for solo instrument:


W1  I said to him, Give her up.  I swore by all I held most sacred –

  (Spot from W1 to W2)

W2  One morning as I was sitting stitching by the open window she burst in and flew at me. Give him up, she screamed, he’s mine.  Her photographs were kind to her. Seeing her now for the first time full length in the flesh I understood why he preferred me.

  (Spot from W2 to M)

M   We were not long together when she smelled the rat.  Give up that whore, she said, or I’ll cut my throat – (hiccup) pardon – so help me God.  I knew she could have no proof.  So I told her I did not know what she was talking about.

(Spot from M to W2) etc


Later there is another complete blackout and 5 second pause.  Then another brief chorus, but now with ‘spots half previous strength’ and ‘voices proportionately lower’.  At the end of the script the opening Chorus is indicated with the instruction to repeat the entire play.  Slight variation is possible, and Beckett offers some examples including reordering the speeches, so long as the order of interrogation is maintained (complicated!); or lower voices and less strong light the second time through.

At the end of this repeat, the main text begins again from the short chorus (Trio), but is cut after the first solo line.   Thus the structure of the play is as follows:

CHORUS   pause TRIO pause:     PART ONE pause:     TRIO pause PART TWO

CHORUS   pause TRIO pause:     PART ONE pause:     TRIO pause PART TWO

TRIO pause; first line….. pause.

The implication is, of course, that this could continue ad infinitum; that these characters are locked into a never-ending cycle of confessions.  This is their Purgatory.  An interesting consequence of repeating the entire text is the lessening of its impact – we are not learning anything new, just going over familiar ground.  On the other hand, as with a musical repeat, we may notice things which escaped us first time round.   But the main effect of this structure is that the emphasis is on the patterning of sound to a much greater extent than in conventional drama.  The excitement of the play resides as much in the rigour of its structure as in its content.


I turned to Play in 1972, when my composition teacher Bernard Rands invited me to compose a piece for the debut concert of his ensemble ‘Sonor’ at the Round House, in London.  Two of the members of the ensemble were the jazz trombonist Paul Rutherford and the bass player Barry Guy.  They were also members, along with guitarist Derek Bailey, of the free jazz trio Iskra 1903, and thus extraordinary improvisers.  I chose to write my piece for them along with the versatile soprano Josephine Nendick. The title of the piece I composed was P.S. – a Post-Script to Beckett’s play, but also homophonous with the French ‘piéce’ meaning either ‘piece’ or ‘play’.  I did not place my musicians in urns (they sit in a semi-circle) nor did I use a single word of Beckett’s text.  Instead I adopted his exact structure, the  choruses and contrapuntal method of cutting between three independent ‘monologues’, and the characterizing tic (‘hiccup pardon’/wild laugh) which in P.S. became a high pitched ‘pipipipipi’ (soprano) ‘yeah’ (trombone) and ‘sss’ (double bass).

The score was written on a single sheet of A1 card.  The music was notated on a one or three lined staff (ie without fixed pitch) and in time/space notation (ie without fixed rhythm).  Instead, the parts indicated specific but imprecise gestural activity whose pitch and rhythmic detail had to be improvised by the performers, with the implication that each repetition might vary according to the performer’s will.  Rutherford and Guy gave the piece a jazz energy that it would have been foolish to attempt to ‘compose’ into the piece.


Like Play the presentation is to be ‘deadpan’, without expression or sense of ensemble – three independent musicians whose independent narratives intercut one another.  The opening ‘chorus’ is scored in seventeen 1 second bursts, following the rhythm of Beckett’s chorus and followed by a 5 second pause.  Each part has its own character: the soprano line consists mostly of aimless, ill-defined melody; the trombone has groups of staccato notes interspersed with ‘breath only’ notes and glissandi; the bass has sliding double-stopped chords and irregular repeated notes, and occasional flurries of pizzicati accompanied by vocal gestures.  The three instruments also have some shared motifs, and sometimes take up gestures from one another.  This was my way of replicating some of the most delightful aspects of the Beckett text, where the characters echo one another in their recollections.  One of the sweetest examples of this is:

W2  …I smell you off him, she screamed, he stinks of bitch.

W1   Though I had him dogged by a first rate man, no shadow of proof was forthcoming.

And later:

She put a bloodhound on me, but I had a little chat with him.  He was glad of the money.

In P.S. the three parts often overlap slightly rather than cleanly intercut.  I don’t know why I did this, if I’m honest; I think just because at a certain point being ‘faithful’ to the Beckett model becomes no longer the point.  A new piece has emerged from Play and has taken on its own identity (P.S.). It becomes a matter of composing, which involves having fun with the instrumental relationship.  In the main however, P.S. is as little like a conventional chamber music trio as Play is like conventional theatre.   The piece is performed in a single large spotlight, with the performers all seated on high stools.  Because the score is a single large sheet, there is no page turning – even for the repeat. For me this was music theatre – not designed for radio, but to be seen – an example of what Kagel called (I later learned) ‘instrumental theatre’.  No words, though, except in the programme note – a line from Play:

“And that all is falling, all fallen, from the beginning, on empty air.  Nothing being asked for at all.  No one asking me for anything at all.”











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