BY STEPHANIE ESLAKE
What if music and words were living beings? How would they behave? What would we think of them?
This is the concept of a rare radio play written by Samuel Beckett in 1961, and set to music by Morton Feldman in 1987. Words and Music casts humans to play these roles – and in this instance, its soundtrack will be brought to life by the young chamber musicians of Kupka’s Piano.
But you won’t see it. Preserving the original medium of presentation – radio – the group will bring this show to you from behind the curtain. Kupka’s Piano flautist Hannah Reardon-Smith enlightens us.
Tell us about Words and Music. Why was this chosen for Kupka’s, and what does this mean to you?
Kupka’s Piano performs concert repertoire written after 1950 alongside more recent compositions by our peers from around the world. We tend to work thematically – in our post-truth world of 2017, it seemed appropriate to explore aspects of the relationships between music and words; whether sung, spoken, or merely implied.
Words and Music is a little-known radio play by Samuel Beckett, written in 1961, originally aired the following year on the BBC with music by the author’s cousin, John S. Beckett.
The version we’ll be performing, however, has music by American composer Morton Feldman: a score written in 1987 with Beckett’s approval after the two had formed a friendship and working relationship. It’s an uncannily wonderful combination of Beckett’s introspective musings – possibly on death, certainly on the artistic process – and Feldman’s eerie sonic fragments.
Our series at the Judith Wright Centre of Contemporary Arts in Brisbane has been titled Words Fail, and this is its second concert. When we stumbled across this work, it was an obvious fit; especially given we were looking to forge a new collaboration with other artists. Actors Helen Howard and Michael Futcher have been incredible to work with. It’s going to be quite an experience both for performers and audience, as we’ve been instructed by the Beckett estate that we are required to present the work from behind a curtain in order to preserve the environment of a radio play.
Why is this important to present today – some 30 years after Feldman added his music to the radio play?
Exactly 30 years [laughs]! I was born in 1987. There are a few reasons this is a good piece to present now. I think the work still speaks so potently about the parallel fears of artistic paralysis, and the inevitable demise of body and mind – things I think we can all relate to, one way or another, whether or not we intentionally set out to produce art.
It’s not a work that will be familiar to most of our audience, even if they are well versed in either Beckett or Feldman. Both are quite well known artists here, and the combination of the two is intriguing. Despite this, Words and Music hasn’t been performed in Australia before, as is the case with many of the works we program. And as I mentioned with regards to our Words Fail series, it plays with the (im)potency of language and where music might step in, which I think is very interesting with regard to global culture and politics right now.
I’m intrigued that this will be performed in the dark and behind a curtain: aside from the radio-authentic lack of visuals, what else do you feel this set-up brings? How will Kupka’s inspire people to see a live music event they cannot see?
This is going to be quite a fascinating aspect! Even though music is thought of as a primarily sonic art form, a big part of live performance is the visual aspect! I don’t know about you, but when I listen to recordings or radio, I find myself focusing on very different things – aspects of how a sound is produced, for instance, can be downright baffling. Adding the dimension of voices to the mix is especially interesting, as we are probably more likely to attach a specific face to them than to the disembodied instrumental sounds. I think we’ve all probably had the experience of picturing a radio presenter a certain way, and then getting a bit of a shock when we finally see an image of their face! For the actors, it must be a different experience as well: to deeply embody a character without necessarily creating the ‘look’ of that character.
And then, of course, there’s the fact that essentially the ensemble is the single ‘voice’ of the third character (Music, otherwise known as Bob), alongside Michael as Croak (a narrator? A struggling artist? An old man clutching at vanishing memories?), and Helen as Words (otherwise known as Joe). I’m really looking forward to a kind of debrief with members of the audience afterwards to hear what they made of the work, and of the experience of ‘watching’ a live show with no one on stage!
What does this concert teach us about the philosophy or ethos of your ensemble?
I have to say, you’re not holding back on the tough questions! I guess as a group, we’re constantly seeking out ways we can push at the boundaries of our artform – mostly by working with young composers who are looking to create something new, but also by experimenting with what a musical performance can be and look like. And while we’re fortunate enough to receive support through the Australia Council and Arts Queensland for our work, for which we’re incredibly grateful, we’re not so lavishly funded that we can put on especially extravagant productions. I think this forces us to explore more subtle and unusual ways to play with that edge, asking questions like: ‘What is a concert?’, and even ‘What is music?’.
We’re not generally a group that an audience comes to in order to hear their favourite classical music hits. But rather, I’d like to think we’re an ensemble of fellow travellers with whom to adventure into the weird and wonderful realms of contemporary art music. With any luck, we’ll all emerge (relatively) unscathed, and perhaps with a new and open-minded perspective on art and the world. Lofty intentions, I know!
What have you learnt as a group in preparing for this event?
Wow, it’s been a really different process for us. We’re often madly rehearsing to get wildly difficult and intricate pieces together in time for a performance. With this one, it’s different: it’s much more about the pacing and the interaction between the actors and the ensemble. As I said, we’re essentially acting ourselves, playing Music/Bob as a unit. We articulate and re-articulate, voice and re-voice little musical ideas. We taunt Words/Joe something terrible! We present something that’s unspeakable, unutterable, impossible to put into words, and so Words gets pretty pissed off. And we have to insert some pretty deep and tangible ideas and emotions into brief fragments of Feldman’s characteristically austere musical material. It’s a challenge, and I think it’s taught us something about minimalism – creating a unified effect with a minimum of time and material.
Any parting words?
Only that our hotly anticipated debut album will be coming out shortly, so keep an eye out for Braneworlds, featuring a bunch of pieces we’ve commissioned over the past few years!
Kupka’s Piano’s show Words and Music will be presented by the Queensland Music Festival, Judith Wright Centre, 7.30pm 15 July. Bookings www.judithwrightcentre.com.
Photo credit: Jai Farrell