Beckett Below, 4 years later
The music (and text) I am writing about below can be streamed or downloaded at this link.
In 2006, four directors joined forces to present an evening of four short plays by Samuel Beckett, and I was asked to create the sound design, including original music. Performed in a small basement theatre on St. Mark’s Place, in New York’s East Village, the group of plays was presented as “Beckett Below”. In running order, Play was directed by Peter A. Campbell, Act Without Words II was directed by Ariane Anthony, That Time was directed by Tim Lee, and Footfalls was directed by Eve Hartmann. I had worked with Tim Lee previously—our first collaboration was when I designed sound for his production of Beckett’s Rough for Theatre II, and we had also worked together on a production of Waiting For Godot. Milt Angelopoulos had played Vladimir in that Godot production, and would now be the recorded voice, and voiceless stage presence of the lone character in That Time. (My photos taken during dress rehearsals accompany this posting.)
In addition to consultations with the directors, I went through my own process of imagining what inspiration I could draw from. I read the scripts, of course, but in trying to find the unifying thread for the overall sound design, I researched the playwright’s own preferences in music.
Beckett forbade the presence of music being added to his works in general, though he did strike a friendship with the modern composer Morton Feldman, who created scores for some works by Beckett. They met while Beckett was at the rehearsals for That Time and Footfalls in 1976. More of that story can be found here. But Feldman’s works with Beckett were and exception. In general Beckett (and his estate) forbid adaptation, alteration, or deviation from the staging directions as written. No music is present during any of the plays that I’ve read, and sound effects are few and simple.
There are, however, other pieces he wrote that call for the use, extensive and sometimes exclusively, of pre-recorded voices. That Time is one of these. (Also see Krapp’s Last Tape and Rockabye.) For That Time the actor and director rehearsed extensively, and then finally his vocal performance was recorded in a sound booth at a recording facility that records audio books. He did several takes, and I was provided with a DVD of Aiff files. The director selected his edits with me and then I sequenced the different parts as they needed to be sequenced, with each of the three voices being read each occupying a different sonic space, though use of different panning and reverb settings. When played the in the performance space it sounded different. And different again when the space was filled with an audience. You can listen to an excerpt of Milt’s performance here.
Beckett was known to be a lover of classical music, and played piano himself quite well. Much of his family was also musically inclined. I tried to imagine Beckett the piano player, who often played for friends and family, but also thinking of the more somber moods of plays themselves. I listened to piano music (both recordings and midi files) by Leos Janacek and also by Brahms, whose piano compositions for four hands I had owned since high school. In an early experiment I took a midi file of a Brahms composition and slowed it way down. I tried all sorts of manipulation of piano sounds in different experiments. In the end I just had to play the sounds on the keyboard until it felt right. I wanted the sound to be spare, open, allowing room for the sounds to drift and sink in. I added violin to the compositional palette as the work progressed, as well as percussion in some places and other drones and background textures in parts of the pre-show.
I had never thought I would write music for piano and violin, but that’s exactly what I did. Not coming from a classical music background, this was a stretch for me, but in the end very rewarding one. I’ll always think of it as a pivotal moment in my work–not so much because I worked in an unfamiliar style, but in that it showed me that style was not something I should be worrying about. Working to get the sound that feels right is the most important thing.