Heard in the Dark, One evening and others by Samuel Beckett

Samuel Beckett short prose pieces from the 1970s.

  • Heard in the Dark 1
  • Heard in the Dark 2
  • One Evening
  • As the story was told (1973)
  • The Cliff (1975)
  • neither (1976)

Heard in the Dark 1

The two Heard in the Darks were extracts from the work in progress which was eventually published in 1980 as Company. These two extracts were published as stand-alone pieces in literary magazines.

Heard In the Dark 1 begins with unusual syntactical clarity i.e. readable sentences:

The last time you went out the snow lay on the ground.

It depicts a consciousness ‘lying in the dark’ remembering taking a spring walk in the snow. Because Beckett is determinedly anti-romantic he depicts the snow with lambs frolicking in it but also ‘strewn with red placentae’. the blood-soaked reality of farming reminded me of Ted Hughes’s many poems of farm life and lambing, from Moortown in particular.

He knows the walk inside out, could virtually do it with his eyes shut. With characteristically Beckettian obsessiveness about numbers he says, ‘you need normally from eighteen hundred to two thousand paces depending on your humour and the state of the ground.’

He used to do the walk with his father but not any more: ‘Your father’s shade is not with you any more. It fell out long ago.’ But now the walk is getting harder.

The same hundred yards you used to cover in a matter of three to four minutes may now take you anything from fifteen to twenty.

This is because the character has, as if in a nightmare, encountered what you could call The Beckett Problem which is simply: he can’t go on. Of his feet, he asks:

Can they go on? Or better, Shall they go on?

Now he lies in the dark remembering the scene and the sense of slow decline. At the very end he looks back expecting to see the usual straight line of footprints in the snow. He thinks he’s walking in a straight line, ‘a beeline’, ‘taking the course you always take’. But looking back at his footprints, he realises he’s been walking in a great swerve, anti-clockwise or ‘withershins’. And that’s the end of the fragment.

This prompts two thoughts:

1. ‘withershins’ is a Scottish dialect word and he was fond of these abstruse terms for direction, also using ‘deasil’ in several works from this time, which is a Gaelic word meaning ‘right-hand-wise, turned toward the right; clockwise.’

2. The Faber Companion To Samuel Beckett suggests the counter-clockwise circular movement is a nod to the same direction taken by Dante in the Inferno. Dante isn’t mentioned anywhere, but the piece is obviously yet another journey, though that makes it sound too glamorous, it’s yet another laborious trudge and in this fairly basic way lots of Beckett’s prose pieces can be related to Dante’s Divine Comedy, insofar as they are often about people trudging through bleak, inhospitable landscapes and/or bodies contorted into uncomfortable or painful positions, which is what the Inferno is packed with.

The obvious difference is that in the Divine Comedy, Virgil carefully explains why the people they see are in the plight they’re in, there’s always a good reason and the punishment generally matches the sinner’s sins. Not only that, but the individual is generally emblematic if wider categories of sin, which themselves sit within a carefully worked-out framework of Christian reward and punishment. In other words, The Divine Comedy overflows with meaning and purpose.

Beckett is like Dante with absolutely all the meaning, purpose and understandability stripped away, leaving inexplicable trudging, crawling, contortions and punishments, for no reason.

Heard in the Dark 2

Another fragment from Company. Again, the person being addressed as ‘you’ is lying on their back in the dark and remembering a ‘cloudless May day’ when a woman joins him in ‘the summer house’. Being Beckett, we are immediately given, not the romantic, emotional or psychological aspects of this encounter, but the precise physical dimensions of the house:

Entirely of logs. Both larch and fir. Six feet across. Eight from floor to vertex. Area twenty-four square feet to furthest decimal. Two small multicoloured lights vis-à-vis. Small stained diamond panes. Under each a ledge.

Here his father liked to retire after Sunday lunch with a glass of punch and read. When he chuckled, the person addressing themselves as ‘you’ liked to chuckle along. It appears to be a disarmingly simple memory from his boyhood.

Unexpectedly, the narrative gives a major insight into Beckett’s obsession with numbers and permutations and calculations: it’s therapeutic!

Simple sums you find a help in times of trouble… Even still in the timeless dark you find figures a comfort.

And details his boyhood calculations of the size and surface and cubic volume of the summer house. Escape from feeling into maths. Hah! As if Beckett has made what appears to be a psychological coping strategy into an entire literary aesthetic.

So no surprise that he then devotes a slightly demented amount of time thinking through the issues of measurement and scale and maths triggered by the fact that when ‘she’ arrives at the summerhouse where he’s waiting, her eyes are at his own eye-level even though he’s sitting down within. Pondering this problem requires far more text than anything at all to do with ‘her’ or with his feelings.

She must have entered the summerhouse because he looks at her breasts and then at her abdomen. They are both bigger than he remembered. Could she be pregnant, ‘without your having asked for as much as her hand?’ They both sit on in the dead still of his memory, remembering it, there, as he lies in the dark.

Well, it seems, on the face of it, to be a surprisingly straightforward and surprisingly poignant boyhood memory (father chuckling) mixed and blended by a young adult memory (a presumed girlfriend) on the family property back in Ireland (which was substantial and comfortable).

