The most significant fact about radio drama is also the most obvious one: you can’t see it. Considered as genre, it approaches this invisibility as an opportunity to be explored, not an obstacle to be overcome. In this respect it resembles music as much as it does its theatrical predecessor. While, at a concert you see the music being performed, you don’t see the music itself. All of Samuel Beckett’s radio plays are radiophonic in this sense: Words and Music consummately so.
Origins and concept
Two things about Words and Music struck me from the very beginning. First, the play requires not one but two authors, and one of these is a composer. Samuel Beckett had relinquished his usual meticulous control over half the play to a collaboration with someone else. Second, in creating the text for the collaboration, Beckett deliberately set out to create a play made specifically for radio.
Words and Music was written for a particular occasion, and the circumstances prompting it clarify both its collaborative requirement and its radiophonic specificity. It originated in a BBC commission not to Samuel Beckett but to his cousin John Beckett, a composer, conductor, and highly valued presence in the BBC music department who had written music to accompany readings of Beckett’s texts on the radio and had previously created a score for Beckett’s mime, Actes sans paroles (1955). The BBC commission was intended to give John Beckett a music/text collaboration designed specifically for the radio, with Samuel Beckett the obvious choice for providing the text. Their collaboration on the stage mime in which music accompanied wordless visible action would then have a radio play as an invisible verbal ‘sequel’ in which music collaborated with words rather than accompanied them. Since Samuel Beckett had already demonstrated his grasp of specifically radiophonic drama with the remarkable success of his first radio play, All That Fall (1957), the BBC hoped for another success story from a collaboration between John and Samuel Beckett.
Under increasing pressure in the face of audiences moving to television in the early 1960s, BBC radio sought to validate radio drama as itself a genre-specific and serious artform, and not merely a form of popular entertainment, or vehicle for national and, indeed, worldwide, broadcast of classic drama (such as Shakespeare) and contemporary stage plays. Whether directly or indirectly, the justifications for radio drama owed something to Arthur Schopenhauer’s influential claim that music’s universal, ineffable, non-referential character made it the highest artform.1
In The World as Will and Idea, Schopenhauer argues that music is the supreme artform because, not being language dependent, it is more universal, and as ‘embodied will’ speaks directly to the emotions, thus at least momentarily releasing auditors from the endless and endlessly frustrating eternal striving of the will into the respite of the realm of pure ideas.
The inexpressible depth of all music, by virtue of which it floats past us as a paradise quite familiar and yet eternally remote, and is so easy to understand and yet so inexplicable, is due to the fact that it reproduces all the emotions of our innermost being, but entirely without reality and remote from its pain.2
Considered as the heard but unseen verbal artform closest to music, radiophonic drama added specificity to this ineffability that listeners could respond to individually according to their own imagination, because undistracted by the concrete, reductive particularities of a drama visible on stage or screen. The Schopenhauerian defence of radio drama was that, like music, being pure sound, it acted directly on the feelings and emotions of the listener, but by engaging the world, rather than, as music does, transcending it.
Samuel Beckett was better prepared to understand the context from which such a defence emerged than anyone at the BBC would have realized at the time. His life-long admiration of Schopenhauer’s philosophy dates from 1930, when he was an exchange lecteur at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris and read Schopenhauer in preparation for his monograph on Proust (published in 1931).3 Beckett confided to his close friend Thomas MacGreevy that he found Schopenhauer an ‘intellectual justification of unhappiness – the greatest that has ever been attempted’.4
Schopenhauer’s view of words as incapable of the transcendence that is the essence of music, is the conflict that drives Words and Music:
It is an accidental circumstance that [the human voice] serves for the communication of concepts, and incidentally, of course, music can make use of this circumstance in order to enter into a relationship with poetry. But it must never make this the main thing … The words are and remain for the music a foreign extra of secondary value, as the effect of tones is incomparably more powerful, more infallible, and more rapid than that of the words. If these are incorporated into music, therefore, they must of course occupy only an entirely secondary position, and adapt themselves completely to it […] but through the addition of the words, we receive also their objects, the motives that give rise to that feeling.5
Samuel Beckett’s text for the collaborative ‘piece for voice and music’ portrays the triumph of music by using Arthur Schopenhauer’s conception of music as ‘scaffolding’ in much the same spirit that he would later describe his use of Berkeley’s idealism in Film: ‘No truth value attaches to above, regarded as of merely structural and dramatic convenience’.6
No other radio drama had taken advantage of the unseen medium’s unique ability to create a dialogue between the music and words out of which the play is made by personifying them into characters with distinct personalities, moods, egos, and emotions. Bob (the name given music) includes not only the conductor, ensemble, and score that one sees at a concert, but also the entire process of creating the music that takes place in the mind of the composer, which can be conveyed but not portrayed. Similarly, Joe (the name given to words) includes not only a performance of the words but also the authorial act of creating them, of verbalizing the unverbalized, thus bringing it into being. The play dramatizes the initially reluctant efforts of these two characters to co-operate under the duress of Croak, their imperious, though ineffectual, club-wielding master – an old man seeking erotic satisfaction from their collaboration. Despite themselves, Bob and Joe are drawn into creating an emotional climax that neither could have achieved alone. Music is not merely ‘setting’ a verbal text as if it were a jewel but is an enabling dramatic force momentarily drawing initially reluctant, resistant words out of his unfeeling pedantic banalities into a feelingful realm of poetic discourse. It is music, the Schopenhauerian higher art form, that rescues words from its own babble, albeit only momentarily, and not entirely by choice. Samuel Beckett created a text specific not only to radio but also to the occasion that had prompted it – a radiophonic ‘word/music tandem’ with music in the driver’s seat.
Commissioning Morton Feldman
Radio plays are routinely archived for possible rebroadcast, but rarely given a new production. When Words and Music was written and produced, the possibility for a new production disconnected from the occasion of its origin and with another composer supplying half of it would not even have been considered by either Beckett or the BBC. But, unfortunately, John Beckett’s music was withdrawn soon after the play’s premiere broadcasts in November 1962. Because Words and Music makes the composer a co-author who creates the most powerful character in the play, a change in composer necessarily results in a different play. But the play as originally co-written by John and Samuel Beckett became, and sadly remains, unproduceable.
Samuel Beckett was equivocal about whether we should do Words and Music with another composer at all. He was sad but certain that John Beckett’s music remained unavailable. But he had a fondness for the poem created in the play beginning, ‘Age is when to a man…’, which he could recite, exquisitely, from memory. So did I. Since Words and Music had been conceived by Martha Fehsenfeld to be part of a Beckett festival of American national broadcast premieres of all five of Beckett’s extant radio plays as part of the celebrations of the centenary of his birth in 1986,7 he was willing to discuss the possibility of a new score, and when I ventured that there might be some advantage to us in choosing an American composer, Beckett brightened and suggested Morton Feldman.
Feldman had previously turned Beckett’s very short prose-poem ‘Neither’ into a very long piece for the Rome Opera in 1976–77 which both amused and pleased him. The resonant creative affinity between the two artists is evident even in their first awkward encounter in Berlin in 1976 – as compiled from versions told by Morton Feldman to several people, among them myself:
BECKETT: (embarrassed) Mr Feldman, I don’t like opera.
FELDMAN: I don’t blame you!
BECKETT: I don’t like my words being set to music.
FELDMAN: I’m in complete agreement. In fact, it’s very seldom that I’ve used words. I’ve written a lot of pieces with voice, and they’re wordless.
BECKETT: (perplexed) But what do you want?
FELDMAN: I have no idea!
BECKETT: Why not use existing material [that he’d sent].
