Morton Feldman wrote many pieces of music inspired by the avant-garde novelist, playwright and poet Samuel Beckett. On Saturday 10 October, the soaring 300-year-old arches of St John’s Smith Square will be backdrop to the London Sinfonietta’s performance of his intimate 1987 portrait For Samuel Beckett, a piece much admired and rarely performed. For more information or to book tickets head to londonsinfonietta.org.uk/feldman-for-samuel-beckett.
Below Art Lange explores the intricate connections between Beckett’s writing and Feldman’s music:
“The quality of language is more important than any system of ethics or esthetics… Form is the coalescence of content, the revelation of a world.”
Substitute ‘music’ for ‘language’, and one might think that this is a quote from Morton Feldman, but it’s Samuel Beckett, from an early essay on the prose of Marcel Proust. To his mind, ‘form’ – the revelation of a (note, not our) world – is the most pressing and personal question any of us must face, and it’s one of the constants in Beckett’s writing; that is, the difficulty (yet necessity) of forming a life out of the conditions we find ourselves in. It’s not a matter of acceptance, but self-awareness. Ultimately, confirmation arrives through the arduous task of coming to an agreement with existence, when it’s impossible to tell what’s real and what is not.
To do so, Beckett created a series of situations in which characters were dispossessed, disenfranchised, powerless, bearing the burden of pain, alienation or incomprehension. The degree to which this was a response to specific incidences of his own metaphysical dilemma is open to interpretation. But it’s true that, whatever his motivation or state of mind, he chose to create Art to counteract the Void. This, along with his outsider status and his willingness to embrace ambiguity in the face of fascism and chaos, could be why Feldman felt an affinity to him, and so titled this music.
Beckett’s Art, like all great Art regardless of rhetoric, is a confrontation with existence, perception and understanding. In rejecting everything artificial he divorced his characters from our devices of Time, for example, and other comfortable aspects of realism such as convention, recognisable images or common behaviour. His work sought to be “neither life nor art, but something in between” (as Feldman once wrote of Robert Rauschenberg). In Beckett’s own words, he wanted it to be both “perfectly intelligible” and “perfectly inexplicable” at the same time. This required both unorthodox structures, unfamiliar events, passages of unusual (bordering on incoherent) insight, and a persistence of activity for the survival of an identity.
And so it is with Feldman. For Samuel Beckett is one of his later works, rich in detail and lush in sound but troubling, obsessed, claustrophobic in spite of its scope. Given their shared attraction to shadow (Feldman’s music uses chiaroscuro in the same way Beckett meticulously exploited light, dark and all those moods in between on stage and on the page), it’s perhaps surprising that Feldman didn’t opt to involve the stark textures of solo piano – an individual surrounded by… nothing. In any case, this is not dazzling, but muted, orchestration for 23 players; instrumental timbres and tonal colours emerge as if by chance and quickly disappear.
In the beginning, there is no warning. We are just in the music, a self-contained environment (whether real or a state of mine we don’t yet know). It forces us to find our position within what seems to be an eternal present. The sounds proceed with a deceptive monotony – deceptive in their simplicity and lack of development, since what is seductive might eventually become oppressive. The repetition seems a Beckett-like punishment, but shouldn’t be heard literally, as the details differ even as the effect remains the same.
With no beginning, middle or end, no goals, no obvious intent, it could be one of Beckett’s static dramas; since continuity, unasked for, is inevitable, there’s no need to invent anything. Everything simply is; and continues to be. Our role has to do with the nature of perception: we experience a music that seems not to change, but is constantly changing; we don’t know what it means, but it is insistent in its message. Though the Art of Feldman and Beckett incorporates aspects of silence, in its ultimate condition silence equals Death. What comes after doesn’t matter. The music continues, until it stops.
© Art Lange, 1992. Reprinted with the kind permission of Universal Edition.