Words and Music
1987. Radio piece for two speakers, two flutes, vibraphone, piano, violin, also, violincello. (41.42 min.)

Morton Feldman’s Words and Music
The original Words and Music was a piece conceived for BBC radio, written in 1961 by Samuel Beckett and scored by his cousin John Beckett. Unfortunately, neither Beckett was satisfied with the overall result, and the score was withdrawn shortly after its premiere, leaving Words and Music to haunt the imaginations of Beckett readers as the partially realized blueprint to a greater work. Over twenty years later, the piece was revived by American producer Everett C. Frost, who was directing a series of Beckett’s radio plays for American radio. Beckett suggested Morton Feldman as a potential composer, and Feldman accepted, turning in a score that would turn out to be one of the last works of his all-too short career.
Reviewing Words and Music poses several interesting concerns. First of all, it’s an unusual piece by its very nature. Neither an opera nor a song cycle, but also more than a just a text with background scoring, Words and Music is a complex “radio play” that sets up a dynamic between “Words” and “Music” as two character voices, existing in an uneasy relationship and under the command of a mysterious figure named Croak. A somewhat distracted tyrant, Croak issues commands to both Words and Music – whom he calls “Joe” and “Bob” respectively – to formulate expressions on a series of topics including “Love,” “Age,” and finally “the Face.” The going is not easy; from the very beginning we are aware that Words and Music do not enjoy each other’s company. But as Croak forces them to cooperate, a fascinating dynamic tension emerges as they struggle to unify their expression in song. As “the Face” is gradually illuminated, Croak grows more distant and eventually anguished, finally dropping the symbols of his Prospero-like power and shuffling away in silence. Left to their own devices, Words and Music struggle with the absence of meaning in the vacuum of their master’s departure.
Words and Music is not an easy piece to immediately assimilate, and like many of Beckett’s short dramatic works, it provides a rich scaffold for the ivy of academic interpretation. Is Croak the consciousness of the artist, forever trying to blend two very different expressive forces? Who is “the Face,” and why do the responses from Words and Music cause Croak so much anguish? Are the themes of Love/Age/the Face related, perhaps flowing into each other from some event in Croak’s life? Can the whole work double as some strange roman à clef, with Croak representing the BBC commission, and Words and Music perhaps symbolic of Sam and John?
That the piece was ambitious was even acknowledged by Beckett, who later admitted that successfully scoring it posed a “formidable and perhaps insurmountable” challenge. Of course, part of this difficulty stems from the simple fact that Beckett was not a composer, indicating only the general “feel” and “mood” of the music, rather than providing any authoritative system of notation. (A sample of Beckett’s directions include: Humble muted adsum; Soft music worthy of foregoing; Irrepressible burst of spreading and subsiding music.) Such directions are open to widely different interpretations, and any one composer’s version of Words and Music is likely to be quite different from another’s. (Just imagine such possible versions of the above directions as realized by Philip Glass, Pierre Boulez, John Williams, or Einstürzende Neubauten!) And of course, there’s the cumulative weight of four decades of Words and Music being “heard” principally in the imagination of its readers, who are used to filling in the blanks with their own musical expectations and inclinations. The result is a radio play that will dramatically change its character from one score to the next, with each score further subjected to the taste of each individual listener. And as a final level of uncertainty, each production of Words and Music will naturally vary according the cast bringing it to life – the director, conductor, actors and musicians will all have their own interpretations as well. (No wonder old Croak drops his staff and shuffles away groaning.)
Having said all that, I will now turn to the task at hand, which is reviewing Words and Music; or more specifically, the Morton Feldman scoring of Samuel Beckett’s Words and Music as realized by two different companies and groups: the Ensemble Rechereche/Ebrahim & Lind production, and the Bowery Ensemble/Epstein & Warrilow production.

The Score
I will begin with the score itself, which is undoubtedly a greater concern than a single production, no matter how definitive that production may or may not be. And I must confess, though I am personally a devotee of Feldman’s music, he is one of the last composers I would have envisioned creating the musical voice of “Bob.” (Milton Babbit perhaps being the very last....) In my mind’s ear, I have always heard Music as being very traditional, tonal, even romantic; full of passion, possessing an almost mischievous sense of humor, and occasionally bordering on clichéd sentimentality. And all this is precisely what Morton Feldman’s music is not; indeed, it represents some of the very elements he has attempted to banish from his work in general. (The interview below contains some marvelous insights regarding these very concerns.) On the other hand, the score represents some of his most unusual work – forced to obey both strict time parameters as well as Beckett’s written directions, Feldman had to re-think his compositional style, and the result is a fascinating hybrid of his unmistakable sound welded to more traditional approaches and forms. Sometimes it works, and works well – the “tuning up” motif is slyly clever, containing its own Feldmanesque touches within a compact fragment of orchestrated dissonance. The music for Humbled, muted adsum is very lovely, almost delicate; and his “age music” has a stuttering weariness that evokes its subject with a slightly sardonic intelligence. However, his music is something of a let-down, if not a source for outright puzzlement, when it comes to conveying the warmer aspects of Bob’s “voice.” His warmly sentimental passage sounds anything but, and his “love and soul music” seems to drift in from another world altogether, a serenade for mating extraterrestrial insects, perhaps. I think Feldman’s score is at its best during the two sprechstimme “songs,” where he allows a simple melody to evolve from a flat, sparse soundscape; its odd, melancholy austerity is an excellent reflection of Beckett’s bleak, enigmatic poems. Still, while I appreciate and enjoy much of Feldman’s score, I can’t get over the feeling that it occasionally undermines Beckett’s intentions – “warmly sentimental” music should be just that, or it takes away from the interplay between the “characters” of Joe and Bob. At its worse, Feldman’s score obscures some of the tension between these opposing voices, and makes an already abtruse play more opaque. What exactly is Joe as Words protesting? Mawkish sentiment, the intrusion of his “lesser” companion, or the oddity of Feldman’s music? Though I understand that Feldman wanted to meet the work free from cliché and the burden of tradition, a somewhat more traditional scoring might better convey Beckett’s suggestions, many of which depend upon musical familiarity, if not cliché, for their effect.