FELDMAN: I read them all […] they didn’t need music. I’m looking for the quintessence, something that just hovered.8
By way of illustration, Feldman showed Beckett his attempts to score some lines from Beckett’s script for Film.9 Beckett became interested and remarked that he had only one theme. Feldman asked if he might write it down. Beckett took Feldman’s music paper and wrote out the theme: ‘To and fro in shadow, from outer shadow to inner shadow. To and fro, between unattainable self, and unattainable non-self’. Beckett remarked that, ‘It would need a bit of work, wouldn’t it? Well if I get any further ideas on it, I’ll send them on to you’. Some ten days later, Feldman received one of Beckett’s cards with the handwritten text of ‘Neither’. Shortly thereafter, Beckett conveyed his impression of Feldman to his cousin John: ‘Met a very interesting American composer in Berlin, Morton Feldman […] He asked me for a short text, and I’ve contrived one. Heard his music in London quite by chance […] and liked it extremely’.10
I later learned that not long before my July 1985 meeting with Beckett, he and Feldman had discussed the possibility of Feldman setting another of Beckett’s texts. Beckett’s suggestion of Morton Feldman for a ‘fresh go’ of the play originally written to celebrate a composer would seem to have been an opportunity not only to accede to Mr Feldman’s request but as a way of paying tribute to him as well. Mr Feldman accepted with characteristic enthusiasm and genuine, almost awkward, humility. He had a profound respect for Mr Beckett and entered wholeheartedly into the project. They were both wary of literal, subservient collaborations. Hence their mutual contempt for opera. Both he and Beckett understood collaboration to mean each of them pursuing their involvement from within their own idiom ‘in a spirit not of reinforcement but of otherness’11 – as Beckett had once said with regard to John Beckett’s music for a broadcast of Molloy. This they had done with ‘Neither’, and Beckett had also done with the visual artist, Jasper Johns, for Foirades, resulting in a jointly signed edition of 33 etchings in which the design’s relation to Beckett’s pre-existing texts is not very clear and which Johns gave out as being personal.
From late 1985 until the recording sessions at the RCA studios in New York in March 1987, we would meet from time to time when Feldman was in New York, and in between discussed the play on the phone. We’re both talkers. We enjoyed doing so. I had prepared a script for him specifying and annotating the music cues in perhaps more literal/narrative fashion than I might do now. From his responses, I quickly learned to admire and respect how fully the Note Man knew the Word Man’s work.
MF: [In Beckett’s work] there’s really no way out. It’s beyond existentialism because existentialism is always looking for a way out. If they feel that God is dead, then long live humanity. […] I mean there’s always a substitute to save you in existentialism. But Beckett isn’t involved in that, because there’s nothing saving him. For example, the subject essentially of my opera, Neither, is to do with whether you’re in the shadow of understanding or non-understanding. Finally, you’re in the shadows. You’re not going to arrive at any understanding at all; you’re just left there holding this hot potato which is life.
I never liked anyone else’s approach to Beckett. I felt it was a little too easy; they were treating him as if he were 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. I think that’s what brought me to him. A kind of shared longing: this saturated, unending longing that he has, and that I have.
EF: So then, what was the ‘in’ to Words and Music?
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.12
All of Beckett’s radio plays are exquisitely musical, and in preparing I had asked him to read passages aloud to give me a sense of their rhythms, pace, and tonality as he heard them. What seemed to help Mr Feldman, both in person and on the phone, was for me to read sections of the text aloud to him, sometimes over and over, in as close as I could get to the way Beckett had done it for me. His main difficulty was the radical concisions imposed on the music. In the dialogue between words and music, I had timed the approximate duration of Joe’s words, and in general estimated somewhat longer cues allowing more scope for the music – as would be consistent with my view of Bob (Music) as the primary protagonist. In addition to a discussion, Beckett’s script helped define the parameters for establishing the balance between words and music. Beckett’s timing specifies one minute (1:00) for Music Cue 26: ‘Music: Rap of baton and warmly sentimental, about one minute’.13
Such brief cues maintained the dramatic balance in the back and forth between the two characters but were also kept flexible to act in response to the needs of the music as it developed. Feldman understood the intractable pull between the dramatic need for musical concision and the compositional need for musical elaboration all too well: and navigated them despite the fact that doing so was contrary to the direction in which his work had been evolving. While he was candid about the difficulties imposed by the time constraints, he was willing to cope with them because of his admiration for Beckett.
MF: I created a composite line of the first line of my scale, which was essentially my air. And then, musically, I tried to work within it. It was the first line that gave me his rhythm and pacing. And I hoped I would have a sense of the same proportion as he does.14
The conductor, Nils Vigeland, received the score scarcely a week before the recording sessions were to begin. Nils remarked that it represented a considerable break from anything Morton Feldman had done recently. It hearkened back to tonal, harmonic and lyrical strategies from much earlier more melodic, more mellifluous times – and collaborating with Beckett might well have altered the direction of his work – a possibility of which Feldman himself was aware. The musicians, all of them veteran interpreters of Feldman’s music, were excited by what it represented, and aware that he had done something moving and extraordinary – converting the restraints required by the play from an obstacle into an advantage.
