As a teenager I came across a strange looking book at the local used book store. It wasn’t strange in terms of its design, which was rather standard, but flipping through it and reading small sections, I was boggled at the words on the page. It was unlike anything I’d encountered before. That copy of Samuel Beckett‘s Murphy is still on my bookshelf, some 25 years or so later. Since that initial discovery, I’ve been deeply drawn to the musicality of Beckett’s text. The words almost sing themselves off the page and into the reader’s ear. The intense rhythm pushes the reader (or performer) deeper and deeper into the unknown. One key factor in Beckett’s work is the repetition of words and phrases, either through direct repetition or through variations, much like a composer would break apart a theme, fractalizing it into small pieces that hint both at their original meaning and at what is to come next.
In college I discovered the music of Morton Feldman, the composer perhaps more than any other who was directly impacted by the works of Beckett. Feldman wrote several pieces drawing directly on the text and inspired by the underlying philosophy of Beckett’s words. In the last few years, I’ve discovered several jazzers who have dived into the works of Beckett, using them as foundations for improvisation. Notably for me, the bassist Barry Guy has used the text of Beckett’s Fizzles as launching points for improvisation, released as a ten inch record on NoBusiness in 2014.
A few months ago, I came across a copy of a wonderful new book: Samuel Beckett, Repetition and Modern Music by guitarist and professor John McGrath. McGrath dives deep into the musicality of Beckett’s work and how it has shaped certain aspects of modern music, focusing mainly on the works of Feldman and the guitarist Scott Fields. McGrath’s book isn’t the first to deal with music and Beckett, but it is an important step forward in that area.
Through email, I asked Dr. McGrath to discuss a few of the ideas in his book.
Your book opens with a discussion on music and literature, how the two subjects have both intertwined and split apart at various times in history. Starting with Gotthold Lessing’s ideas of Nacheinander (“art forms, such as music and poetry, which required the passing of time for complete comprehension”) versus Nebeneinander (art forms such as painting and sculpture “in which the full picture is presented at once”), you cover the history of the attempts at classification in the arts, eventually leading to the Dick Higgins term of “intermedia” for “works which fall conceptually between media that are already known.”
I was very intrigued by the idea of using space & time to differentiate between these ideas. How does the work of Beckett align with these ideas? How does his work ignore or resist these ideas of classifications?
Yes, these were terms that Beckett was familiar with. We see evidence of his studies of Lessing’s categories in Beckett’s German Diaries, notebooks that have survived of his travels in Germany during his formative years. James Joyce actually employs the terms in the “Proteus” chapter of Ulysses as Stephen Dedalus ponders Lessing’s categories. Many of the Modernists broke down these supposed dividing lines, blurring the boundaries between media and deconstructing aesthetic purism in general—this was protean, transformative work. Beckett’s world brings to mind a very particular space and place, both a place and a non-place. His work really explores these liminal territories, being and not being, knowing and not knowing, and foregrounding binaries is a large part of his aesthetic. His incorporation of ideas from music and music philosophy in his work is for me the most interesting example of this in the field we call Word and Music Studies.
In Chapter 2, you introduce the idea of repetition in music and literature. You reject the idea that repetition of the same material is always heard the same way, arguing instead that each repetition is framed by our previous encounter with the material, that each repetition leads to a “rehearing that further engages our faculties of memory and both conscious, and unconscious, familiarisation.” You discuss the use of repetition in the history of European classical music, giving as examples the opening theme of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, the use of binary and ternary forms (rondos, scherzos, minuets), the use of repetition in fugues and canons, the way motives are developed through transpositions and retrogrades of the original theme, and the use of leitmotifs in Wagner, leading up to the use of repetition in the 20th century by figures such as Steve Reich and Terry Riley. As examples of repetition in literature you offer the common use of alliteration and internal rhyme schemes in poetry, quoting Stamos Metzidakis: “the new is always seen in terms of the old, the unknown in terms of the known. Repetition is that process which allows the reader to grasp any meaning whatsoever.”
The idea of time comes up again. “The ‘future present’ is engaged in the time we take to read the temporal form of a poem or novel, or indeed sit to watch a play. We compare the specific differences in what we perceive in relation to what we have experiences before, while these new repetitions become the recollections of future experiences.” More specifically, at the end of the chapter you introduce the idea of “semantic saturation” or “semantic satiation,” quoting a “study of brain processes and semantic transformation, the destabilization of word meaning through repetition is analogous to that of retinal image as it starts to disappear.”
Repetition is such a clear theme in the works of Beckett, especially the later, post-World War II works. How does Beckett utilize repetition and time to convey his ideas? How does the use of repetition influence the perception of the reader or the performer?
Repetition is everywhere. It has had a bad reputation historically, only really getting the attention it deserves recently. Rather than being seen as something to avoid or hide, artists in the 20th century began to foreground it. The work of Gilles Deleuze and Jacques Derrida did much to draw attention to the positive transformative aspects of repetition. If there is one indisputable thing about repetition at the reception level, it is that “exact” repetition doesn’t exist. Every time a note is repeated it is changed.
I suggest that Beckett’s use of extensive repetition endows his later work with what I term “semantic fluidity”—his texts become free of explicit meaning and instead can be read more like music. Beckett enjoyed Arthur Schopenhauer and in his examination of Marcel Proust—Beckett’s first published work—he considered In Search of Lost Time in terms of Schopenhauerian aesthetics. Music is seen as the “catalytic element” in the work, and the juxtaposition of “intelligible” and “inexplicable” elements in the work is equated with the German Romantic philosopher’s view of music as the highest art form for its lack of explicitness, its non-representational aspects, in comparison with literature and the visual arts.
You mention other composers who have worked with Beckett’s ideas and words (Philip Glass, Luciano Berio, Heinze Hollinger, amongst others) but you argue the largest influence of Beckett in classical music can be seen in the works of Morton Feldman, specifically in the pieces Neither (1987), Words and Music (1987), and in Feldman’s last work, For Samuel Beckett (1987). Neither contains the only text Beckett ever wrote specifically to be set to music (and mailed to Feldman on a postcard). What is it about Beckett’s sense of time, his use of space (silence), and his ideas of repetition, that resonated with Feldman? How is this resonance reflected and explored in Feldman’s work?
Well, Beckett did include music from time to time. His favourites, Franz Schubert and Ludwig van Beethoven, appear in a number of works—All that Fall, Ghost Trio, etc. I understand the author’s engagement with music in three key ways. First, this employment of pre-existent or newly composed music in the texts—music by his cousin John is also worth noting here, but also the addition of a notated threne by the author in the pivotal novel Watt. The second category is structural “musical” devices such as the da capo in a number of Beckett works—the famous Mercer description of Waiting for Godot as a play in which “nothing happens, twice” for instance. Thirdly, and what most interested me, was this philosophical fascination with music that Beckett had from an aesthetic point of view. My concept of “semantic fluidity” stems in part, I imagine, from being a musician myself who was attracted to Beckett’s work early on—it made an impact on my ear. Beckett creates texts that act more like music.
It may be right to describe the Beckett-Feldman collaboration as the author’s largest influence in “classical” music (a term I dislike for the most part) but I’m not interested in superlatives here as much as the real fruit of the work. These artists seemed to share many key interests and really manage to complement one another. Beckett did collaborate with Marcel Mihalovici—John Calder recounts how the author sat at the piano making suggestions for the opera based around Krapp’s Last Tape. The author’s views towards his texts being set to music did fluctuate over his career somewhat and some of the works certainly have such an innate musicality that to set them traditionally wouldn’t make sense.
Beckett’s work had a big impact on Feldman. Both disliked opera, which made their collaboration on one particularly interesting. The result was a one-act “anti-opera,” a monodrama with no drama. The lack of staging foregrounds the real focus—the human condition. Feldman’s music really echoes the comings and goings of the text. Their other collaboration, Words and Music, is such a powerful play. Beckett explores the philosophical issues here and the liminal space between the media by making the Music character (Bob) actual music. Feldman’s contribution, the music character in that play is perhaps the most emotive Romantic material he composed, a reflection of his respect for Beckett’s stage directions – and all the better for it in the context of the meta-musical battle of the play.
In the last chapter, you introduce the idea of “Improvising Beckett,” specifically in the work of guitarist Scott Fields. Fields has released two albums based on Beckett’s works, Beckett (Clean Feed, 2007) and Samuel (New World Records, 2009), with a third, Barclay, due in September of this year, also on Clean Feed. Fields uses a quartet of guitar, cello, saxophone, and percussion to explore Beckett’s ideas. Beckett was often against the use of improvisation in his plays, wanting his actors to adhere strictly to his text and rhythms as written, to the point that Beckett was known to bring a metronome with him to rehearsal, yet Beckett’s ideas of rhythm, repetition, and space (silence) lend themselves quite well to the practice of improvisation. How do Fields and his cohorts transfer these ideas to the world of musical improvisation? How is Beckett’s idea of selflessness reflected in these works? How does the act of improvisation expand our ideas of what Beckett’s works can be?
Beckett’s plays are absolutely not for theatre improvisation. The texts are meticulously composed, yet they give the effect of being through-composed or improvised on stage, which really attracted me. They require a great deal from actors, Whitelaw described the physical and emotional toll it took on her. There is of course a connection here with how Feldman stretches both the performers and audience with pieces like String Quartet No. 2. Improvisation is a big part of my life as a musician and many musicians have been drawn to him from that world. I wanted to explore this phenomenon. Fields’ approach painstakingly sets each individual word to a specific note. It is instrumental music but the distilled qualities remain. Not I is one I particularly liked. There’s this collision between a protagonist in trauma whose sense of self is negated, and the scoring of this text into a silenced (instrumental) quartet of players: the result is a beautiful circle of repetition and translation. The Fields approach combines this strict formal aesthetic that Beckett designed with improvised sections—a fascinating conflict of these elements. I liked this idea of Beckett avoiding the personal pronoun in a play about a frantic self in turmoil while Fields further fragments this self in a form of music that is often equated with losing oneself.