Words and Music 16 – Music and Beckett (3)


Beckett’s 1964 novel How it is (French Comment c’est) is less well known than the earlier novels.  Where novels like Watt and Molloy retain the semblance of a narrative and paint characters (however eccentric they may be),  How it is begins the move away from the real world into a strange, Dante-esque realm, where nameless beings struggle to perform pointless rituals.

How it is  is a monologue delivered by one such being as he crawls around a circle of mud, aware of others ahead of him and behind and, in particular, a companion – Pim – who may or may not exist.  The monologue is internal, for the only sound he is aware of is his constant panting.  It is effectively a reflection on his past life (above) and a running commentary on his current struggle (below), at times desperate, sometimes funny, and an attempt to make sense of his situation.  The novel is divided into three parts which are:   Part One – Before Pim; Part Two – with Pim; Part Three – after Pim.  The narrator constantly references this structure and comments on his narrative in relation to it.  The novel begins:

how it was I quote before Pim with Pim after Pim how it is three parts I say it as I hear it

The unpunctuated text, in short bursts like the text of Not I, is set out in single sentences, some shorter and some longer, separated on the page by spaces; they do not run on from one another.  In this respect, and also since the sentences frequently permute the same phrases and ideas, this is a precursor to the tiny late novellas like Imagination Dead Imagine and Lessness  about which I wrote in Words and Music 14 . Thus, like those pieces, the novel assumes a poetic quality in which the writing is far more than its content.

The narrator’s objective commentary on the structure of the writing is one of its most striking and unsettling features. It permeates his stream of consciousness, in an attempt to confirm existence, past and future.

part one before Pim before the discovery of Pim have done with that leaving only part two with Pim how it was then leaving only part three after Pim how it was then how it is vast tracts of time

In Words and Music 14 I made a comparison between Beckett’s writing and John Cage’s lectures in Silence.  Here too there is a remarkable parallel.  In Lecture on Nothing (which Cage describes as a ‘composed talk’) he makes constant reference to the structural points at which the lecture finds itself:

Here we are now       at the beginning     of the fourth large part         of this talk

More and more    I have the feeling      that we are getting    nowhere.      Slowly

As the talk goes on      we are getting         nowhere……….

Cage’s lecture is, by definition, didactic.  The objective observation of its structure serves to illustrate its content.  In Beckett however, it adds a curious dimension to an already bizarre scenario.  Crawling through mud, a sack in his hand; in the sack a tin opener with which to prod the person ahead, if reached; prod him and ask DO YOU LOVE ME? And then again DO YOU LOVE ME CUNT?  Trying to estimate the number of people in the circle numbered 1 to 100,000, or then again what if ‘only three of us and so numbered only 1 to 3’?  The narrator ‘murmurs to the mud’ aware that his narrative is made up of ‘bits and scraps’ in a ‘natural order more or less in the present more or less’. The writing is extraordinary and powerful, with the narrator fully aware that he is attempting to compose his monologue with a degree of coherence despite his intolerable circumstance.


I read this novel on a trip to Canada in 1970 and it made a huge impact on me.  I turned to it in 1979 when ‘Electric Phoenix’, the amplified vocal quartet which had given the London premiere of Not a soul but ourselves….., commissioned me to write them another piece for a concert at the Roundhouse in London. I had recently returned from a two year spell in San Diego, California, where I had been closely involved with the creation of a performance art festival called What’s Cooking which featured artists such as Allan Kaprow, David Antin, Pauline Oliveros and many other experimentalists.  I came up with the title What’s Cooking at one of our planning meetings, and threw it out as a joke because keeping Kaprow et al on topic and away from discussing eating later was becoming particularly testing.  It was all so….Californian. At the festival itself there was a late night performance which began with Allan Kaprow telling the audience they were not needed, because the event was going to take place at a handful of gas stations on the freeway throughout the night; the audience were invited to return the next morning to hear about the experience.  I hated that.

My co-administrator for the festival was Glyn Perrin, another ex-York composer whose work was much closer to the performance artists and more ‘experimental’ than mine.  While in San Diego he wrote a piece for two vocalists who took cues from a director seated at a sound desk in front of them.  The director fed them words which they then repeated slowly a certain number of times, transforming them slightly on each repetition;  ‘head’ was repeated and gradually transformed into ‘shed’, for example.  It was austere, mechanical and hypnotic, and the interventions of the director placed the piece somewhere between an audition and an interrogation.  Glyn’s work was nothing like the Fluxus related work of the Californians, but rather inspired by the work of Mauricio Kagel, about whom I knew very little at that time. In York, shortly before I left for California, Glyn had performed Kagel’s General Bass on cello in some of our ‘Clap’ music theatre shows.  He had German family and had spent time there, and his experience of European music theatre brought a different perspective to music theatre at York.  His vocal piece in San Diego made a big impression on me, particularly in the way that the director at his desk objectified the performance.  It was as though the vocalists were not performing a piece, but undergoing some kind of test.

In the piece I wrote for Electric Phoenix – Bits and Scraps – four vocalists are seated in a square, back to back.  Soprano, alto, tenor and bass sit facing North West, North East, South East and South West. They are mic’d and they perform without scores. There is a continuous low murmuring hum on tape.   A single spotlight dimly lights the area, fading up and down repeatedly; when it is down there is blackout.  In addition there is a director, unseen, who very quietly speaks lighting instructions into a microphone eg ‘light up….’, ‘light down…..’ ‘light in 10 seconds…..’ ‘and slowly down……’ ‘right down…..’ etc.   In blackout the singers sit with heads bowed forwards.  As the light rises they slowly raise their heads with a slow inhalation of breath, and mutter or sing quietly.  As the light fades they slowly lower their heads again, with a slow exhalation.  This pattern repeats throughout the piece, the phrases and the vocal content varying in length, though getting gradually longer towards the end.  The texts which the singers mutter are all fragments from How it is, phrases like ‘murmur in the mud to the mud….’, ‘only one voice here, yes, mine, yes, when the panting stops….’ and so on.  In the darkness of the pauses, a single voice is sometimes heard to comment with remarks such as ‘natural order more or less, bits and scraps, I say it as I hear it’.

Sung notes and short fragments of melody begin to appear, and eventually some of these fragments merge into a direct quotation from the piano accompaniment to the final song of Schubert’s Die Schöne Mullerin (The Brook’s Lullaby) in which the brook sings to the despairing lover who has drowned himself in it. The vocalists sing the words ‘und der himmel das oben, wie ist er so weit’ (and the sky above, how vast it is) to a slowed down version of the piano chords which accompany that line at the end of Schubert’s song cycle.

At the Roundhouse premier of the piece the late Henri Pousseur was present, as Phoenix were also performing his Tales and Songs from the Bible of Hell.  I probably watched Pousseur rather too much during the performance of my piece and so I was aware how perplexed he was by it; and I noticed as the Schubert came into focus how he smiled gratefully.  The piece is perplexing of course, because the ‘musical’ content is minimal.  It’s a demanding and taxing work for the performers, however, because it requires absolute discipline and no small feat of memory.   In 1983 the tenor John Potter, having parted company with Electric Phoenix, asked me for a solo version of Bits and Scraps.  In this there is one seated performer going through the actions as before, again with a lighting director who gives the lighting instructions; but now the voices are all on tape, and the tenor mimes, apart from a few sung and spoken passages in which he is unamplified, creating another level of uncertainty in the piece because of the mismatch between the recorded voices coming from the speakers and the much quieter live vocalisation.

I was very pleased after the first performance when a member of the audience said ‘We could hear the lighting cues – was that intentional?’  I was less pleased during a post concert discussion session, when a fairly influential figure in the contemporary music scene at that time observed that my piece was clearly imitating Beckett and that he had been assured by a Beckett scholar that there was ‘no Post-Beckett school’.  I didn’t reply, though I should probably have simply said ‘there is now’.






One response to “Words and Music 16 – Music and Beckett (3)”

  1. John Potter Avatar

    It was a bizarre moment…but my memory is that you did reply…

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