Samuel Beckett Not I (1972; 14 mins)
Morton Feldman Three Voices (1982; 53 mins)
Juliet Fraser | voice
James Macdonald | director
Lee Curran | lighting designer
Newton Armstrong | sound designer
Tariq Rifaat | production manager
Heather Cryan | stage manager
In 1976 Samuel Beckett and Morton Feldman met in Berlin. The fifty-year-old composer was pursuing an original text from the more senior playwright for a commission from Rome Opera: Feldman came away from their lunch with twenty words Beckett had scrawled on one of his scores, the first of which were ‘to and fro in shadow...’. In their somewhat awkward meeting, the common ground that they found is telling, and pivotal. As Feldman recalls:
He [Beckett] was very embarrassed — he said to me, after a while: ‘Mr Feldman, I don't like opera.’ I said to him, ‘I don't blame you!’ Then he said to me, ‘I don't like my words being set to music,’ and I said, ‘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.’
Both men craft sound out of silence. Both are completist in their craft, offering works that are remarkable for their stripped-back density. Following their meeting, Beckett revised his spontaneous scrawlings into a 10-line ‘story’, which was sent by postcard to Feldman and so formed the ‘libretto’ to Feldman’s ‘opera’ (or ‘non-opera’), Neither, a distinctly non-collaborative and non-theatrical work for soprano and orchestra.
The brief, personal encounter of these two artists occurred mid-way in time between the making of the two seminal works on this programme: Not I was written four years earlier, in 1972, and Three Voices dates from 1982. Where Not I is a rapid torrent of spoken words, Three Voices is a slowly shifting tapestry of often wordless song. The title of the programme is a nod to their meeting but also conveys the contrasting features and sympathetic resonances of the two works. In the words ‘to and fro in shadow’ we find the binary opposition of light and dark as well as the ambiguous shades of the half-light, with all the psychological reverberations implicit in these phenomena. In the words of Beckett:
If life and death did not both present themselves to us, there would be no inscrutability. If there were only darkness, all would be clear.
The spectre of death hangs over both pieces. Though shrouded in Beckett’s characteristic ambiguity, it is clear that ‘Mouth’, the protagonist in Not I, is wrestling with her own liminal state of being. The audience, too, is disorientated in time and space. What endures, however, is a sense of determined vitality, for the torrent reveals a remarkable, if involuntary, resilience. Three Voices was composed shortly after the death of one of Feldman’s closest friends, the painter Philip Guston, and sets fragments of a poem by Frank O’Hara, who had died several years earlier. Feldman described the onstage loudspeakers as ‘tombstoney’, the live voice conversing with his two friends to make ‘a mixture of the living and the dead’. There is little sense of existential angst, though — we hover, suspended, as if beyond time and space. Questioning, wrestling, remembering, meditating: Feldman felt that he and Beckett had this in common, identifying
[a] kind of shared longing: this saturated, unending longing that he has, and that I have.
I would say that this longing in the face of profound inscrutability is what makes both works so very human and, for that, captivating. I memorised Not I during the first lockdown, not knowing to what end. But maybe there was more method in my madness than I knew: perhaps I wanted a project with no fixed end, a seemingly overwhelming challenge, to match the endless, frightening uncertainty of these times. By contrast, Three Voices is a familiar friend but the surest thing I know of it is how much of a challenge it is to perform and how unpredictable each performance is. As far as I am aware, the two works have never been performed together, and for obvious reasons: one is for an actress, the other for a singer; one demands speed, the other calm endurance; each treads a very fine but particular line between control and abandonment. To undertake both pieces in one programme may be complete folly but their pairing is irresistible. I am drawn to take on the sprint and the marathon, the dark and the light, the self and the unself.
3 May 2021
11-13 June 2021: Britten Studio, Snape Maltings, Suffolk