The musical phrases were atonal and layered – suspended like the colours in a Jasper Johns painting (among the several abstract expressionist painters Feldman considered an inspiration); or perhaps like the subtle gradations of colour and texture of Mark Rothko, in honour of whom Feldman composed a work for the memorial chapel. There are layered repetitions of fragments and blends of atonal chords and harmonies.
Meanwhile there was casting. To my delight and relief, veteran ‘Beckett’ actors, David Warrilow and Alvin Epstein, who had performed magnificently in our Beckett Festival production of All That Fall (as Dan Rooney and Mr Slocum, respectively) were eager to continue with the series. We decided among ourselves that in Words and Music, David would play Joe (Words) and Alvin, Croak; with a kind of reversal in the Cascando yet to come in which Alvin would play Voice and David, Opener.15
I wondered how the devil was David supposed to perform intimately with music that neither he nor I had even heard until the first rehearsal. No way to anticipate or prepare. Morty said I shouldn’t worry. I worried. David and I met for a pre-rehearsal in which there was little more we could do beyond discussing the play and his character.
But there wasn’t a problem. Consistent with the dramaturgy of the piece in which the whole point is that Joe isn’t Music and can’t perform as music without becoming it, Feldman hadn’t treated the poem at the emotional and dramatic climax of the drama as the lyrics for a composed song to be sung in the tradition, say, of the German lieder of which we both knew Beckett to be so fond. Nor was there the obligatory climactic aria for the diva, as in conventional opera. Joe improvises and vocalises the text, spoken in the tempo and rhythm of the music; responsive to Bob (the ensemble) but without actually singing. Morty hadn’t set the poem: he had created a musical context for a collaboration in which the poem emerges. We rehearsed the poem according to its own requirements. David performed as a character made out of words improvising the poem under the influence of music and marked his script for getting the critical cues from the conductor. He listened to the musicians rehearsing the score accompanying the poem. Then rehearsed it with them. By the second rehearsal – consisting mostly of practice run-throughs – everything was working together very nicely indeed.
Croak is the club-wielding master who brings the two servants, Bob and Joe, together (in drafts he is referred to as ‘Old Man’s Whisper’, ‘Whisper’, ‘Senile Croak’, and, finally, ‘Croak’). He is under the illusion that he controls Bob and Joe (and, in the beginning, so are they). But while Croak is responsible for bringing them together, Bob and Joe’s collaborative success actually occurs despite him and, indeed, despite themselves. It begins when Bob and Joe ignore him and become increasingly absorbed in each other. After imposing the themes of Love and, when Love doesn’t work, Age, Croak becomes irrelevant to the collaboration that ensues. It is Bob and Joe who move the plot along. Allusions to William Butler Yeats, whose work and career was, of course, well known to Beckett, drift through the play, and in directing it, it helped me (and Al Epstein) to think of Croak as owing something to Yeats’s ‘The Tower’, which includes the lines:
Like some ancient Irish Earl, Croak is associated with a tower and, en route to a session with his comforts, sees a woman’s face on its stairs, crying out her name, ‘Lily!’ in the midst of the erotic poem being recited.
Many years after the recording sessions, it amused me to discover that Croak’s origin also owes something to a story about Hercules and the Dwarf from Arnold Geulincx – a post-Cartesian philosopher whom Beckett copied into his philosophy notes in the 1930s. The anecdote illustrates Geulincx’s maxim, ‘Ubi nihil vales, ibi nihil vales’: You shouldn’t attempt to do what you’re incapable of doing. The dwarf thinks he has the power to heft Hercules’s club by himself and thus compel obedience. Hercules unobtrusively helps him wield the club but allows the dwarf to believe that he’s actually doing it all by himself. Croak is desperate for a climactic sexual experience and hopes to achieve it by compelling Bob and Joe to address the themes of Love and the incapacity of Old Age. The theme of love fails and Croak substitutes Age, this time insisting that they work together. They try. Reluctantly at first. But when they begin to succeed, it is not because of threats from Croak but because each is attracted by the contribution of the other and, despite themselves, they are drawn further into collaborating. Music offers improvements for Words’ first line then suggests a direction to be followed by Words and revisions to enhance the sound of the words. They become indifferent to Croak and the threat of his club and increasingly enthralled by their intensifying collaboration. It conjures the face for Croak and