It is made into Beckett material via the obsessive calculation of shape and volume and then the characteristically oblique paragraph about her possible position in order for them to have the same eye level etc. But the basic content is amazingly old school and sentimental. Beckett was 74 by the time Company was published.

One Evening

One Evening is a prose poem related to the long piece Ill Seen Ill Said. It describes a body lying on the ground in a green greatcoat where it is found by an old lady dressed in black. Once again, the style represents a massive backwards step away from the radical prose style of How It Is, back to something vastly more conventional and conservative.

He was found lying on the ground. No one had missed him. No one was looking for him. An old woman found him.

She was looking for flowers. It is lambing time (lambs, hmm – like the lambs in Heard In the Dark and therefore in Company also). The text gets a bit more adventurous with the narrator commenting that this or that detail ought to be like this or that – as if we’re overhearing the author thinking aloud about his piece.

He wore a greatcoat in spite of the time of year. Hidden by the body a long row of buttons fastened it all the way down. Buttons of all shapes and sizes. Worn upright the skirts swept the ground. That seems to hang together.

When the phrase is repeated we realise it is one of those words or key phrases, whose repetition Beckett uses to build up the strange mechanical atmosphere of his prose.

Were a third party to chance that way theirs were the only bodies he would see. First that of the old woman standing. Then on drawing near it lying on the ground. That seems to hang together.

Attention switches to the old lady who has been cooped up all day by the rain. Now it has ceased she hurries out to take advantage of the light before sunset. She is wearing the black she adopted as a young widow. It is to lay flowers on her husband’s grave that she has come out to pick them.

This is another example of the paradox that, although much of Beckett’s technique was pioneeringly avant-garde in the 1960s and 1970s, so much of the actual content of those was immensely conservative and old fashioned. His plays and prose are highly experimental but often, when there is a discernable content, actually describe old ladies and old joxers from his youth in deeply rural Ireland. Beckett has been called ‘the last Modernist’, or one of the first post-Modernists – but a lot of the content has a late Victorian feel. An old lady dressed in black picking flowers to put on the grave of the husband who died when she was young sounds like something from Thomas Hardy.

Thus the figure of an old lady in black out picking flowers at sunset literally stumbling over the corpse of a young man dressed in a green longcoat face down in the grass of a field forms what the narrator calls a ‘tableau vivant if you will’. The whole thing has a late-Victorian feel, it might be a Symbolist painting from the 1890s, The Old Lady and The Suicide, or, as the Faber Companion suggests, a nocturne in green (the coat and the grass) and black (the old widow’s mourning) and yellow (the scattered flowers).

As the story was told (1973)

A short prose piece composed in August 1973. Like many Beckett prose pieces it simply begins and he sets down words and images and then you have the strong sense that the initial formulations then have to be explained and create an ongoing momentum of their own, one detail leading to another, which needs explanation, and so the text ramifies outwards like a glass of wine spilt on a tablecloth.

As the story was told me I never went near the place during sessions. I asked what place and a tent was described at length, a small tent the colour of its surroundings. Wearying of this description I asked what sessions and these in their turn were described, their object, duration, frequency and harrowing nature.

The narrator puts up his hand and asks where he is and is told in ‘a small hut in a grove some two hundred yards away’.

The narrator is, as so often, lying down. (Beckett protagonists rarely do much more than trudge around barren landscapes, or sit cramped in claustrophobic skullscapes, or lie in bed; you can’t help thinking that these are the common physical postures of The Writer – they never, for example, run, shower, bath, drive a car, catch a plane, sit on a train. No. Trudge, Sit or Lying down, preferably in the dark, these are the Beckett positions).

The dimensions of the hut remind him of the summer house he spent so much time in as a boy. Aha. As described in Heard In The Dark 2 and Company. The penny drops and I realise that it is not just the obsession with measuring and counting and calculating displayed by so many Beckett characters which reflects his own coping strategy –

Simple sums you find a help in times of trouble

… but that maybe the umpteen cramped spaces in which so many of his figures find themselves – especially in the experimental prose works like Imagination Dead Imagine or All Strange Away or The Lost Ones – are imaginative recreations of the warm and cosy, womb-like feel of the actual summerhouse in the grounds of the big Beckett family home in Cooldrinagh in the Dublin suburb of Foxrock where he spent so many happy boyhood hours.

Thus the cabin the narrator finds himself in now:

had the same five log walls, the same coloured glass, the same diminutiveness, being not more than ten feet across and so low of ceiling that the average man could not have held himself erect in it, though of course there was no such difficulty for the child.

The narrator describes himself as sitting in a cane chair with armrests, like the man in Fizzle 7 who sits at an open window facing south in a small upright wicker chair with armrests. There is a ripe slice of surrealism or Absurdity when a hand comes through the door and passes him a sheet of paper which he carefully tears into four pieces and gives back to the hand which withdraws.

And the arbitrary or contrived nature of the piece is made overt in the next passage:

A little later the whole scene disappeared. As the story was told me the man succumbed in the end to his ill-treatment, though quite old enough at the time to die naturally of old age.

What old man? Only in the last sentences can we maybe piece together that an old man was being subjected to ‘harrowing’ sessions – presumably, tortured – and would have been released if only he could find the right answers to the questions. The narrator asked what the old man was required to say, but no, they cannot tell him.

So there are two familiar Beckett tropes: the confined space or room within which the narrator is, initially lying down, but then finds himself sitting; and someone being tortured, as in Rough For Radio 2.

The Cliff (1975)

La Falaise was a short prose poem Beckett wrote in French in 1975. An English translation was commissioned from Edith Fournier so it could be included as The Cliff in the 1995 Complete Prose. It’s so short I can quote it in full:

Window between sky and earth nowhere known. Opening on a colourless cliff. The crest escapes the eye wherever set. The base as well. Framed by two sections of sky forever white. Any hint in the sky at a land’s end? The yonder ether? Of sea birds no trace. Or too pale to show. And then what proof of a face? None that the eye can find wherever set. It gives up and the bedlam head takes over. At long last first looms the shadow of a ledge. Patience it will be enlivened with mortal remains. A whole skull emerges in the end. One alone from amongst those such residua evince. Still attempting to sink back its coronal into the rock. The old stare half showing within the orbits. At times the cliff vanishes. Then off the eye flies to the whiteness verge upon verge. Or thence away from it all.

It demonstrates several things. First, that although the Faber Companion calls it a prose poem, there is nothing sensual or passionate about the prose. It is a very cold prose poem.

The word ‘skull’ crystallises the mood, and the whiteness of the cliff itself echoes the white skulls and white cells and white rotunda inside which the protagonists of All Strange Away and Imagination Dead Imagine found themselves, and which prompted critics to use the word ‘skullscapes’ to describe them. Although out of doors, this short piece feels like another skullscape.

The use of ‘residua’ (the plural of ‘residuum’ which is simply a more formal way of saying ‘residue’) is like a hangover from his earlier writings which he liked to stuff with arcane and obscure terminology, and has a double effect: insofar as it is a scientific term, it adds to the sense of clinical detachment and unemotion; but as an unnecessarily pedantic word it introduces a whiff of satire, self-deprecating satire against the author.

neither (1976)

Short enough to quote in its entirety:

to and fro in shadow from inner to outershadow

from impenetrable self to impenetrable unself by way of neither

as between two lit refuges whose doors once neared gently close, once turned away from gently part again

beckoned back and forth and turned away

heedless of the way, intent on the one gleam or the other

unheard footfalls only sound

till at last halt for good, absent for good from self and other

then no sound

then gently light unfading on that unheeded neither

unspeakable home

Another meditation, brief as a prayer, about the gap or space between self and unself, I and not I, the immediate consciousness which experiences and the posterior consciousness which reflects, remembers, re-assembles experience into a permanent flow of memories, thoughts, decisions, neither of which, in Beckett’s bleak phenomenology, can provide a resting place or home.

The word ‘footfalls’ anticipates or echoes the name and the subject of the stage play he wrote in the same year.

In fact, Beckett wrote neither to be set to music by the American modernist composer Morton Feldman and described its subject, living in the shadow between self and non-self as ‘the one theme in his life’.


Related link

Samuel Beckett’s works

An asterisk indicates that a work was included in the Beckett on Film project, which set out to make films of all 19 of Beckett’s stage plays using leading actors and directors. The set of 19 films was released in 2002 and most of them can be watched on YouTube.

The Second World War 1939 to 1945

*Waiting For Godot 1953 Play

Awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature 1969

The Rest Is Noise 12: New World Order

To the South Bank for the twelfth and final weekend of the year-long festival about 20th century classical music, The Rest Is Noise 12: New World Order, designed to bring the story up to date, covering classical music from the 1990s to the present, and beyond.

As usual each day was stuffed with lectures and workshops and chamber concerts and film screenings so that at any one point you had half a dozen items to choose from, forcing you to make some pretty hard choices. I went to see:

Saturday 7 December

10-11am Breakfast with Adams Good-humoured Irish composer John Browne spent an hour explaining the background to, and musical structure of, John Adams’ opera-oratorio El Niño. JA is, apparently, very political, into issues of social justice, as referenced in his big operas Nixon in China, The Death of Klinghoffer (which I went to see last year), Dr Atomic etc. El Niño is an opera-oratorio on the Christmas story, using classic Bible, but also Spanish and south American, texts, many by women, favouring the woman’s point of view.

Adams has joked that he is a ‘recovering minimalist’ and, on first hearing, sounds like a more adaptable version of Steve Reich, with the same highly repetitive ostinatos. His music tends to stay on one chord for a long time, underlain by a single repetitive pulse, but with constantly changing time signatures. He has openly stated that he wants to reconnect with popular music and the street, and so his music tends to be harmonic, the chords are simple triads and, when they do change, it’s often by simply changing one note in the chord. Happy to use pop rhythms.

Brown quotes Brian Eno who described the shift to musical minimalism as a shift from Narrative to Landscape, from arcs and lines of melody, to static, repetitive sounds. This echoes what we heard a few weeks ago about Philip Glass, his study of Indian music, the hypnotic affect of endless repetition. For the now traditional audience participation in these sessions Browne got half a dozen volunteers onstage to each play a different simple motif on a xylophone and then do it together to create our very own piece of minimalist music. My son did the same at school when he was 14. It was great fun, and really explained how this type of sound is created.

At the very end he got the pianist to play a minute of Schoenberg, partly to make the point that Adams wrote a riposte to Schoenberg’s 1911 Modernist treatise, Harmonielehre, also called Hamonielehre. To be honest I preferred the space and delicacy of the Schoenberg to any of the minimalism I’ve heard over the past few weeks.

11.15-12.15 Keynote lecture: Pankaj Mishra ‘One of the world’s leading intellectuals’, Mishra was young, relaxed and phenomenally wideranging, effortlessly using examples from the economics, politics, arts and media of just about every nation on earth, but tending to focus particularly on America, Europe, India, China, Russia and Latin America. His message: The Decline of the West has been much exaggerated (isn’t it always?); the West still leads the world on countless fronts. But western arrogance at ‘winning’ the Cold War led to hubris and arrogance and delusions. Only very slowly have we realised what the invaded countries of Iraq and Afghanistan really thought of us; meanwhile hundreds of thousands died in our crusades. The End of History rhetoric after the collapse of the Soviet Union was childishly naïve. (Yup.) In the twenty years since:

  • The liberal capitalist model of economics and society which American ideologues thought had triumphed has in fact been thoroughly rejected by China, Russia and left-leaning Latin America.
  • The widespread failure of the growth model, in fact the realisation that Globalisation leads to growing inequality and to the gutting of entire cities, regions or even countries (eg Greece), has led to a widespread sense of helplessness, powerlessness and disillusion.

Globalisation doesn’t lead to Utopia; a crowded world leads to greater repression, loss of freedoms. But what, asked voices from the audience, is the alternative to Vampire Capitalism? Well, in part, the reassertion of localism and for communities to take their destinies into their own hands. Ah, but then our politicians would have to want to help us…

12.30-1.30 Best of British Concert given by the Royal College of Music’s New Perspective ensemble conducted by Timothy Lines.

  • Mark-Anthony Turnage Two memorials for solo soprano saxaphone
  • Oliver Knussen Two Organa
  • George Benjamin Viola, Viola[unrelenting to begin with, this ended with quiet plucked strings]
  • Mark-Anthony Turnage On All Fours [chaotic, with jazz rhythms sort of emerging in the middle]
  • Oliver Knussen Elegiac Arabesques
  • Simon Holt Lilith

2.15-3.15 Alex Ross The man himself, author of The Rest Is Noise, the book which inspired this festival, gave the fourth of his keynote lectures, covering from the 1990s to the present day. In fact the simple message is there’s too much. No one person can encompass all the music the human race is making. No one person can even know about all the ‘classical’ and crossover music being made in the West, where anyone with a laptop can now write a concerto. Instead Ross gave us four individuals who strike him, told a little about them and played extended clips:

In an era when every piece of music has been bought up and turned into searchable databases, maybe contemporary classical music’s very exclusion from the mainstream guarantees that it is still a place with some kind of authenticity, some kind of ‘soul’. (You certainly can’t find some of the music he and other today mentioned (or played) anywhere on the internet, not on YouTube, no on Spotify; so if impossible to find or listen to, accessible only to the tiny numbers of people who go to see it live, means ‘authentic’, lots of this stuff has it in spades.)

3.30-4.30 Listen to This Oxford professor Jonathan Cross kicked off with a track from J Lo, music unmistakably for the body with cover art selling her hot body and alluring looks. Cut to Stockhausen or K Sto, as Cross wittily called him. Classic Modernist: a man, an intellectual, isolated, heroic, at the cutting edge, regardless of audience, a high priest, of a new religion whose work is to be performed in reverential silence in buildings created for the purpose by orchestras dressed in black. Compare Birtwistle whose Pan so upset the Proms audience back in 1995. Same set-up: an intellectual man, no compromises to the audience, in the setting of the patriarchal Albert Hall, dressed in centuries-old outfits, with a heroic male conductor at the helm.

Cross contrasted this with the growing situation since 1990, post-Modernism. Where there had been one master narrative, now there are countless stories. Where white western men dominated, now there are more women composers, and from all round the world. Globalisation.

Further – Digital technology enables anonymous, collaborative and vast outpourings of amateur music, as with the all-women collective Lappetites. Further still, modern technology puts the listener in charge. The ipod leads us to the edge of the ‘death of the composer’, as the listener chooses how where and when to consume music. No more Albert Hall except for die-hard traditionalists!

In the 50s Milton Babbitt published an article with the notorious title Who cares if you listen. Cross postulates a spectrum from Babbitt at one end representing the ne plus ultra of avant-garde extremism, the intellectual sound scientist trying to remove the audience from music; and at the other extreme John Cage who, with his techniques of indeterminacy, sought to remove the composer from the process and liberate sounds to be themselves.

5-6pm I should have gone to see a concert of Knussen and Weir but I needed a break so went to hear Professor Susan Greenfield deliver a high-speed version of the case she has presented in articles and letters, that the digital age presents real threats to the brains of the young. Environment stimulates brain growth, which is why even identical twins aren’t identical. Brains continue growing and making connections up to the age of 16 and beyond. These connections build up associations between thoughts, experiences, feelings, it is these associations which create meaning and significance. All this is threatened by flat screens which promote addictive, game-playing, immediately rewarded behaviour with no depth or significance, which prioritise information processing without finding depth of meaning. Information, not wisdom.

Read more on her website, which includes a long reading list of the scientific research.

6-7pm London Philharmonic Orchestra Foyle Future Firsts conduced by Paul Hoskins performed:

7.30-10pm London Philharmonic Orchestra: Classic Britannia Four classic compositions from the 1990s:

I liked the Turnage most because it was quiet. The other three were dominated by percussion, lots of banging, lots of glockenspiel, xylophone, wood blocks and tubular bells. The apparently random use of thin, weedy plinks and plonks is a cliche of modern classical music and, rather than be awed by the modernity of these pieces, I was dismayed by how much they embodied the worst cliches of the tradition, the reason so few people like this music.

Conclusion

A long and exhausting day but bursting with ideas and sounds which will take weeks if not months to digest. Sonically, the most obvious thing was the distinction between the British composers whose work we heard live, and the clips played by Cross and Ross. The clips were interesting and immediately attractive. I’m going to listen to more Haas and JL Adams.

Steve Reich: Radio Rewrite @ the Royal Festival Hall

Setting the scene The Royal Festival Hall is sold out. My son and I have remaindered seats in the Choir ie along the side of the stage which is close enough to the performers to read the sheet music. Amid the rustling and coughing and scraping of programmes two old guys dressed in black trousers and shirts walk onstage and over to a music stand. Everyone applauds. The guys focus for a moment, nod at each other, then start clapping in unison quite a complicated rhythm. After 30 seconds the one wearing the baseball cap nods to the other and one of them starts clapping a different pattern. In fact the initial simplicity begins to change into a shifting complex of overlapping rhythms, phasing in and out of unison. On an instrumental level, this is primitive music. All you need is hands. Yet it is ultra-sophisticated. You need to be trained to a high level to learn the patterns and then implement their slow mutations while someone else is clapping something completely different right next to you.

The piece is Clapping Music (1972), an early classic from New York composer Steve Reich, founding father and grand old man of musical minimalism and Steve is here, tonight, wearing his trademark baseball cap, and performing it in person.

Steve (the Reich is pronounced with a soft -sh sound at the end, as I discovered at a day of Reish events last year – and everyone calls him Steve) will turn 77 this year but he’s still very active, both composing and performing. He’s a frequent visitor to England, with concerts of his work every year at the Barbican or South Bank.

Photo of Steve Reich against the New York skyline

Steve Reich (photo credit: Jeffrey Herman)

The concert But this concert wasn’t looking back to those early days when his pieces were created for minimal instruments because that’s all he could afford; instead it had a much more modern, rocky feel, dominated by the electric guitar, bass and drums used in all the other 4 pieces. At this concert the London Sinfonietta, well-known for its performance and commissioning of contemporary classical music, performed two pieces from the past few years as well as the World Premiere of ‘Radio Rewrite’, a co-commission by the London Sinfonietta along with New York’s Alarm Will Sound. Eyebrows were raised when people learned that ‘Radio Rewrite’ is based on two songs by the rock band Radiohead, see the Q&A, below.

The concert was taped by BBC Radio 3 and was available for 7 days, but now only the Radio rewrite section seems to be available. I link to it below and to YouTube versions of the other tracks.

Part One

Clapping Music (1972)
Electric Counterpoint (1987)
2×5 (2008)

Part Two

Radio Rewrite (2012) (after an interview with Radio 3’s Andrew McGregor)
Double Sextet (2007)

A review If you listen to a piece like 2×5 (written six years ago for New York bass ensemble, Bang On A Can) you can hear why Reich is so popular with a wide “crossover” audience. With its drums, bass and guitar, it is in effect a piece of experimental rock music. It reminds me of the early 70s King Crimson I’ve been listening to recently in its unrelentingness, its singlemindedness. The interest isn’t in melody or harmony – what most people want from their classical or pop music. It’s in the phasing or overlapping changing of rhythmic fragments – it’s in the piling on of instrumentation to create layers of sound – it’s in shifting rhythms and textures.

(Speaking of textures and prog rock, the rumbly bass sound of a bass playing picky, non-swining ostinati, set against lattices of filigree guitar notes, reminded me a lot of the rumbly bass in some passages of Tubular Bells.)

I confess I find some Reich works hard to listen to. I’ve got the Nonesuch box set and the obsessively tight repetition of tones and rhythms of some of the pieces – or of too many pieces listened together – can give you a headache. But I found all the pieces tonight very listenable and none too long.

I think I agree with my son that ‘Electric Counterpoint’ stood out because of the clarity of the textures. Pat Metheny recorded 10 guitars and 2 basses performing complicated tessalations of sound onto a backing tape, and then an electric guitarist – tonight Swedish guitarist Mats Bergstrom – performs an 11th part live, against the tape. A tracery of fine and precise notes are set against insistent and complex dotted rhythms which themselves grow louder and softer according to a much larger, slower pulse – like fine lace floating on an advancing and receding wave.

‘Radio Rewrite’, like so many of Reich’s pieces is divided into sections named simply slow or fast, in this case fast-slow-fast-slow-fast, the fast sections based on the song Jigsaw, the slows ones on Everything. It has the lightness of his later, rockier work, a sense of the instruments dancing daintily – but countering that is the distinctively edgy timbre created by combining violin and clarinet, almost screechy at time – then again given a strange luminosity of sound by the twinned vibraphones glowing around them. I don’t think I know anything by Reich as slow and thoughtful as the slow movements of this new piece. We loved it!

Q&A Nice surprise after the gig was a 10 minute Q&A with the great man. When asked why he was working with songs written by a rock band,

  • Steve explained why the specific chord structures of the two songs in question (Everything In its Right Place and Jigsaw Falling Into Place) piqued his interest and set his juices flowing (he also admitted there was not much of the songs left once he’d finished with them. I listened very closely and I didn’t recognise a single aural reference to either); but then…
  • Steve went on to give a potted history of Western music from medieval times to the present day, pointing out that all the great composers enjoyed a two-way relationship with the popular and folk music of their times right up until the 1950s and the dominance of the International Serialist music effectively banned melody, harmony and anything the ear could latch onto – and that this one, exceptionally ivory-tower period just happened to be when he was studying music 😦 This got a big laugh, all the more so for being true. The way he sees it, he and Philip Glass and a few others were consciously overthrowing the International Style and restoring a much more open relationship with the music they heard all around them in New York – jazz and rock and film music. Creating composed music from the pop music of the day? – he’s only returning to the practice of almost all classical composers.

Steve Reich’s website

Alex Petridis interviews Steve Reich in the Guardian

Toru Takemitsu @ the Barbican

2 February 2013

To a BBC Symphony Orchestra Total Immersion day of concerts, films, talks and workshops at the Barbican focusing on the music of Toru Takemitsu (1930-1996), generally thought of as Japan’s first major western style-classical composer, but also featuring works by contemporary Japanese composers.

In the military dictatorship of the 1930s the government prevented any experimentation in music. After the war Takemitsu was among the first to import modern Western techniques and try to marry them with traditional Japanese instruments. His style is Modernist but clear and spacious, elegant and refined, with unusual instrumentation. There’s little or no melody, everything is in the leisurely sequence of rather mysterious musical events. No surprise to learn that  his favourite Western composer was Debussy with whom he shares an interest in colour and tone, impressions.

By the 1960s Takemitsu had absorbed the avant-garde techniques prevalent in Europe and had evolved a style of his own which could use full orchestra, traditional Japanese instruments or any combination freely and confidently. A film addict (he admitted to seeing about 35o films a year) Takemitsu developed a brilliant career in writing music for films and in Charlotte Zwerin’s documentary many famous Japanese directors about working with Takemitsu.

But he was just as successful in the concert hall, writing numerous works, from small chamber pieces to full blown orchestral works. Famous works include his breakthrough piece November Steps (1967) and  A Flock Descends Into the Pentagonal Garden (1977).

Toru Takemitsu (1930-96)

Toru Takemitsu (1930-96)

You can listen to highlights from the day’s concerts in a BBC radio programme – ‘New Music from Japan‘ – on BBC iPlayer.

I learned

  • that ma is Japanese for space or emptiness. A blank sheet of paper isn’t empty until a mark has been made to it. Then its emptiness is defined. Japanese art is full of emptiness. Takemitsu’s music has plenty of empty spaces.
  • in a related way, Takemitsu thought that only 80% is expressed, 20% is always implied.
  • that Western music is overprecise – each note must be correct, in the right place at the right time – but Japanese music is radically different. The ma before the note, the pluck of the note, the note itself, the sound the string makes buzzing against the fretboard, the reverberation and fade of the note, and the ma after the note has faded, all have aesthetic importance, are part of the experience and pleasure. Closer to jazz and rock, in that respect.
  • that whereas Western music is strongly linear, Japanese music is peripatetic, meandering, circling on itself. Takemitsu said his music is like a Japanese garden, a welcoming place to wander among exquisite arranged objects.
  • what a sho, koto, sanshin and shakuhachi look and sound like. Very Japanese.
  • and, as to the peformances themselves, that
    • Takemitsu’s music, a little difficult though it initially may seem, was noticably ‘better’ – more spacious and intriguing and pleasing – than the five other Japanese composers on show
    • a day is along time to listen to live and rather demanding music. Not only were we tired by 7.30 when the evening concert began, but by definition of being in the big Barbican Hall, the evening’s pieces – UK or European premiers though they all were, by leading Japanese composers – were nonetheless big affairs featuring vast orchestras (I counted over 80 musicians onstage) and very loud! It’s the delicacy and intimacy of Takemitsu’s work which I value, and that came over wonderfully in the concert in the small space at St Luke’s church where we also liked Dai Fujikura’s Secret Forest. But all five pieces in the Barbican Hall were to grandiose and bludgeoning for my taste. No ma.

The day’s events

Talk An introduction to music in Japan today by Dr. Paul Newland, Senior Professor in Composition, Guildhall School of Music & Drama. Dr Newland told stories about his time studying in Japan. He explained ma and the Japanese philosophy of music and experience of time. He gave a lengthy example of a cup made by craftsmen deliberately anonymous, imperfect and unfinished. over time, as you drink tea, it absorbs the tea and cracks. This is deliberate the so formalised that there are 7 definitions of cracks. As you use it the nature of the material is revealed, slowly, over time. Japanese aesthetics.

Films

1. Music for the Movies: Toru Takemitsu (1994) directed by Charlotte Zwerin. Takemitsu composed the scores for almost 100 films, including Kurosawa’s epic Ran, based on King Lear. Interviews with many Japanese film directors, Takemitsu himself, and clips from classic films.

2. Thirteen Steps Around Takemitsu A portrait of Takemitsu (1996) directed by Barrie Gavin who introduced it and told some stories about Takemitsu. Filmed at his country home and in Tokyo, divided into 13 brisk sections, and featuring the composer in conversation, explaining his musical tastes, his procedures, his film work, the importance of the Garden, of natural elements.

Concerts

1 – LSO St. Luke’s – Guildhall Chamber Ensemble conducted by Sian Edwards:

2 – Barbican Hall – 

  • Traditional Japanese music performed by Robin Thompson sho, Melissa Holding koto, Clive Bell shakuhachi
  • Movements from Okeanos cycle byDai Fujikura, performed by Musicians from the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the Guildhall School of Music & Drama
  • New improvised work created by musicians from the BBC SO, Okeanos, the Guildhall School of Music & Drama and composer Dai Fujikura

– Barbican Hall – BBC Symphony Orchestra, Kazushi Ono conductor, Kifu Mitsuhashi playing shakuhachi, Kumiko Shuto playing biwa.

  • Akira Nishimura – Bird Heterophony (UK premiere)
  • Misato Mochizuki – Musubi (UK premiere)
  • Takemitsu –  (UK premiere)
  • Dai Fujikura – Atom (European premiere)
  • Toshio Hosokawa – Woven Dreams (UK premiere)
  • Akira Miyoshi – Litania pour Fuji (London premiere)

Harrison Birtwistle @ the Queen Elizabeth Hall

24 May 2012

To the Queen Elizabeth Hall for an evening with (Sir) Harrison Birtwistle, each piece prefaced by an interview/explanation from the Grand Old Man himself (78) in conversation with Tom Service. The pieces being:

  • Cortege
  • Carmen Arcadiae Mechanicae Perpetuum
  • 5 Distances for 5 Instruments
  • In Broken Images (UK premiere)

I think I learned to take this sort of music when studying Webern about ten years ago. This taught me to open my ears to music beyond the thousand varieties of McFlurry represented by pop, rock, jazz etc; to think about each note, each musical moment, as a potentially isolated event in an acoustic field with no boundaries and no limits.

Once you begin to do that – once you relinquish the childish hankering for a key, a beat,  a tune – you can begin to understand each musical event in its own right, and begin to sense or understand other kinds of ways in which they can be connected or disconnected. And that principle opens up the world of contemporary classical music, the world whose offputting sound has dominated the last hundred years of ‘serious’ music.

There’s no denying it’s hard to listen to, and easy to tune out of but, like parenting or gardening, what you get back directly correlates to the amount of effort you’re prepared to put in. Like learning a new sport or computer program, it’s challenging for a while, until you suddenly ‘get it’, crack it,  and begin to operate inside the game, not outside looking in.

In an era when pop music has been Cowellised within an inch of its life, or so technologically democratised that anyone can start a band and post on YouTube their tired copies of the look, sound and swagger of the three or four generations of bands which came before them, music like this is refreshingly difficult. Rebarbative. Not designed by computer and tested on focus groups to be aural ice cream, mass manufactured to touch as many pleasure points as possible, all the while maximising a record company’s ROI; or to satisfy some kids’ fantasy of being Mick and Keef.

It can’t be repackaged, resold, set to an advert, used in a film or TV show, or exploited in any of the other ways our culture has developed to push our buttons and make us endlessly shallowly consume, consume, consume. Difficult, sui generis, isolated, it speaks of another place, somewhere weird and unsettling, not at all designed for our listening comfort, not available as a download for our convenience, nor prepackaged for our advert-length attention spans.

As in all Birtwistle the element of ritual was strong. In ‘Cortege’ 10 of the 14 instrumentalists take it in turn to get up from their seats and come to the front to do a brief intense solo, before another one arrives beside them; then soloist A went and sat in soloist B’s seat, giving a solemn processional affect. At the end the flautist went round to each of the musicians bidding them play their last notes. ‘Harry’ explained beforehand that he imagined the musicians laying flowers, but what on and why, remained mysterious.

