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Shorts Inspire Music In 'Sounding Beckett' Trilogy

Sep 18, 2012
Originally published on September 18, 2012 7:09 pm

It all began last year, when the Library of Congress presented Samuel Beckett's Ohio Impromptu alongside a piece of music by composer Dina Koston, which responded to the text. A New York group, the Cygnus Ensemble, played the music, while Washington, D.C., director Joy Zinoman staged the play, for one night only.

"And when it was over, Bill Anderson, the head of the Cygnus Ensemble, said to me, 'Might you be interested in taking this to New York?' " Zinoman recalls. "And I said, 'An 11-minute play in New York? Where in New York is that gonna happen?' And he said, 'Well, maybe you could chose two more that could go with it.' "

And Sounding Beckett was born.

Beckett's style has a lot in common with contemporary classical music — it strips away ornament to reveal an emotional essence. Sounding Beckett features three evocative, memory-laden plays from the playwright's final years.

"They're united by various things," Zinoman says. "First of all, they have ghosts, or shades, or semblances, or mysterious figures in them."

Cygnus Ensemble Music Director William Anderson thought Beckett's sometimes cryptic modernist work would appeal to some of his composer friends.

"I often approached with the question, 'Do you think that the Beckett audience could be a good new music audience?' That was how I approached the whole project," Anderson explains.

Then too, each of the plays has some sort of rhythmic component. In Footfalls, a woman paces the floor like a caged animal, nine steps back and forth, as she interacts with her unseen mother. There's even sandpaper attached to her shoes to make the pacing louder. Chester Biscardi's musical interpretation of the play uses guitar plinks to represent her pacing.

Ohio Impromptu features two characters seated at a table, dressed exactly alike; one is silent, the other reads from a book. The silent character knocks on the table.

Composer Scott Johnson explains, "Every time the silent character knocks, the speaking character has to stop and repeat what he just said."

So Johnson put knocks and repetition in his musical response. However, Johnson says it wasn't all about literal interpretation of the text.

"I felt like I had a choice between reacting to the flat, subdued surface of the play and the more colorful language," Johnson says. "Well, I voted with my feet and went for the language, and there are moments in [my piece] that are sort of uproarious in a way that the play is not."

All told, Anderson brought in six composers for the project, so there are two separate programs; adventurous audiences can compare different composers' takes on the plays.

"And I have to say that the results — I'm still discovering just how rich the connections are," Anderson says.

Sounding Beckett runs at the Classic Stage Company off-Broadway through Sept. 23, 2012.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Samuel Beckett, the great 20th century Irish playwright, wrote in a highly musical language but his plays don't feature music. Now, a new evening of theater called "Sounding Beckett" offers three of his short plays, followed by new pieces of music inspired by them. Jeff Lunden has the story.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: It all began last year when the Library of Congress presented Samuel Beckett's "Ohio Impromptu" and a piece of music by composer Dina Koston, which responded to the text. A New York group, the Cygnus Ensemble, played the music and Washington, D.C. director Joy Zinoman staged the play, for one night only.

JOY ZINOMAN: And when it was over, Bill Anderson, the head of the Cygnus Ensemble, said to me, might you be interested in taking this to New York? And I said, an 11-minute play, in New York? Where in New York is that going to happen? And he said, well, maybe you could choose two more that could go with it.

LUNDEN: And "Sounding Beckett" was born.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LUNDEN: Samuel Beckett's style has a lot in common with contemporary classical music. It strips away ornaments to reveal an emotional essence. "Sounding Beckett" features three evocative, memory-laden plays from the playwright's final years.

ZINOMAN: And they're united by various things. First of all, they have ghosts or shades or semblances or mysterious figures in them.

LUNDEN: Cygnus Ensemble music director William Anderson thought Beckett's sometimes cryptic modernist work would appeal to some of his composer friends.

WILLIAM ANDERSON: And I often approached with the question: do you think that the Beckett audience could be good new music audience? That was how I approached the whole project.

LUNDEN: Each of the plays has some sort of rhythmic component. In "Footfalls," a woman paces the floor like a caged animal, nine steps back and forth, as she interacts with her unseen mother. There's even sandpaper attached to her shoes to make the pacing louder.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "FOOTFALLS")

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Sequel. A little later, when she was quite forgotten, she began to. A little later, when as though she had never been. It, never been. She began to walk.

LUNDEN: And here's Chester Bicardi's musical interpretation of the play, with guitar plinks to represent the pacing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC FROM PLAY, "FOOTFALLS")

LUNDEN: "Ohio Impromptu" features two characters seated at a table dressed exactly alike. One is silent, the other reads from a book. The silent character knocks on the table, explains composer Scott Johnson.

SCOTT JOHNSON: Every time the silent character knocks, the speaking character has to stop and repeat what he just said.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "OHIO IMPROMPTU")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Little is left to tell. One night, as he sat trembling, head in hands, from head to foot, a man appeared to him and said I have been sent by - and here he named the dear name - to comfort you.

LUNDEN: So Johnson's put knocks and repetition in the music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LUNDEN: But Johnson says it wasn't all about literal interpretation of the text.

JOHNSON: And I felt like I had a choice between reacting to the flat, subdued surface of the play and the more colorful language. Well, I voted with my feet and went for the language and there are moments in this that are sort of uproarious in a way that the play is not.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LUNDEN: All told, William Anderson brought in six composers for the project, so there are two separate programs and adventurous audiences can compare different composers' takes on the plays.

ANDERSON: And I have to say that the results, I'm still discovering just how rich the connections are.

LUNDEN: "Sounding Beckett" runs at the Classic Stage Company off-Broadway through September 23rd. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: To hear excerpts from the plays and the music inspired by them, go to npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.