music attempts to intensify the effect with ‘warmly sentimental’ music. Words, however, remains ‘cold’ to the invitation, but warms to an erotic night-time vision of an old man’s memory of a woman’s face from long ago. Over protests from Words, Music unsuccessfully attempts to sabotage the narrative. It draws an anguished ‘No!’ from Croak, causing Words to ‘change to poetic tone’, after which Music takes the lead again and makes a second effort at collaboration, offering ‘discreet suggestion(s)’ for the lines thus far, and the direction of the words to come. At the climax of the play, their collaboration – for which the emotive power is supplied by music – excites Croak: the face on the stairs that has caused him to be late for the session acquires the name ‘Lily!’ – an early paramour? – and results in an erotic description of the progress to her ‘wellhead’. Thus satisfied, Croak now oblivious, drops his Freudian signifier – uh, club – and shuffles off, leaving Bob and Joe to their own devices. Words’ attempts to get Music to cooperate in repeating the emotional experience are rudely rejected. Unable to continue on his own, Joe emits a ‘deep sigh’ at having been abandoned by both Croak and Bob. In Words and Music, ‘Music always wins’, Beckett told Katherine Worth.17
Music leads the way because, on Schopenhauerian grounds, it augurs relief from the endless frustrations of the will and desire. Long before Words and Music, Beckett had employed music as sexual metaphor in Murphy. Celia, Murphy’s girlfriend, will have to return to prostitution to support them if he doesn’t get a job:
‘Celia said that if he did not find work at once she would have to go back to hers. Murphy knew what that meant. No more music.’
This phrase is chosen with care, lest the filthy censors should lack an occasion to commit their filthy synecdoche.18
After ensemble rehearsals on Saturday 8 March, Words and Music was recorded in two sessions on Sunday 9 March 1987 in RCA Studio A, one of the most acoustically exquisite (tragically no longer existent) studios in New York. In a recording studio, performers can’t hear for themselves what they or the recording actually sound like. Throughout the recording sessions, for most of the time Morton Feldman and I sat together in the control room, the two of us intent on listening to the monitors and ensuring that we were satisfied with what we were hearing.
One of the pleasures of working with Morton Feldman was his acute ears and minute attention to acoustic detail. At one point, for example, he wanted softer mallets on the vibraphone. The problem was that he didn’t want to hear the attack but wanted the tone to slide imperceptibly into existence as from a bowed violin, and to hover in the decay. Michael Pugliese, percussionist and veteran performer of Feldman’s work, used a soft, padded mallet and more stroked than struck the vibes keys. RCA risked a rather expensive low impedance ribbon mike, intended for voice. Staying within pre-agreed sound levels and controls from the studio was crucial to the mic’s safety. Out of such meticulous teamwork was the day made. Whatever its merits, the resulting production of Words and Music was an extraordinarily integrated ensemble performance, and a meaningful collaborative experience for one and all – production crew, performers, technician, composer, director – that produced a satisfying result for Mr Beckett.
Tragically, Morton Feldman died soon thereafter (3 September 1987), but not before completing a final orchestral sequel to Words and Music, entitled simply, ‘For Samuel Beckett’, which developed out of the radio play and premiered at the Holland Music Festival that June. In the interview with him directly after the recording sessions, he left a moving account of his affinity for Samuel Beckett’s work, as we have seen above.
What I hear in Morton Feldman’s music and what has drawn me to Samuel Beckett is an aching feeling of loneliness without regret as the condition necessary for creating such work. It is tinged by a sadness that the effort must inevitably fail in the attempt to achieve any ultimate transcendence or revelation or profound understanding of the human condition. It is this shared sense of longing, I think, that drew Morton Feldman to Samuel Beckett’s words, and that Samuel Beckett responded to in Morton Feldman’s music.
Samuel Beckett and Morton Feldman
Words and Music
Directed and Produced by Everett Frost
Words [Joe]: David Warrilow
Croak: Alvin Epstein
Music [Bob]: Bowery Ensemble
Conductor: Nils Vigeland
Flutes: Rachel Rudich & Barbara Held
Piano: Bunita Marcus
Violins: Laura Seaton & Tina Pelikan
Cello: Sarah Carter
Percussion: Michael Pugliese
Associate Producer: Faith Wilding
Recording Engineer: Mike Moran
Recorded RCA Studios, New York, 8–9 March 1987 for the Beckett Festival of Radio Plays, originated by Martha Fehsenfeld
A co-production of Voices International and WDR Cologne, major funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts