Philip Glass on Samuel Beckett
Chamber Made Opera and Ariel New Music did a ripper production of The Fall of the House of Usher in 1990, in the newly opened Merlyn Theatre.
In the Melbourne Times, I gushed about the "neo-romantic score... full of drenching melancholy" and reckoned that the overture to the second act was the most "accessible and attractive" music Philip Glass had written since Company.
Many years later one of the production team (who shall remain nameless) who harboured a very special contempt for critics -- or, perhaps, just me -- sneered that Company was written by Sondheim and that, therefore, I was a fucking cretin.
In all that time, the thought never occurred that there might be a piece of music called Company that was not a musical written by Stephen Sondheim.
I confess, the thought that ran through my mind when confronted by this utter ignorance was a line Jacob Bronowski attributes to Oliver Cromwell: "I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken." [Yeah, even my thought bubbles are pretentious!]
Now answering to the rather grander moniker String Quartet #2, Company is Glass at his most -- dare I say -- minimal. Compared to the 747 Jumbo Jet of Einstein on the Beach, Company is a paper plane... a remarkably fine origami paper plane.
Company gets its name from the Samuel Beckett piece it was composed for, as incidental music, in the 1980s.
It's about eight and a half minutes long, as first recorded by Kronos. About half a minute less in the rerecording. (Kronos released a CD which has four of the five numbered quartets. I'm unsure if the music for the film Dracula yet rates as String Quartet #6 or not.)
Along with Einstein, Company is my favourite piece of Glass. (Piece of Glassware?) I used to play it on repeat for hours at a time. The snake chases its tail ever-so-nicely.
Anyway, when I was doing my homework for my interview with Glass -- homework that began at the end of February I might add -- I was delighted to discover that Glass had recently composed music (also recorded by Kronos, so far unreleased I think) for an off-Broadway production of some short plays by Samuel Beckett.
In response to my opening salvo that there was a "desire for desirelessness" throughout his music, Glass brought up the Beckett Shorts production. You Thesps should find this very interesting and controversial!
The reason for that/
In poetry is that/
We can say that/
The origin of/
The inspiration for music is not the language of music itself but the interaction of music with another medium.
It depends on/
For example, now/
If I were working on a piece of Beckett/
Which I just recently did/
A piece of/
That was done/
And Misha Baryshnikov was one of the actors/
It was in an off-Broadway set-up in New York/
But it was actually a very nice show/
[It] Was very much as you describe it/
It was very cool/
It was very detached/
But it was Beckett
In other words/
The music came out of that context/
A particular aesthetic which I admire/
Which I've always loved.
And I was looking for a musical -- not analog exactly -- but a kind of a musical response and setting for what was in the play[s].
[There followed a series of machinegun asides in which Glass made reference to movie score after movie score -- the more obscure ones -- to one of his operas, one of his symphonies... and with each mention he'd ask if I had seen or heard the thing. After saying no about five or six times, I finished up interrupting and excusing myself by explaining that my background was performing arts, that I'd seen Twyla Tharp's Company perform In The Upper Room and seen Robert Wilson's production of Einstein on the Beach (TWICE!) and a handful of the operas, seen Bang On A Can do Two Pages [torture!], seen Kronos do Mishima, driven thousands of kilometres to see his own ensemble... then I pleaded that Company was my favourite piece thus bringing him back onto (relatively) safer ground for me...]
[CHRIS BOYD:] SO I WAS DELIGHTED TO HEAR YOU WERE DOING MORE BECKETT...
[Philip Glass:] I work with Beckett when I can. Actually, when he was alive I worked with him a lot. But since he died some years ago, his estate has curtailed the use of music in his works. Even though he himself instructed me about how he wanted it, they claim he didn't have any connection to music which is absolutely nonsense.
So I'm not allowed to do it very often, but very recently I was able to do the one. We got permission. We had to get permission to use music! [laughs] Oh, gosh!
THE ESTATE ATTEMPTED TO CLOSE DOWN A PRODUCTION OF WAITING FOR GODOT IN SYDNEY RECENTLY... BECAUSE THEY DARED TO USE A DRUMMER!
And they claim to be protecting the work and, actually, they're ruining... They're ruining the opportunity for another [generation?] of Beckett lovers to interpret it. And that is the future of any work. The future is not what we do, it's the future work people after us do.
They're not gonna be doing exactly what/
Let's not get started/
I'll get more angry!/
I've been the victim of that!
Not only with Beckett, but with Genet, with Brecht, with Kurt Weill... So many of the big estates are trying to rein in everything. And it's just horrible! Anyway, we don't need to talk about that.
That was basically my response to your/
[very slight pause]
I guess it was a question!
THERE WAS A BIT OF A QUESTION MARK AT THE END OF IT!