Tomorrow I'm putting on a show at St Margarets Church in Whalley Range which any Beckett fans should seriously lap up.
John Tilbury, the legendary improv pianist, has recorded the whole of Worstward Ho! the bleak novella by Beckett and its going to be projected up through the piano as he accompanys the reading. Its the first time he's ever played it and it should be a extremely special and unique show in a gorgeous church.
Tickets are £6 in adv from here http://www.wegottickets.com/event/112381, then £5 for unwaged/students and £7 on the door.
Bit more info here https://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=111596162261576
And here's the programme for the show -
Even by Beckett’s own standards Worstward Ho is a remarkable text - a deconstruction, no less, of the grammar and syntax of the English language with an extreme economy of words, many of which are monosyllabic, and with an extreme use of elipsis. Any notion of excess, of indulgence, is cut away. The work is compact and highly concentrated. (And in the oral version listeners should be alerted to the homophones scattered throughout the text; e.g. the word ‘preying’ appears several times and can easily be construed as ‘praying’. Likewise ‘no’ and ‘know’.)
Worstward Ho consists of 96 clearly demarcated phrases, each phrase consisting of between 1 and 150 words. While working on the music, for practical reasons really, I made my own structural division of the whole into 11 sections (A-K). A particular section will tend to feature particular words, such as ‘bones’, ‘mind’, ‘child’, ‘ooze’, ‘place’; in fact, human feelings, utterances, actions, as well as articles of clothing, occur throughout the text.
This is mirrored in the music where a section will include certain musical phrases, harmonic progressions, kinds of articulation, etc. (This also explains the stop-go nature of the musical composition.) Moreover, a particular word may be assigned a musical image which represents it throughout the work - a kind of leit-motif.
The relationship between word and music is subjective but not arbitrary. ‘Mind’ is a directionless, melodic sequence; ‘bone’ involves rattling; ‘groan’ is expressed onomatopoeically; ‘stare’ has a piercing quality; ‘crippled hands’ is represented by ‘crippled’ sounds; ‘old man’ and child’ are differentiated primarily through register (low/high) ; child is expressed by a ‘threne’; ‘plod’ is represented by a plodding rhythm; and so forth. On the other hand, parts of the body – head, legs, hands, pelvis, trunk, etc., which feature throughout the text, do suggest musical sounds to me, but there is no objective correlation. Musical sounds can be blurred, can be joyful; they can ‘ooze’; traditionally they have been used to express ‘longing’. Some words/musical phrases do not appear until near the end of the work, serving as an unexpected and refreshing element.
The music also contains a number of quotations: from Morton Feldman, an English hymnal, elicited by the old woman in the old graveyard, and a Threne heard by Watt (from Beckett’s early novel Watt) ‘in ditch on way from station’.
But what is the overall relationship between text and music?. If the text is primary, the music is not secondary. In Worstward Ho, just as the flow of words runs parallel with the thoughts as they occur, and the reading time equals the narrative time, so the flow of the music runs parallel with the words of the text.
There are certain breaks in the style of Worstward Ho, such as the occasional bursts of emotion, as in “care”; “alas”; “pox”; “stooped as loving memory some old gravestones stoop” etc, and there are exclamation marks. But there is complete absence of reference to external time and place.
The ‘theme’ of Worstward Ho is the will, and the resistance, to existence. At the beginning it reflects a condition prior homo erectus: “It stands. What? Yes. Say it stands. Had to up in the end and stand. Say bones. No bones but say bones. Say ground. No ground but say ground. So as to say pain. No mind and pain? Say yes that the bones may pain till no choice but stand. Somehow up and stand” (We observe that every word except one is monosyllabic.)
A feeling of striving and being thwarted is expressed through constant negation: Worstward Ho begins: ‘On. Say on.’ And the work ends: ‘Nohow on.’ Inexorably, it moves towards ‘leastening’ and ‘worsening’. ‘Unworsenable worst’.
Beckett had a life-long obsession with language as an inadequate tool for description of the phenomenal world, and for the thought processes in the human mind. But as a writer he has only one means to bring his quest for ultimate silence to completion: words. His relationship with words is of necessity a love-hate relationship, for he is well aware that his attempt to escape from them will necessarily end in failure.
Early in his writing career, Beckett himself said that he started using French because he wished to write without style.(I try to reflect this ‘styleless’ quality in the music). By this he meant that the complex web of cultural and historical meanings and personal memories that was attached to the use of English hampered the precision of language as an artistic tool.
In spite - and indeed also because - of its almost claustrophobic sense of closure, Worstward Ho invites a plurality of readings. Its insistent allusions, echoes, and connotations span the entire spectrum of human experience.
John Tilbury, 9.6.2011