The Productions
For a long time, the only production of Words and Music was available on Auvidis-Montaigne, with the Ensemble Recherche performing the score, and Omar Ebrahim and Stephen Lind as Croak and Words. Recently, however, Evergreen Review has made available the original 1987 production, produced by Everett C. Frost for the American Beckett Festival of Radio Plays.

The Evergreen Review CD
Evergreen Review has placed the original hour-long radio show on CD, not just the play itself, and so it comes complete with an introduction, interview excerpts with Morton Feldman, and commentary by Beckett scholars Linda Ben-Zvi and Morris Beja. Henry Stroszer provides a warm, trustworthy but suitably authoritative “public radio voice” that M.C.’s the production and guides the listener through the helpful documentary sections.
It is a joy to finally have this production available on CD. The work is performed with both authority and imagination, and with the exception of a slight muffled quality to the music, the sound is well-balanced and basically clear. It is obvious that the “Bowery Ensemble” truly believes in the score, and they play it with conviction, showing an awareness of Feldman’s subtleties and quirks. Even better, they maintain a theatrical grasp of the music as “Bob” the character, investing his scored personality with appropriate amounts of sly humor, agitated eagerness, and mournful longing.
The speaking roles are likewise delivered with understanding, humor, and nuance. Alvin Epstein’s Croak is the perfect mixture of irascible tyranny and aged fragility, and it’s hard not to sense an exaggerated image of Beckett behind the voice, as if Epstein had prepared himself by making a long study of photographs of Beckett’s craggy face and defiant eyes. Underneath his flashes of anger and tone of command, Epstein’s tyrant is haunted and painfully vulnerable. David Warrilow’s Joe, too, is flawlessly realized, following Beckett’s “stage directions” with a natural rhythm that brings the character sharply into focus. Self-important but obsequious, prideful yet full of genuine concern, Joe follows his master’s commands as faithfully as he can, never quite realizing that he is essentially out of his depth, and ultimately inadequate. The songs strike the perfect note, with Warrilow’s cracked voice illuminating “Age” like a flyspecked bulb revealing the bleak, melancholy contours of a forgotten sick room.
The only negative comments I have concern the CD’s packaging and thoughtless indexing. The disc itself is actually a “burned” Verbatim CD-R, which may not play correctly in older CD-players. The packaging is minimal and obviously home-made, with a few paragraphs of information printed on the back of the cover slip. While gratitude for just releasing the CD itself may help one overlook the amateurish packaging, the inconvenient indexing is harder to excuse. The entire hour-long program is indexed as one single track, which makes it quite difficult to skip the introduction, go directly to various documentary segments and interviews, or navigate through the actual radio-play.

The Auvidis-Montaigne CD
Despite my mixed feelings for Feldman’s interpretation, one doesn’t have to be enamoured of the score to see that this production does not serve it well. While the playing by the Ensemble Recherche is just fine, the entire production is subject to both overdramatic readings and poor engineering. Of the two, the former is far morecritical, and almost sinks the entire disc.
Voiced by Omar Ebrahim and Stephen Lind, Croak and Joe come across as overdramatic, pompous hams – it sounds like a parody of a Shakespeare 101 class, with every bad-acting cliché given free reign. While Joe fares marginally better than Croak, Lind still delivers his lines with an overwrought articulation devoid of any humor. Though Beckett occasionally instructs Joe to sound “orotund” or to use a “poetic tone,” Lind takes that as a clue for the majority of his delivery, and he seems oblivious to the many possibilities inherent in Joe’s nervous mix of obsequence and bullying. But still, he’s better than Croak, who sounds like a basso profundo teenager role-playing a wizard in a bad game of Dungeons and Dragons. With little sensitivity to the nuances of his imperious dialogue, he delivers his lines with a painful slowness, inflating each of Beckett’s “pauses” with long seconds of dead air. Worse than his ponderous dialogue are his intermittent groans, which sound uncomfortably like a man straining to make a painful bowel movement. His final sigh, too, is just ridiculous, coming off like a protracted death rattle – perhaps the ghost of Beckett is strangling him in frustration?
And finally, the disc is also the victim of bad engineering. Not only is the entire work provided as a single track – making the selection of various cues nearly impossible – but the sound itself is sloppy, with audible cuts between the dialogue and the music marring the flow of the piece. Surely the music and vocals could have been more smoothly integrated?
So, all in all, a disappointing release, which is quite a shame – like it or not, Feldman’s score is deserving of new interpretations and critical discussion. Until something better comes along, I strongly recommend Evergreen Review’s 1987 original.


Liner notes from the Naive-Montaigne CD

Liner notes written by Richard Toop:

Music (as well as sound and silence) played a significant role in much of Samuel Beckett’s work from the mid-fifties onwards. A late stage work like Quad (1982) is virtually a musical composition in the manner of Kagel’s Pas de cinq, and two ambitious radio pieces from the early sixties – Words and Music (1961) and Cascando (1964) – dealt, in part, with the possibility (or not) of equating verbal and musical “expression.” The original BBC production of Words and Music (1962) with music by Beckett’s cousin John (who had previously collaborated on Act Without Words I), failed to satisfy either author or composer, and though the text was published, the score was withdrawn.
In effect, the work remained in limbo until the early 1980s, when Everett C. Frost, the project Director of Soundscape, Inc., approached Beckett with a view to preparing American productions of all his radio pieces for a Beckett Festival of Radio Plays (originally planned to celebrate Beckett’s eightieth birthday in 1986, but not realised until three years later). Though Beckett felt unable to collaborate on a new version of Words and Music, he welcomed the idea in principle, and proposed Morton Feldman as the composer. Some years earlier he had heard the quasi/anti-opera that Feldman had evolved from his text Neither (Rome Opera, 1977) and, Frost recalls, “had been pleased by the result.”
In Frost’s words, Feldman “accepted my offer with a mixture of enthusiasm and genuine, almost awkward, humility. It would be difficult, he said: the radical concisions required by the text worked against the current direction of his music, which was elaborating in the direction of longer and longer forms. It would take time. It risked altering the direction of his work – a risk he would take owing to his profound respect for Samuel Beckett. He worked at it for over a year, in and out of his other commitments, which were prodigious at that time. From time to time we would meet when he was in New York, or discuss it on the phone. There was little to say (”I can’t describe music to you, Everett, I can only write it...I’ve got to find the metaphor, the way in to it. Until I do that, there’s no point in talking. The trouble is, that its not a metaphoric piece.”) What seemed to help was to read passages from the play aloud and to time them. I’m a lousy imitator, but I tried to convey what I’d learned from hearing Beckett recite from the play in his exquisitely French accented Irish brogue. (As I’d expected, Beckett was unwilling to allow me to record him; doing so surreptitiously was out of the question).”
The score, comprising 33 fragments of Ur-Feldman for 7 players, was delivered just a week before the first to Feldman’s friend and former student Nils Vigeland, for his performance by his Bowery Ensemble. “Mr. Feldman was there to supervise all of the rehearsal, recording, and the mixdown of his music, with tremendous wit and energy, and an exacting ear. A remarkable rapport developed that made it possible for everyone involved to do their best work, and to take great pleasure in it. The two and one half days of rehearsal, recording and production went so well (Beckett, or one of his characters, might have said “without a hitch”) that, at the end, I found myself in the unusual position of having an hour of studio time left over. Though Morton wanted a quick coffee and, perhaps, an earlier plane back to Buffalo, I had coffee and sandwiches sent in and persuaded him to sit down to record a short interview to include in the broadcast. The interview went on for an hour; and when the studio time was gone, and the tape ran out, we were still talking...”
The score for Words and Music was one of Feldman’s last works. At the very end of his interview with Frost, Feldman recalled saying to Barbara Monk-Feldman, “Gee, I hope I’m not influenced by the seduction of my music being a little faster.” In the event, he was, but to wonderful effect: his next work, entitled For Samuel Beckett, may be typically static in its harmony, but has a lushness of sound coupled with restlessness of rhythm that makes it stand out from his other late works – a glorious potential crossroads at the end of an astonishing career.

Interview

The Note Man and the Word Man:
An Interview with Morton Feldman about Composing the Music for Samuel Beckett’s Radio Play, Words and Music.

Also online at the excellent Morton Feldman Page, maintained by Chris Villar, and in Mary Bryden’s Samuel Beckett and Music. Thanks to Chris Villar.

Interview by Everett C. Frost

Between 1955 and 1975 Samuel Beckett completed five plays written specifically for the radio medium: All That Fall, Embers, Words and Music, Cascando, and Rough for Radio II. (A sixth, published as Rough for Radio I, is an abandoned draft of the idea that developed into Cascando). Two of them were created in collaboration with composers, and require musical settings: Words and Music with the author’s cousin, John Beckett; and Cascando, with the author’s friend Marcel Mihalovici. But the setting for Words and Music satisfied neither the author nor the composer, and the music was withdrawn shortly after the November 13, 1962 premiere broadcast on the BBC and its subsequent French production (as Paroles et Musique), rendering the work unbroadcastable until a suitable new score could be commissioned.
In the 1980’s, Soundscape, Inc., with Martha Fehsenfeld and subsequently Louise Cleveland as Project Directors, began, and Voices International, with myself as Project Director, completed a project to create the first American productions intended for national broadcast of all of Samuel Beckett’s radio plays. The original plan had been to broadcast the plays as a series beginning on April 13, 1986 as part of the international celebrations of Samuel Beckett’s eightieth birthday, but sufficient funding was found only to complete the first of the plays, All That Fall, in that year. The Beckett Festival of Radio Plays, with productions of all five of Beckett’s radio plays, was not competed and broadcast until the spring of 1989.
As I prepared to direct the plays, Mr. Beckett was kind enough to discuss them with me. He was uneasy about Words and Music, blaming himself for the failure of the first attempt at it, and describing the problems involved in setting it as formidable and perhaps insurmountable. Yet it seemed to me that he had a special fondness for it and was pleased that it might be revived with what he called “a fresh go”. (Though apologizing for the fact that he could be but little help with a work done so long ago, at one point in our conversation he was able precisely to quote from memory the extraordinary poem it contains (”Age is when, to a man.....”). I’ve tried to think through why Words and Music has such an essential place in the Beckett canon in an essay, “Fundamental Sounds: Recording Samuel Beckett’s Radio Plays” in the Fall 1991 issue of Theatre Journal).
Mr. Beckett stipulated only that, now at an advanced age and increasingly in poor health, he felt unable to enter once again into the kind of collaborative or consultative effort that he had once given his cousin, John. Aside from what help he’d provided in his conversations with me, we’d have to proceed on our own; and he suggested Morton Feldman as the composer. They had met. Mr. Feldman had set Mr. Beckett’s very short poem, “Neither” into a very long work for the Rome opera in the 1970’s, and Beckett had been pleased by the result. Within a few days, Mr. Beckett forwarded me a postcard (July 21, 1985) with Mr. Feldman’s home address and telephone number, and I phoned Mr. Feldman as soon as I returned to the United States and described the circumstances to him.
As I came to learn in our work together, Mr. Feldman was a man of great compassion and depth of feeling, and well versed in Beckett’s work – and he accepted my offer with a mixture of enthusiasm and genuine, almost awkward, humility. It would be difficult, he said: the radical concisions required by the text worked against the current direction of his music, which was elaborating in the direction of longer and longer forms. It would take time. It risked altering the direction of his work – a risk he would take owing to his profound respect for Samuel Beckett. He worked at it for over a year, in and out of his other commitments, which were prodigious at that time. From time to time we would meet when he was in New York, or discuss it on the phone. There was little to say (”I can’t describe music to you, Everett, I can only write it. ... I’ve got to find the metaphor, the way in to it. Until I do that, there’s no point in talking. The trouble is, that its not a metaphoric piece.”). What seemed to help was to read passages from the play aloud and to time them. I’m a lousy imitator, but I tried to convey what I’d learned from hearing Beckett recite from the play in his exquisitely French accented Irish brogue. (As I’d expected, Beckett was unwilling to allow me to record him; doing so surreptitiously was out of the question). For reasons having to do with the alignment of impossible schedules, by mid-November of 1986, the recording dates were fixed for March 9 and 10, 1987 in the studios of RCA (now BMG) in New York., with the distinguished Beckett actor, David Warrilow, as Joe (Words), and his equally distinguished colleague, Alvin Epstein, as Croak. It was only a week or so before the recording sessions that the conductor (and close friend and former student of Mr. Feldman’s), Nils Vigeland received the score to distribute to the musicians from his Bowery Ensemble: Bunita Marcus, piano; Michael Pugliese, percussion; Barbara Held and Rachel Rudich, flutes; Laura Seaton and Tim Pelikan, violins; and Sarah Carter, ’cello.
Mr. Feldman was there to supervise all of the rehearsal, recording, and the mixdown of his music, with tremendous wit and energy, and an exacting ear. A remarkable rapport developed that made it possible for everyone involved to do their best work, and to take great pleasure in it. The two and one half days of rehearsal, recording and production went so well (Beckett, or one of his characters, might have said “without a hitch”) that, at the end, I found myself in the unusual position of having an hour of studio time left over. Though Morton wanted a quick coffee and, perhaps, an earlier plane back to Buffalo, I had coffee and sandwiches sent in and persuaded him to sit down to record a short interview to include in the broadcast. The interview went on for an hour; and when the studio time was gone, and the tape ran out, we were still talking. Throughout all this, if he were ill, he gave no sign of it; it seems clear to me, he did not know. I did not see him again. When I called in August to convey the news that we’d secured the funding for Cascando and could go ahead, he was too ill to come to the phone. He died that September. (The music for Cascando was written by William Kraft, a composer Mr. Feldman admired and, indeed, suggested – who knew the circumstances, but in no sense of the word “replaced” Mr. Feldman, but rather gave it a “fresh go” – and a remarkable one – of his own.)
Words and Music proved to be the next-to-last work Mr. Feldman would complete. It had changed the direction of his music: the last work, an orchestral composition, was inscribed, simply, For Samuel Beckett and premiered in the composer’s presence in Holland in June, 1987. The impromptu interview we did (on March 10, 1987) at the end of our session proved to be, as far as I know, the last interview to be recorded with him. Those who knew him will hear his love of conversation and his deliberately pungent New Yorkaccent in the words transcribed below.
The production of Words and Music accompanied by a documentary (produced by Charles Potter) containing portions of the interview will be re-distributed in The Beckett Festival of Radio Plays as part of the Voices International “SoundPlay” series in August 1992. Cassettes of it, and other SoundPlay / Beckett Festival programs are available from the distributor, the Pacifica Program Service (PPS), P.O. Box 8092, Universal City, CA. 91608 (1-800-735-0230). Words and Music was funded by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities, with additional funds from New York University, and is a co-production of Voices International and Westdeutscher Rundfunk (WDR), Cologne, Germany.

Interview with Morton Feldman

Everett Frost: Let’s just do it casually and, you know, informally, and spend, say, fifteen, twenty minutes...

Morton Feldman: Fine. That’s a lot of talk, fifteen minutes...

EF: That’s a lot of talk. What I want to ask you first is just, generally, what strikes you about Beckett, why you find him interesting.

MF: I’d like to start with an interesting remark. Last night I had dinner with Francesco Clemente and his wife and we were talking about Beckett. And as you know Clemente is very submerged in literary metaphors. I didn’t see the collaboration that Mr. Beckett did with Jasper Johns. Clemente did. And his comment was that it seemed obvious that, maybe, Jasper Johns would be a very good choice [for Beckett], because he was closed to the world. He wasn’t closed to his world. But he was closed to the world. And I thought that was a very, very interesting point because when you get a world, either like Jasper Johns’ – especially in his new paintings – [or like] Beckett’s, the reference to some degree is closed to any other experience but his own. Now, to me the exciting thing is that both Jasper Johns and Beckett are not narcissistic: you don’t feel the sense of an egoism there. But at the same time you feel a really, a complete and closed artistic experience. That is the contradiction. And that’s the contradiction that I identify with. I feel that I, too, am not open to musical experiences other than my own. Then: What happens is what a psychoanalyst might call “adult compromise”, in terms of the appropriateness of, of how I would bend, for example, and try to attempt to realize essentially someone else’s experience. That’s what happens in something like this. Especially in this project. This is the happiest of all the things I’ve done: more so than something where I was more in control of how I would want to do it, in terms of its structure, in terms of a more indirect reflection of what I would feel would be the content of the words. And what’s very, very interesting is that, when I first met Beckett, and I told him that I’d like to do something (at that time it was for the Rome Opera. The Rome Opera had asked me to do something), the first thing he said to me was that he hated opera. And so did I. I mean, I’m not an opera goer; I hardly ever go to the opera. I just don’t experience what exactly, what is meant theatrically [by opera]. If I would have to talk about it, because there’s something about, there’s something in the world of, uh – I wouldn’t want to use a term like prosaic or clichéd, but it’s something to some degree related. But with the sentiments of Words and Music you could see why he won the Nobel Prize. That is, he’s in the tradition.

EF: The tradition of?

MF: He’s in the tradition of a great communicator. That’s a terrible thing to say now, within the Reagan connotation of the term. I mean he is involved with the subject the haunts most of us.

EF: That makes me want to go back to something that you said earlier: you said that Beckett writes in a self-contained world. That’s true. That’s one of the experiences that all who work with him have. The other is that it’s so universal – that so many people find things in Beckett to, relate to it on a very personal and emotional level. That’s one of the wonderful contradictions in him. One of my subtexts in the series is that lots of ordinary people will listen to this who are not scholars or academics will find things to move them even in Words and Music, which is not an easy text.

MF: You know, I had a memorable conversation with Mr. Beckett. He was directing a Beckett Festival in Berlin. This was about ’75, ’76, I believe. And, well, he asked me, you know, if he did write something for me, what would he write? Just like I ask people that are close to me. Just what is it exactly and what do you think it actually conveys? You see. People think that you have this subject and then you superimpose the whole compositional or the structural process, which might be true for someone that’s doing a cartoon strip. But for most artists the structural concerns are uppermost and out of it comes the content which you yourself to some degree are ambiguous about. And in this conversation with Beckett he was a little bit ambiguous about exactly what his subject was. I had to tell him. (Laughs).

EF: What did you tell him?

MF: Well, I don’t know if it should be proper for a radio interview. But a the same time in Berlin, a very close friend of mine was having breast surgery, and she was in a very bad situation. And I said to Beckett, “Well, of course, compared to Sarah, you’re comic relief.” And by “comic relief” I really mean that there’s really no–. It’s beyond Existentialism, you see, because Existentialism is always looking for a way out, you know. If they feel that God is dead, then long live humanity. Kind of Camus and Sartre. I mean, there’s always a substitute to save you in Existentialism. And I feel that Beckett is not involved with that, because there’s nothing saving him. For example, the opera that we (it really wasn’t an opera; it was just a poem that I extended into an opera length) –

EF: This is Neither.

MF: This was Neither. The subject essentially is: whether you’re in the shadows of understanding or non-understanding. I mean, finally you’re in the shadows. You’re not going to arrive at any understanding at all; you’re just left there holding this – the hot potato which is life. Now getting back to my feeling about Beckett: I never liked any one else’s approach to Beckett. I felt it was a little too easy; it was a little too– Again, they’re treating him as if he’s an Existentialist hero, rather than a Tragic hero. And he’s a word man, a fantastic word man. And I always felt that I was a note man. And I think that’s what brought me to him. The kind of shared longing that he has, this saturated, unending longing.

EF: In Words and Music the word man, Beckett, has provided the text and a series of instructions, for the note man.

MF: I approach this – now I can tell you, because if I were to speak to you earlier you’d be very upset. [Laughter]. I hardly read it. Oh, of course, I read it. But I started at the end, I started in different places. That was my way to get to know Beckett. Because I couldn’t read it without the music, and there was no music. And so I couldn’t get the total experience. I could never have written the last two minutes that I did, unless I started, like that. I didn’t ask where I was going to start to swim in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. There was no – You see? The whole idea of beginning, middle, and end, which was very apparent would not help as an emotional structure. And so I dipped into it all the time. I learned a lot about Beckett by reading his very early study on Remembrance of Things Past. It told me a lot about him. It told me the way he thinks. Actually, really, it’s a kind of proto-New Criticism type of understanding and clinical. And I’m a very clinical composer at the same time that I’m a note man. The swing, luckily, is going back from something, in a sense, where the feeling is revealed, [to] where the feeling is less revealed, the varying degrees that the feeling, or the meaning, is either brought up or brought down, like lighting. That’s why a monologue of his is the whole world for me; it’s like Homer. There’s everything in there because of these gradated nuances of – I don’t how he does it. He probably does it in a way that would be very surprising, like saying it to himself in French and then saying it to himself in English. I’m quite sure that many times his way of arriving at something could be absolutely much more clinical, almost pedantically so, than one would think. But the end results are what we’re involved with here. So, I understand him to some degree as an artist. I know that there is a clinical approach and then he’s learned how to lose it, or to work with it, or to change it. I know that he did tell me that he says things over to himself over and over. I work the same way. I play things or look at things over and over and over. Not consciously looking for something. Again, try to get the content to some degree a little less evasive.

EF: You mean the content of his words?

MF: The contents of his work, or content of my own work in relation to his work. I try to make it nameless. For example, if I would use his terminology, that he would use in asking for music, I never could have written it, because I don’t know what that terminology means. I know what it means in terms of Puccini. If he says he wants something sentimental, I have no idea what that means, because it’s like a “thump.” I mean, what kind of “thump”? With Beckett, you realize how much you don’t understand the simplest word like “thump”. So, I don’t try. It’s as if you’re with someone you love dearly, and you’re listening to them, you don’t want to be patronizing, but, you know, at the same time, language is not telling you, you see. You’re looking in the eyes, you’re looking at the body language, you’re for everything in Beckett other than his directions; because if I was looking for his directions and if I saw the word sentimental, it would be like a John Ford movie on an island or something.

EF: So then, what was the “in” to Words and Music? What began to unlock it for you?

MF: I took it to the quintessence of it. The fact that in very prosaic terms, there was a situation where two people were having some problems, you know, as prosaic as that. And music essentially had to bend. At the same time the presence of music is always there and has terrific power, even though it’s incongruous to some degree. Not all the time. But it’s incongruous the minute you get away from cliché type of responses. See, literature could be universal. When music is universal, it never gets beyond the level of, say, a Shostakovitch. It’s, it’s freshman universal. [Laughs]. We have a lot of problems in music, universal, with our universal themes come from a, a different kind of history – Christianity, uh, word painting, uh –

EF: Your character music in the, in Words and Music

MF: Yes.

EF: – is given some universal concepts and invited to and, in fact, coerced to create musical structures around them. There’s Love, Age, and then, finally, the Face. He’s handing you universals.

MF: He’s handing you universals at the same time my only response to Age, as I’m ageing, was when his own language became a little halting.

EF: So that was an “in” point.

MF: Yeah, but it was a technical thing. It wasn’t a universal. I didn’t pick up, you see, on Age. I mean, I feel – especially when he wrote this: he wrote this when he was approximately–he was younger than I am now. He was in his mid-fifties. So, I wasn’t taking his idea of age because I think at eighty, except for some arthritis, he looks and seems to feel okay. But it was the fact that the language was halting that created me that pizzicato section where it was more or less, not focused really on one place; and in the balance, so to speak, gave me an aspect of age. Not focused and just walking down the stairs, but yet focused on one’s life at the same time. So I tried to carry through the focus of the material, or the quintessence of the material and then present it in a more, let’s put it, fragmentary way. A little bit, finding my balance, but the balance was of a technical thing. See, it’s a – I can’t disentangle the technical way of arriving at it and what it is, because it’s both. It’s a technical metaphor, and a technical metaphor then brings forth, hopefully, the psychological or the emotional or the dramatic situation.

EF: I remember that in one of early conversations when we were first initiating the project, we were talking about musical styles –

MF: Yeah.

EF: I remember sort of nudging you in the direction of trying to give me some, some sense of the musical style, the instrumentation and so on –

MF: I approached, I approach this, uh. [Pause] I had an emotional vested interest in this, is because I was very delighted, almost as a tribute to Beckett. Beckett has been very much a part of my life since the 50’s. You know, he was actually for us, and my generation, a 50’s writer, because when he was with Barney Ross and Grove Press that really brought him to New York for us.

EF: Yes.

MF: And so, I feel he’s a contemporary, although he’s twenty years older than me. So, I was very excited in doing the project; it meant a lot to me. I mean, let’s say I wouldn’t be happy doing something say to Pinter. That would be remote. So it was a labor of love, as they say. But I approached it the same way I approached everything I do. I don’t try to articulate what I’m looking for. I don’t give it a name. There is no style. This was the thing, if you noticed, all the musicians they said “It’s you and it’s not you.” In other words, if I approached it in terms of style, then it’d be more me.

EF: Do you think they’re right?

MF: Yes. Well, they know my music, you see. And I thought that, because it is me and it’s not me.

EF: What of it is you and what of it is you, not you?

MF: What is it of me? [Pause] Me is the, is the technical devices or just the construction, just the way I would layer something. What’s not like me is that I tried to meet Beckett half way in the sentiment. I don’t write in terms of literary images, though ninety-five percent, ninety-eight percent of the world’s music is in literary images.

EF: And you found that awfully difficult?

MF: I didn’t find it difficult because I know what it is. It’s like I had this glass that I could, I could look out and no one could look in. I mean, I know what it is; I have to handle it. My music has arrived at a certain degree of abstraction that has a mood and is identifiable. But the mood has to do with instrumental images. Someone remembers this against this, this against that. Essentially I’m an orchestrator in a way that most people are not. But I understand what those images are in terms of the literary images. I know when he wants something whirling; I understand how to make it whirl, technically, you see. And I think it happened. I’m very happy with the project because, I think I, uh, you know it’s like the Zen and the Art of Archery, remember where the German went to study Zen and he practised with the lights on and they broke his bow? He got the bull’s eye with the lights on and he was supposed to practice in the dark. [Laughs] Not that I’m that involved with Zen, but I always liked that thing because I feel that’s the approach, where you develop a certain type of skill and marvellous position, precision to hit the bull’s eye. And the objective is not just to practice to hit the bull’s eye. You see. And I approached this –. I mean, no one believes it. They say, “You mean you didn’t read it?” I said, “Well, I read it, of course. I read it. But, I couldn’t call Barbara into the room every five minutes and say, “Now, what in heaven’s name do you think . . .?” [Laughs] “Do you think, in a sense, that this should be a variation, or should it be a direct motif “ But my concern was, technically. And he does the same thing. He says the same thing in many, many different ways.

EF: One of the things that, delighted – certainly put me at ease, was the extent to which the score was so carefully structured against exactly what the actors had to do. And the score was structured around the various beats that David Warrilow has to do as words in a way that was absolutely comprehensible, which suggests to me an awful lot of reading of the text. And fitting into it.

MF: What I, what I did was create a sort of composite line. And –

EF: No, what I mean simply is the structure, the score is very well measured to the text –

MF: Yes, well, that’s what I did. No, I didn’t measure it to the text, but I created a composite line of the first line to my scale, which was essentially my, my air. A-I-R. And then, musically, I tried to work within it, it’s symmetries or asymmetries, but not that directly. It was only the first line that gave me his rhythm and pacing. And then, hopefully, I felt that I would have a sense of the same proportion that he does. And I was right actually. David was uh – Again, it was like working in the dark and, and I got there. You couldn’t structure. I had no idea what was gonna come on in terms of his pacing. I said to myself, I hope he doesn’t fight my pacing. I hope he doesn’t, I hope he – I felt it was Beckett’s pacing. I felt it was my pacing also at the same time it wasn’t my pacing; it was faster.

EF: Well, you know David has worked on Beckett...

MF: He’s fabulous. Oh, he’s fabulous. I was worried. I wasn’t worried about me, I wasn’t worried about you; but I was worried about what the actor would come in and, uh, and feel how he would want handle the poem. But I didn’t work, you can’t work it exactly; you could just have to feel an overall proportion. I didn’t even count; I didn’t even use numbers. I just felt that if I had the first line, that artistically I’ll be able to go through. The poem I read. Over and over again. And then the rest was Beckett’s instruction for the music and how I can cope with terminology like sentimental, warm, you know. Again, they’re like “thumps.” What do you mean “warm?” What do you mean “sentimental?” You see, difficult, difficult. So it’s a question of the appropriateness of it. Isn’t there one famous play or monologue of his where he actually asks for a certain tune? Somebody in Buffalo who knows a lot of Beckett mentioned to me that there was one that used some sort of tune at one time that hit home.

EF: All That Fall, his first radio play, specifies at the beginning and end of the play Schubert’s Death and the Maiden.

MF: That’s, that was it. And how it added for this person, a literary person, the quintessence of the feeling of that particular play. It’s very, very difficult. I don’t think I would have spent the time and the concerns on anybody else, actually. I doubt it. [Pause] I doubt it.

EF: He really –

MF: Also, I’m very, I’m very interested, I’m, I’m very interested as someone that does something, I’m very interested in geniuses like Beckett that, that have their cake and eat it too, in terms of being a great artist and having the touch of the universal. I’m very envious of that. And to me, it’s a big mystery; to me, it’s one of the – in other words, as Bunny said, he’s in the tradition. But I don’t think it could be that way in music; I think it can only be in music only by default – that you’re in the tradition. There’s no universals in music, unless you want to adapt to the language that came before you, as role models.

EF: Now let’s transpose that to “Ages when, to a man” – the central poem in Words and Music.

MF: It was word painting. It’s not Wagnerian in terms of the layering of the word into the structure and body of the music. It’s more distant. It’s going along. I wanted its presence and its remoteness, its unattainableness. An unattainableness and yet a marvellous presence which is music. This mystery that music has for so many people. It doesn’t have to be Beckett. This marvellous, marvellous unattainableness that the emotion of music has for people. And the closer you get, the more tragic it becomes, and the more compelling it becomes. And the more distant you get, the more tragic it becomes, and the more compelling it becomes. You see. And those were the images. How to arrive at it, I don’t know. Unlike, say, a normal piece of mine – I never correct; I write in ink. And it’s the first time, and there’s no going back. Totally focused, I’m there. The concerns are purely clinical: my responses and what I do. Here? Every version I might have done three or four times, because they’re essentially short. Had to tell a whole story. I’m a character in a play; I’m not background music here. And music . . .? You can’t just write a few measures of music and create, more times than not, create something like his final poem in a few lines.

EF: So you found the time restraints, then, difficult?

MF: I had to think faster; I had to write faster. I had to compress it faster. Usually I give myself a lot of time. A lot of time because, uh, I’m involved with the experience, being, to a great degree, saturated. That time’s the only thing that could saturate experience and actually make it more comprehensible, what you’re doing. See, I grew up in a tradition where the technical facility was the metaphor of comprehensibility. The Schoenberg School. Here, I needed time; and yet, I didn’t have it. So the metaphors that I picked, were metaphors where, where, after just five seconds, I’m in the world. There’s no set up; there’s no preparation. It was very, very difficult. And the most important thing was the instrumental balance that, that, uh, I couldn’t have the performance problem get in the way. Or, for that matter, there are very few places, hardly any, and they’re usually in a kind of soft edge – the vibraphone and the piano, where I can get onto another high layer without being, without disturbing the surface, so to speak, rather than using a high flute. I’m not talking about the, the more agitated responses where I use a doubling of the piccolo and the flute; I’m talking about the more gentle sections. The problem with a lot of composers that use Beckett is that they get very histrionic. They can’t take that tragic state; there fighting it all the time! They can’t sublimate the fact that. Notice the way, in a lot of sections, the two flutes are low. Things are not that high. I would say to myself, “Oh, my God, I’m famous for getting out there and stratifying this instrument and using these things.” I couldn’t do it here, couldn’t do it at all. I couldn’t do what I could really do. I had to do, I had to begin to do things that were appropriate.

EF: There are parts of the music that to me are simply (describing music is difficult) are simply beautiful in a very conventional sense of the use of the word “beautiful” in talking about music.

MF: (overlapping) Oh, yes, of course! I would use term “very beautiful.” It was not one type of beauty. It was different levels because the tune, so to speak, goes through different metamorphoses all the time. It appears in different, different ways. Sometimes distant and laid back, other times, a little warmer. And what happens at the end is I just burst out with a little more sensual harmony, nothing to interrupt the flute line, and then the modulation takes it away from just the repeating of the thing in different ways over and over again. It gives you a new – it adds to the leap. The emotional leap – the modulation, which you’re going to hear. I modulate three times in just a minute, which is unheard of. It sounds great so you take it for granted, but you don’t know the difficulty, technically, how to do it. It’s very, very difficult. And that’s what’s marvellous about music is that, well, you get it and you accept it, but a lot of people really don’t know what the composer has done in order for somebody to respond to it.

EF: Well, as you know, from our discussions in the very, very beginning, this has never been properly, adequately set. Did that scare you?

MF: It didn’t scare me; but when I read it, I understood why.

EF: Why?

MF: Because it was interpreted conventionally. Someone had to have had a language of their own in order to give it up. That’s essentially what I did here. You couldn’t just go looking for a style, because all you’re going to do is your memory’s going to go into this composer, into that composer; and it’ll just be a cliché ridden score. It’s very difficult; Beckett is very difficult.

EF: Well, I think you’ve done it. There is a remarkable new score for Words and Music.

MF: No, I’m very happy. It doesn’t happen this way very often. I mean, there’s always some discontent, you know, if you do a project. Especially when you lose control of a project and that’s what happens when you work with the actors just – as I told Barbara (I’m finishing something up for the Holland Festival) and I said “Gee, I hope I’m not influenced by the seduction of my music being a little faster.” But I think I will be. But maybe in more, somewhat more abstract terms. I mean, I know that this production’s going to enter into my life. I’m maybe trying things now a little faster than ordinarily.

Review (The Brooklyn Rail. Review by A. Lockwood)

Excerpted from The Brooklyn Rail, Issue 28 (August 1999.)

Feldman, approached at Beckett’s suggestion by director/producer Everett C. Frost to write the musical voice for a 1987 production of Beckett’s 1961 radio play Words and Music (Montaigne 782084), wrote the 33 fragments delineated in Beckett’s text, during breaks in the enormous compositions that occupied the final year of his life. “I had an emotional vested interest in this (project)” Feldman told Koop in a post-production interview; “...almost as a tribute to Beckett. Beckett has been very much a part of my life since the ’50s...”
This musical voice (named ’Music’) moves through phases of rehearsals, false starts, and spotlit presentations of its ’self’, while also prompting the intercut efforts of the play’s spoken voice (’Words’), with both responding to the demands and the reprimands of the visiting tyrant (’Croak’), who alternately pleads and roars for the succor of melody and story from his two underlings. The two grudgingly join forces and culminate in a last weird, lilting song: “Down a little way/to whence one glimpse/of that wellhead”.
In Words and Music, Beckett utilized the fading genre of the radio play to cast his experience of the disembodied voice of consciousness. The experience as the play dangles, clawing in the air, is of the naked aggression of unbridled, self-consuming thought.
Feldman’s music evokes a mysterious patina on a production marred by overwrought readings. And it provides insights into the fecund laboratory of Feldman’s musical mind: stray glimpses, spare pages, shards broken out of an impervious and unabated musical language streaming and roiling from Feldman, a musical language at once refined in details and accurate to the perpetual reformations of memory within the musical experience, a musical language that adroitly deceives the reliance on bare repetition that fuels most music, whether most musics’ affect be melodic narrative or motoric rhythm
Words and Music, for the informed listener, quests into the artifices and dogmas conspiring in the construction of self; to the uninitiated, it must be as insufferable as interment in a subterranean copse of bent mirrors.

CD Information

Feldman’s score for Words and Music has been twice recorded: the original 1987 production currently available from Evergreen Review, and a new version put out by Audivis-Montaigne. Although I review them both above, it couldn’t hurt to reiterate here that the 1987 original is the far superior choice, with interview excerpts, documentary segments, and a much better performance of the work itself. On an additional note, the Audivis-Montaigne CD has recently been repackaged in a dull maroon case; the image above is the more engaging 1997 cover.

Feldman/Beckett: Words and Music / Bowery Ensemble
Morton Feldman / Evergreen Review CD / Released 2002

Feldman/Beckett: Words and Music / Ensemble Recherche
Morton Feldman / Naive-Montaigne CD / Released 1997

–Allen B. Ruch
5 August 2004
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