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Feldman meets Beckett

by James Knowlson

This extract is taken from Damned to Fame. The Life of Samuel Beckett by James Knowlson, published in Great Britain by Bloomsbury Publishing plc, London, at 25.00 hardback and 8.99 in paperback and by Simon and Schuster in New York at $35 hardback and $20 in Touchstone paperback. The extract recounts the 1976 meeting between Feldman and Beckett in Berlin where Beckett was rehearsing his plays Footfalls and That Time. (The numbers in brackets refer to the notes in Knowlson's book, reproduced here at the end of the text.)

Around noon on 20 September, during a rehearsal at the Schiller-Theater, the American composer and Professor of Music at the State University of New York at Buffalo, Morton Feldman came to meet Beckett in the small Werkstatt theatre. Feldman, who wore thick horn-rimmed glasses because his eyesight was so poor, related how he met Beckett and their subsequent conversation:

I was led from daylight into a dark theatre, on stage, where I was presented to an invisible Beckett. He shook hands with my thumb and I fell softly down a huge black curtain to the ground. The boy [who had escorted him] giggled. There were murmurs. I was led down steps to a seat in the front aisles ...(96)
After this unpropitious start, Feldman invited Beckett to lunch at a nearby restaurant, where Beckett only drank a beer.
He [Beckett] was very embarassed - 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.' Then he looked at me again and said, 'But what do you want?' And I said 'I have no idea!' He also asked me why I didn't use existing material ... I said that I had read them all, that they were pregnable, they didn't need music. I said that I was looking for the quintessence, something that just hovered.(97)
Feldman then showed Beckett the score of some music that he had written on some lines from Beckett's script for Film. Showing keen interest in the score, Beckett said that there was only one theme in his life. Then he spelled out this theme.
'May I write it down?'[asked Feldman]. (Beckett himself takes Feldman's music paper and writes down the theme ... It reads 'To and fro in shadow, from outer shadow to inner shadow. To and fro, between unattainable self and unattainable non-self.') ... 'It would need a bit of work, wouldn't it? Well, if I get any further ideas on it, I'll send them on to you.'(98)
At the end of the month, still in Berlin, Beckett mailed to Morton Feldman in Buffalo a card with a note 'Dear Morton Feldman. Verso the piece I promised. It was good meeting you. Best. Samuel Beckett.'(99) On the back of the card was the handwritten text (Beckett never called it a poem) entitled 'Neither', beginning 'to and fro in shadow/ from inner to outer shadow/ from impenetrable self to impenetrable unself/ by way of neither'. The text compares the self and the unself to 'two lit refuges whose doors once neared gently close' and owes one striking image to the play on which he was working so intently: 'unheard footfalls only sound'.

Beckett did not know Feldman's work at all when he wrote the text for him. But, by a strange coincidence, only a few days after posting 'Neither', and in London by this time, he was listening to Patrick Magee reading his own For To End Yet Again on BBC Radio 3, when he noticed that, in the second part of the 'Musica Nova' concert that followed the reading, there was an orchestral piece by Morton Feldman. He listened to it and found he liked it very much.(100)

96.John Dwyer, 'In the Shadows with Feldman and Beckett', Lively Arts, Buffalo News, 27 Nov. 1976.
97.Howard Skempton, interview with Morton Feldman in Music and Musicians, May 1977, p. 5.
98.John Dwyer, 'In the Shadows with Feldman and Beckett', 27 Nov. 1976.
99.Samuel Beckett to Morton Feldman, 31 Sept. [must be an error for 1 Oct.] 1976 sent by Feldman with an explanatory letter to James Knowlson, 6 Sept. 1977. MS 3033 (Archive of the Beckett International Foundation, University of Reading).
100.Samuel Beckett to John Beckett, 18 Oct. 1976 (John Beckett). The Feldman work Beckett listened to was Orchestra (1976). This had been commissioned by the Glasgow new music festival Musica Nova 1976 and was first performed on 18th Sept. by the Scottish National Orchestra conducted by Elgar Howarth. BBC Radio 3 broadcast a recording of this first performance on 4th Oct. immediately following the reading of Beckett's text (BBC Radio Times, 4th Oct. 1976).
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