He was funny. For a man of 78 he had great comic timing, repeatedly upstaging the eloquent exuberance of the man asking the questions, chubby Tom Service, the Guardian’s music critic. The most illuminating thing he said was that he thought of himself as a 1910 Modernist, and compared himself to Braque and Picasso’s cubism, then explained how the Carmen is made of disparate blocks of music, sections or units, harshly juxtaposed with no bridging passages. A sort of musical cubism, but which also made me think of the 1960s ‘Brutalist’ architecture of the building we were sitting in, part of the South Bank Centre, its great chunks of concrete assembled without softness or compromise.

Tastes change, but the costiveness of this music doesn’t. Harry is, arguably, the greatest living English composer, the musical equivalent of David Hockney. Yet the QEH was half empty. 99% of the people in his own country have never heard of him and never will.

Harrison Birtwistle – Carmen arcadiae mechanicae perpetuum on YouTube

Conlon Nancarrow weekend @ the South Bank

22 April 2012

To the South Bank for part one of their Conlon Nancarrow weekend. An American ‘maverick’, Nancarrow (b1912), became a communist, fought in the Spanish Civil War, was invalided home where he was harassed for his beliefs and found no taste for his difficult music, and so exiled himself to Mexico, where he lived and worked till his death in 1997.

Nancarrow pioneered a revolutionary approach to combining tempos, ie having multiple ‘melodies’ or sequences of notes playing simultaneously, creating works so fiendishly complex no human being could play them; instead, he laboriously punched out the music, by hand, hole by hole, into paper rolls for player pianos. Each piece typically took a year to create and lasts 2 or 3 minutes. 50 pieces in all. Even among the avant-garde his work only became known in the 1980s.

This weekend of events has been two years in the making, most of which involved tracking down the kind of player piano he used, restoring it and his tattered piano rolls, standing it on the stage of the Purcell Room, and having two player piano experts take turns loading each roll and briefly introducing each piece. Plus an opening lecture by people who knew and championed his work, an hour-long biographical film, and an evening concert in the QEH of orchestrated versions.

There’s no doubt it’s a hard listen, but sometimes you can make out the structure; other times enjoy the ‘Nancarrow Lick’, the mad glissandi playing swoops of notes impossible for the human hand; or the ‘swarm’ effect of hundreds of notes being played nearly simultaneously. Junior noticed that many of them end with a cheeky flourish. Speakers on the film testified he was a warm and charming man, and the jokiness of some of the pieces reflected his sense of humour. But he wanted to avoid warmth or sentiment; he adapted his player pianos to give them a brighter, harsher sound.

Canon X (Study 21) is relatively easy to understand: the ‘right hand’ starts playing a series of notes very fast, the ‘left hand’ a series very slow; and then they take about 3 minutes to reverse their speeds, thus crossing over half way through, hence Canon X.

Conlon Nancarrow, Study for Player Piano No. 21 (Canon X) on YouTube

The Sinking of The Titanic @ the Barbican

15 April 2012

To the Barbican to see and hear Gavin Bryars’s ‘The Sinking of The Titanic’. He takes a line of music from a tune we know the small string orchestra played on the ship as it sank, and repeats it for more than an hour, overlaying sound effects of docks and liners, the waves and the long ship’s wake, morse code, the noise of icebergs calving, all combining to convey the strange ethereal effect of the ship sinking down, down beneath the waves, creaking metal, watery echoes.

Accompanied throughout by a film projected on giant screens in black and white edited from contemporary footage – faces and figures smiling mutely from another age, so far distant and yet so upsetting. A haunting, insistent and poignant soundworld.

The Sinking of The Titanic

The Sinking of The Titanic by Gavin Bryars on YouTube

The Death of Klinghoffer by John Adams (1991)

4 March 2012

To English National Opera to see the London stage premiere of John Adams’s ‘The Death of Klinghoffer’ (first produced in 1991, only 6 years after the PLO hijacking of the Achille Lauro which it depicts).

Obviously it drives a humvee through a hornets’ nest of taboos, which I will carefully avoid. As to the theatrical experience:

  1. The staging was great, with striking film projected on the backdrops, making it more watchable and visually dynamic than most operas.
  2. I didn’t like the libretto which seemed to me constipated and clumsy.
  3. It was pretty undramatic. The opening choruses were great, but I wanted more dialogue, especially between the terrorists and captain.
  4.  The music was Adams’s soothing post-minimalism interrupted with blasts of vintage Glass. Very quaffable… F
  5. inally, although they were obviously only actors, I found I couldn’t applaud the ‘terrorists’ at the curtain call, after witnessing what they’d said and done.

The Death of Klinghoffer

John Adams: The Death of Klinghoffer (2001) – Night Chorus on YouTube

Harrison Birtwhistle’s new disc

22 December 2011

Listening to radio 3’s CD Review, they discuss a new disc of Harrison Birtwhistle recordings including Night’s Black Bird. Coming in half way through I thought it must be Schoenberg or Berg, before the presenter identified it – the music has that same otherworldly intensity and weirdness, ominous orchestral colours and sudden stabbing chords. Striking how the second Vienna school created a new system, a new sound amidst the collapse of the Western harmonic tradition, which so dominated and dominates ‘serious’ music even to the present day, 100 years later.

Birtwistle: Night’s Black Bird / The Shadow of Night / The Cry of Anubis

%d bloggers like this: