|Words and Music
|1987. Radio piece for two speakers, two flutes, vibraphone, piano, violin, also, violincello. (41.42 min.)
Morton Feldmans 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 Unfortunately, neither Beckett was satisfied with the overall result, and the score was withdrawn shortly after its premiere, leaving Words and Music to haunt the imaginations of Beckett readers as the partially realized blueprint to a greater work.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 Becketts 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, its 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 others 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 masters departure.
Words and Music is not an easy piece to immediately assimilate, and like many of Becketts 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 Croaks 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 Becketts 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 composers version of Words and Music is likely to be quite different from anothers. (Just imagine such possible versions of the above directions as realized by Philip Glass, Pierre Boulez, John Williams, or Einstürzende Neubauten!) And of course, theres 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 Becketts Words and Music as realized by two different companies and groups: the Ensemble Rechereche/Ebrahim & Lind production, and the Bowery Ensemble/Epstein & Warrilow production.
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 Feldmans 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 minds 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 Feldmans 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 Becketts 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 Bobs 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 Feldmans 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 Becketts bleak, enigmatic poems. Still, while I appreciate and enjoy much of Feldmans score, I cant get over the feeling that it occasionally undermines Becketts 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, Feldmans 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 Feldmans 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 Becketts suggestions, many of which depend upon musical familiarity, if not cliché, for their effect.
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 Feldmans 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 Epsteins Croak is the perfect mixture of irascible tyranny and aged fragility, and its 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 Becketts craggy face and defiant eyes. Underneath his flashes of anger and tone of command, Epsteins tyrant is haunted and painfully vulnerable. David Warrilows Joe, too, is flawlessly realized, following Becketts 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 masters 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 Warrilows 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 CDs 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 Feldmans interpretation, one doesnt 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 Joes nervous mix of obsequence and bullying. But still, hes 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 Becketts 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, Feldmans score is deserving of new interpretations and critical discussion. Until something better comes along, I strongly recommend Evergreen Reviews 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 Becketts work from the mid-fifties onwards. A late stage work like Quad (1982) is virtually a musical composition in the manner of Kagels 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 Becketts 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 Becketts 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 Frosts 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 cant describe music to you, Everett, I can only write it...Ive got to find the metaphor, the way in to it. Until I do that, theres 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. Im a lousy imitator, but I tried to convey what Id learned from hearing Beckett recite from the play in his exquisitely French accented Irish brogue. (As Id 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 Feldmans 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 Feldmans last works. At the very end of his interview with Frost, Feldman recalled saying to Barbara Monk-Feldman, Gee, I hope Im 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.
The Note Man and the Word Man:
An Interview with Morton Feldman about Composing the Music for Samuel Becketts Radio Play, Words and Music.
Also online at the excellent Morton Feldman Page, maintained by Chris Villar, and in Mary Brydens 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 authors cousin, John Beckett; and Cascando, with the authors 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 1980s, 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 Becketts 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 Becketts 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 Becketts 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.....). Ive tried to think through why Words and Music has such an essential place in the Beckett canon in an essay, Fundamental Sounds: Recording Samuel Becketts 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 hed provided in his conversations with me, wed have to proceed on our own; and he suggested Morton Feldman as the composer. They had met. Mr. Feldman had set Mr. Becketts very short poem, Neither into a very long work for the Rome opera in the 1970s, and Beckett had been pleased by the result. Within a few days, Mr. Beckett forwarded me a postcard (July 21, 1985) with Mr. Feldmans 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 Becketts 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 cant describe music to you, Everett, I can only write it. ... Ive got to find the metaphor, the way in to it. Until I do that, theres 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. Im a lousy imitator, but I tried to convey what Id learned from hearing Beckett recite from the play in his exquisitely French accented Irish brogue. (As Id 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. Feldmans), 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 wed 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 composers 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: Lets just do it casually and, you know, informally, and spend, say, fifteen, twenty minutes...
Morton Feldman: Fine. Thats a lot of talk, fifteen minutes...
EF: Thats 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: Id 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 didnt 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 wasnt 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] Becketts, 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 dont 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 thats 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 elses experience. Thats what happens in something like this. Especially in this project. This is the happiest of all the things Ive 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 whats very, very interesting is that, when I first met Beckett, and I told him that Id 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, Im not an opera goer; I hardly ever go to the opera. I just dont experience what exactly, what is meant theatrically [by opera]. If I would have to talk about it, because theres something about, theres something in the world of, uh I wouldnt want to use a term like prosaic or clichéd, but its something to some degree related. But with the sentiments of Words and Music you could see why he won the Nobel Prize. That is, hes in the tradition.
EF: The tradition of?
MF: Hes in the tradition of a great communicator. Thats 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. Thats true. Thats one of the experiences that all who work with him have. The other is that its so universal that so many people find things in Beckett to, relate to it on a very personal and emotional level. Thats 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 thats 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 dont 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, youre comic relief. And by comic relief I really mean that theres really no. Its 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, theres always a substitute to save you in Existentialism. And I feel that Beckett is not involved with that, because theres nothing saving him. For example, the opera that we (it really wasnt 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 youre in the shadows of understanding or non-understanding. I mean, finally youre in the shadows. Youre not going to arrive at any understanding at all; youre just left there holding this the hot potato which is life. Now getting back to my feeling about Beckett: I never liked any one elses approach to Beckett. I felt it was a little too easy; it was a little too Again, theyre treating him as if hes an Existentialist hero, rather than a Tragic hero. And hes a word man, a fantastic word man. And I always felt that I was a note man. And I think thats 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 youd 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 couldnt read it without the music, and there was no music. And so I couldnt get the total experience. I could never have written the last two minutes that I did, unless I started, like that. I didnt 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, its a kind of proto-New Criticism type of understanding and clinical. And Im a very clinical composer at the same time that Im 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. Thats why a monologue of his is the whole world for me; its like Homer. Theres everything in there because of these gradated nuances of I dont 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. Im 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 were involved with here. So, I understand him to some degree as an artist. I know that there is a clinical approach and then hes 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 dont 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 its like a thump. I mean, what kind of thump? With Beckett, you realize how much you dont understand the simplest word like thump. So, I dont try. Its as if youre with someone you love dearly, and youre listening to them, you dont want to be patronizing, but, you know, at the same time, language is not telling you, you see. Youre looking in the eyes, youre looking at the body language, youre 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 its incongruous to some degree. Not all the time. But its 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. Its, its 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
EF: is given some universal concepts and invited to and, in fact, coerced to create musical structures around them. Theres Love, Age, and then, finally, the Face. Hes handing you universals.
MF: Hes handing you universals at the same time my only response to Age, as Im 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 wasnt a universal. I didnt pick up, you see, on Age. I mean, I feel especially when he wrote this: he wrote this when he was approximatelyhe was younger than I am now. He was in his mid-fifties. So, I wasnt 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 ones 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, lets put it, fragmentary way. A little bit, finding my balance, but the balance was of a technical thing. See, its a I cant disentangle the technical way of arriving at it and what it is, because its both. Its 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
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 50s. You know, he was actually for us, and my generation, a 50s writer, because when he was with Barney Ross and Grove Press that really brought him to New York for us.
MF: And so, I feel hes a contemporary, although hes twenty years older than me. So, I was very excited in doing the project; it meant a lot to me. I mean, lets say I wouldnt 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 dont try to articulate what Im looking for. I dont give it a name. There is no style. This was the thing, if you noticed, all the musicians they said Its you and its not you. In other words, if I approached it in terms of style, then itd be more me.
EF: Do you think theyre right?
MF: Yes. Well, they know my music, you see. And I thought that, because it is me and its 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. Whats not like me is that I tried to meet Beckett half way in the sentiment. I dont write in terms of literary images, though ninety-five percent, ninety-eight percent of the worlds music is in literary images.
EF: And you found that awfully difficult?
MF: I didnt find it difficult because I know what it is. Its 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 Im 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. Im very happy with the project because, I think I, uh, you know its 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 bulls eye with the lights on and he was supposed to practice in the dark. [Laughs] Not that Im that involved with Zen, but I always liked that thing because I feel thats the approach, where you develop a certain type of skill and marvellous position, precision to hit the bulls eye. And the objective is not just to practice to hit the bulls eye. You see. And I approached this . I mean, no one believes it. They say, You mean you didnt read it? I said, Well, I read it, of course. I read it. But, I couldnt call Barbara into the room every five minutes and say, Now, what in heavens 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, thats what I did. No, I didnt 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, its 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 couldnt structure. I had no idea what was gonna come on in terms of his pacing. I said to myself, I hope he doesnt fight my pacing. I hope he doesnt, I hope he I felt it was Becketts pacing. I felt it was my pacing also at the same time it wasnt my pacing; it was faster.
EF: Well, you know David has worked on Beckett...
MF: Hes fabulous. Oh, hes fabulous. I was worried. I wasnt worried about me, I wasnt 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 didnt work, you cant work it exactly; you could just have to feel an overall proportion. I didnt even count; I didnt even use numbers. I just felt that if I had the first line, that artistically Ill be able to go through. The poem I read. Over and over again. And then the rest was Becketts instruction for the music and how I can cope with terminology like sentimental, warm, you know. Again, theyre like thumps. What do you mean warm? What do you mean sentimental? You see, difficult, difficult. So its a question of the appropriateness of it. Isnt 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 Schuberts Death and the Maiden.
MF: Thats, that was it. And how it added for this person, a literary person, the quintessence of the feeling of that particular play. Its very, very difficult. I dont 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, Im very, Im very interested, Im, Im very interested as someone that does something, Im 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. Im very envious of that. And to me, its a big mystery; to me, its one of the in other words, as Bunny said, hes in the tradition. But I dont think it could be that way in music; I think it can only be in music only by default that youre in the tradition. Theres no universals in music, unless you want to adapt to the language that came before you, as role models.
EF: Now lets transpose that to Ages when, to a man the central poem in Words and Music.
MF: It was word painting. Its not Wagnerian in terms of the layering of the word into the structure and body of the music. Its more distant. Its 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 doesnt 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 dont know. Unlike, say, a normal piece of mine I never correct; I write in ink. And its the first time, and theres no going back. Totally focused, Im there. The concerns are purely clinical: my responses and what I do. Here? Every version I might have done three or four times, because theyre essentially short. Had to tell a whole story. Im a character in a play; Im not background music here. And music . . .? You cant 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, Im involved with the experience, being, to a great degree, saturated. That times the only thing that could saturate experience and actually make it more comprehensible, what youre 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 didnt have it. So the metaphors that I picked, were metaphors where, where, after just five seconds, Im in the world. Theres no set up; theres no preparation. It was very, very difficult. And the most important thing was the instrumental balance that, that, uh, I couldnt have the performance problem get in the way. Or, for that matter, there are very few places, hardly any, and theyre 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. Im not talking about the, the more agitated responses where I use a doubling of the piccolo and the flute; Im talking about the more gentle sections. The problem with a lot of composers that use Beckett is that they get very histrionic. They cant take that tragic state; there fighting it all the time! They cant 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, Im famous for getting out there and stratifying this instrument and using these things. I couldnt do it here, couldnt do it at all. I couldnt 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 youre 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 dont know the difficulty, technically, how to do it. Its very, very difficult. And thats whats marvellous about music is that, well, you get it and you accept it, but a lot of people really dont 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 didnt scare me; but when I read it, I understood why.
MF: Because it was interpreted conventionally. Someone had to have had a language of their own in order to give it up. Thats essentially what I did here. You couldnt just go looking for a style, because all youre going to do is your memorys going to go into this composer, into that composer; and itll just be a cliché ridden score. Its very difficult; Beckett is very difficult.
EF: Well, I think youve done it. There is a remarkable new score for Words and Music.
MF: No, Im very happy. It doesnt happen this way very often. I mean, theres always some discontent, you know, if you do a project. Especially when you lose control of a project and thats what happens when you work with the actors just as I told Barbara (Im finishing something up for the Holland Festival) and I said Gee, I hope Im 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 productions going to enter into my life. Im 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 Becketts suggestion by director/producer Everett C. Frost to write the musical voice for a 1987 production of Becketts 1961 radio play Words and Music (Montaigne 782084), wrote the 33 fragments delineated in Becketts 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 plays 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.
Feldmans music evokes a mysterious patina on a production marred by overwrought readings. And it provides insights into the fecund laboratory of Feldmans 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.
Feldmans 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 couldnt 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