notes supposedly concerning Samuel Beckett


            I open and close is the title of a composition for amplified string quartet which I began in 1983 and completed in the autumn of 1988, to a commission from the BBC. It received its first performance, by the Arditti String Quartet (to whom it is dedicated), at the concert hall of Broadcasting House, London, on 15 December 1988. As “preparatory work” for the composition I made a study of the available writings of Samuel Beckett, accumulating notes and quotations in the process. At first the quotations were intended to be distributed through the score, their function partly to act as more eloquent “performance directions” than I could ever imagine, partly to hint at itineraries between these fragments of Beckett’s work which might be suggested by the musical continuity. Would it have been possible to make these intentions clear? (Am I making them clear now?) Eventually I decided not; while such extranotational material might have been found interesting I could not bring myself to view it as essential, which all contents of a score ought to be. Nevertheless it seemed appropriate to find some form for whatever if anything has emerged from this research, at least to find if any such form might be possible. In the interim, after the composition of several more works, it has become clear that if it were ever possible to speak of tangible connections between my work and that of Samuel Beckett such a possibility has receded with what I hope I can assume to be a “natural” withering-away of any such “external” connections. The quotations in question are distributed through this essay in the order and approximate positions (relative to my commentary upon the music) which they might have had in the score.


introductory remarks


            on the overall form of the composition. Firstly a division into four parts, each of which exemplifies a different strategy for combining the four instruments, as well as a different “principal” instrument. The series of proportions 1-2-4-8 and its permutations govern all formal proportioning in the work, including these four parts (in the order 4-8-2-1); thus the second part occupies slightly more than half of the work’s 20-minute duration, while the last is not much over one minute in length. The psychological progress of the music is intimately conditioned by such large disparities between the durations of functionally “equivalent” formal elements, a feature shared by many of my compositions.

            but the music ramifies during its own generation into a multitude of possible “pathways” which a listener might take through it, including ambiguities as to when something “begins” or “ends”.

            The four strategies encapsulated in the four parts are:

            1          solo/accompaniment

2          polyphonies (on a knife-edge between discrete, individual elements and textural, global sound)

            3          heterophonies (maximum divergence between simultaneous events)

            4          homophonies (the ensemble as a single complex “instrument”)

            naturally, all this is being compiled precisely when I have least time for it.



part 1: solo / accompaniment


            or: 4 monologues, surrounded by an undergrowth of refractions, contradictions, qualifications.

            is it necessary to emphasise the prevalence of monologue-forms in Beckett’s work? and its frequent emergence as a temporary “soloistic” element from a morass of alternatives?

            While the solos are derived from “instrument-based” or “concrete” material, in other words from systematising a field of means of sound-production on the specific instrument, the accompaniments, given to whichever are the three “non-solo” instruments at any time, are derived from the sequence of solos by a process suggested by the technology of digital sampling.

            If I say that these stories don’t interest me, it is because I know that they could have been different. This doesn’t prevent me from accepting and even liking them, as I would have liked the others  (Robert Pinget)

            During the course of part 1, the possible sampling point spreads out as it were from the moment at which the sample is “taken”, eventually to encompass the whole of this first part and thus all four solos. At the same time the sampling time, the length of the excerpt which may be subject to looping, permutation etc.,  expands from one to seven 16th-notes. Thus, as a corollary, the mass of individual accompanying elements gains in complexity and becomes less coherent both within itself and between it and whichever solo is taking place. Also: reiterative rhythms gradually extend into more “melodic” formations. Also: the first two solos being for the violins (and the first solo, in accordance with the work’s all-pervading proportions, being slightly longer than the other three together), the entire quartet remains trapped for a considerable time entirely within the register of a violin.

            by way of pointing out that the compositional techniques used are directed in every case towards specific sound-forms. But I should not need to point this out in order for a listener to appreciate it.

            The solos are “revolving” forms, comprising no overall processual tendency but a sequence or flux of situations in which diverse aspects such as dynamics, phrase-lengths, combinations of playing techniques, rotate their values within certain limits (the limits are the expressive identity of the music).

            obsessive circling around an (obscure) fixed point.

            Usually these rotations are articulated by the interference between sinusoidal functions with different frequencies.

            Rather than plot, I would prefer situation. (Robert Pinget)




section 1: violin I - tempo MM108


            beginning as if from behind a curtain (using a practice-mute), then all at once oppressively present;

            cf. Not I.

            expanding and contracting phrases separated by expanding and contracting silences (like gulps for breath)

            the movement of a bow is physically suggestive, and may be made sonorously suggestive, of the movements of breathing. I pursued this analogy much further in air for solo violin of 1993, where the vigorous respiration of the opening subsides, in the course of a convoluted route of relapses and remissions, towards a barely audible tapping and scraping in which the bow is as if paralysed, as if breath is extinguished.

             - each phrase diminuendo - hacked chords often expanded into figuration.

            a homage.

            straining to hear...the odd word...make some sense of it...whole body like gone...just the mouth...like maddened...and can’t stop...no stopping it...something she...something she had to-...what?...who?...no!...she! (Not I )

            “ornaments” not in the sense of rococo encrustation but as a generalisation of the idea of a “note” to include internally-sculpted features.

            note: the silences are also “sampled”; the accompaniment at this stage is often “irrationally” intermittent.

            Form is not the aim, but the result (B.S.Johnson)

            Strange notion in any case, and eminently open to suspicion, that of a task to be performed, before one can be at rest.  (The Unnamable )

            page upon page filled with notes.

            lą oĚ la verbe s’arrźte (Premier Amour )

            part 1 was composed first (the first 2’15” of the first violin part separably performable as reticule), followed by parts 3, 4 and 2 in that order. I open and close  itself is the sixth part of a series of eleven compositions collectively entitled Fictions ; its formal proportions, an extension of those of the first part, Anatomy  for 11 instruments (4-2-1), are expanded upon in what remains  for flute, bass clarinet and piano (1-2-4-8-16), the latter work an attempted reintegration of “residua” from the Fictions  series.

            All these Murphys, Molloys and Malones do not fool me. (The Unnamable )


section 2: violin II - MM81


            The memory came faint and cold of the story I might have told, a story in the likeness of my life, I mean without the courage to end or the strength to go on. (The End )

            during the long period of sporadic work, from first ideas to composition, a progression from “abstract” music to “concrete” music, from “notes” to sounds, the abandonment first of the primacy of “pitch-material”, eventually (in subsequent compositions) of its necessity as a category.

con sordino - constantly changing pitch and dynamic, in two-part close harmony.

            (if the music itself cannot create the conditions for active listening it can at least deny the conditions for passivity.)

            I hope this preamble will soon come to an end and the statement begin that will dispose of me. (The Unnamable )

            music may still have “relevance” when creating music has none.


section 3: ‘cello - MM72


            imagine him kissing, caressing, licking, sucking, fucking and buggering all this stuff, no sound. All Strange Away )

            another, parallel, view of formal relations in the work might prioritise the system of balance, symmetry and complementarity between its constituent elements, for example in the ‘cello solo being a “converse” of the violin I solo.

            expanding and contracting phrases separated by expanding and contracting transitions to pitchless scraping - each phrase crescendo - single convoluted line.

            What I am saying does not mean that there will henceforth be no form in art.It only means that there will be new form, and that this form will be of such a type that it admits the chaos, and does not try to say that the chaos is really something else. The forms and the chaos remain separate...to find a form that accommodates the mess, that is the task of the artist now. (Three Dialogues with Georges Duthuit )

            To think there is still life in this age. Gently gently. (Ill Seen Ill Said )

            Loving a certain music does one need to regurgitate it?



section 4: viola - MM67.5 / tutti + viola - MM54


         two-part pizzicato counterpoint (accompaniment suspended),

            I seem to have little taste for pizzicato, whose appearances in this work are few and far between; the same applies to artificial harmonics - unless there is no other way - and very high pitches in general.

            happiness too, yes, there was that too, unhappily (Old Earth )

            rather than a narrowing of horizons, a composition should present a constellation of points of departure.

            interrupted by a kind of frantic chorale, which reappears at the end of part 3 in a different form.

            hot off the back burner.

            It was not midnight. It was not raining. (Molloy )

            academics pour (sic) over his books like insects on carrion.

            solo passages in part 1 are separated by gaps where the accompaniment is left to itself (proportions of solos: 8-2-4-1, of intercalated gaps: 2-4-1-8; the two sequences to different scales), the last one articulated by a hardly audible sustained sound on the viola (G).

            another alternative view: expanding and contracting registral spaces around a sequence of “central pitches” which at certain points like those between the four parts temporarily appear at the surface.

            No but now, now, simply stay still, standing before a window, one hand on the wall, the other clutching your shirt, and see the sky, a long gaze, but no, gasps and spasms, a childhood sea, other skies, another body. (Old Earth )

            internal realism.


part 2: polyphonies


       The form too is polyphonic: 3 types of processes run simultaneously (alternating, in terms of each individual instrument) as formal levels in mutual “counterpoint”.

            cf. How It Is

            1          beginning as chains of single 16th-notes at the outset - elements of this process gradually expand in duration into phrases - all crescendo to gradually decreasing peaks - registral extent shrivelling towards a single pitch at the end of part 2 - an “ensemble-based” material forming a texture expanding and contracting in its number of simultaneous lines, eventually between 2 and 8.

            2          individual instruments diversify towards various extremities of “instrument-based” material - increasing and then decreasing in frequency of occurrence, while each occurrence gradually increases in duration alongside those of process 1.

            3          (delineating the four sections of part 2) three “failed endings” whose material cuts across and into processes 1 and 2 - before, in section 4, process 1 is left alone to take its course towards immobility and silence.

            the four sections: 1-2-4-8.

            I always loved arithmetic it has paid me back in full (How It Is )


section 1 - MM108


            violin II: con sordino

       process 3: the music is eaten away by silence until only a few disconnected flecks remain.

            still too much of a rounded, unbroken form.

            No trace anywhere of life, you say, pah, no difficulty there, imagination not dead yet, yes, dead, good, imagination dead imagine. (Imagination Dead Imagine )

            I am already beginning to see how such an essay could almost be written.


section 2 - MM81


         violin II and ‘cello: con sordini

            I made all the mistakes I could imagine.

         I began again. But little by little with a different aim, no longer in order to succeed, but in order to fail. (Malone Dies )

            I open and close  was originally conceived as a composition for bass clarinet, violin, viola and ‘cello: the reconception for string quartet involved allocating the (primary) rôle of the bass clarinet to the four strings in turn, one for each of the four parts: violin I, viola, violin II, ‘cello. I mention this in order to make the point that this compositional project only became a string quartet about halfway through its genesis. Nevertheless what came about was a string quartet (in four “movements”), despite its title something other than a composition “for two violins, viola and cello”. Was this not necessary in order to “compose as fully as possible” for a type of ensemble with not only its own (very particular) repertoire but also its own history, ways of working, internal relationships?

            process 3: grinding chords open out to invade the entire texture

            the aim is always clarity of thought, the result always confusion.

            Now these voices, sometimes they sang only, and sometimes they cried only, and sometimes they stated only, and sometimes they murmured only, and sometimes they sang and cried, and sometimes they sang and stated, and sometimes they sang and murmured, and sometimes they cried and stated, and sometimes they cried and murmured, and sometimes they stated and murmured, and sometimes they sang and cried and stated, and sometimes they sang and cried and murmured, and sometimes they cried and stated and murmured, and sometimes they sang and cried and stated and murmured, all together, as now, to mention only these four kinds of voices, for there were others. And sometimes Watt understood all, and sometimes he understood much, and sometimes he understood little, and sometimes he understood nothing, as now. (Watt )

            anything one says can only restrict listeners’ freedom to find their own ways in listening. Would it be possible to find words which might open up the situation?

            I simply will not go out of my way, though I have never in my life been on my way anywhere, but simply on my way. (From An Abandoned Work )

            It seems to me that the interest of my work up to the present has been the quest for a tone of voice. (...) It is not what can be said or meant  that interests me, but the way in which it is said.  And once I have chosen this way - which is a major and painful part of the work, and which must therefore come first - it imposes both composition and subject-matter on me. (...) for me the preliminary work consists in choosing from the component parts of my own voice the one that interests me at the moment, and of isolating it, and then objectivizing it until a character emerges from it, the narrator, with whom I identify myself. This is why there is always an I  in all my books, but it is always a different one. (...) If a plot seems to be in the process of being woven, it can only be as the result of the thread of the discourse, which can only unwind in a void. (Robert Pinget)



section 3 - MM72


            violins I & II, ‘cello: con sordini

            He says speaking of himself, He speaks of himself as of another.                                            (Company)

                        my peace is there in the receding mist

                        when may I cease from treading these long shifting thresholds

                        and live the space of a door

                        which opens and shuts                                                     (PoŹmes 1947-49 )

            if I were aiming at universality I hope I could manage more than these bits and pieces.

            angry unanswerable questions, such as, “What’s the use”  (Malone Dies)

            this isn’t a stream of consciousness, only a postscript.

            You know that penny farthing hell you call your mind...That’s where you think this is coming from, don’t you? (Eh Joe )

            all of it with hardly a glance at the score.

            years of time on earth. (All Strange Away )

            I had no personal contact with Samuel Beckett, nor did I ever conceive of seeking any. Did he not make perfectly plain his discomfiture at such interference?

            process 3: the viola scans (with increasingly elaborate curves of grace-notes) between three registral areas, triggering entries in each from one of the other instruments.

            this is most obviously modelled on a Beckett original, cf.

            W1:     Is it that I don’t tell the truth, is that it, that some day I may tell the truth                     at last, and then no more light at last, for the truth?

            W2:     You might get angry and blaze me clean out of my will. Mightn’t you?

            M:       I know now all that was just...play. And all this. When will all this -

                                                                                                                                     (Play )

            spiralling inwards, cf. Mahood in The Unnamable.

            (attempted hierarchical organisation.)

            selfexpression as by- (waste-) product.


section 4 - MM67.5


         tutti con sordini

            Hamm:            What’s happening, what’s happening?

            Clov:                Something is taking its course.                                         (Endgame )

            on reflection I know I didn’t understand it.

            process 3 has exhausted its repertoire of attempts to impose an overall order upon the polyphony; process 2 has degenerated almost completely into long, meandering expositions of unrelated material; process 1 is left (in a section somewhat longer than the whole of part 1) to wind down into paralysis (central E flat, never explicitly reached).

            in its attenuated pitch-movement a distant, impoverished cousin to Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” theme, whose significance to Samuel Beckett is incontestable.

            And dream of a way in a space with neither here nor there where all the footsteps ever fell can never fare nearer to anywhere nor from anywhere further away. (For To End Yet Again )

            dangerous structure: keep out

            Remains of the days of the light of day never light so faint as theirs so pale. (For To End Yet Again )

            silence is insufficient to end it.

            what made you do it that way? Despair, nothing more.

            rock her off

            stop her eyes

            fuck life

            rock her off

            rock her off                                                                                               (Rockaby )

            to be in love with sounds, to be in a relationship with sounds characterised by desire.

            before the door that opens on my story, that would surprise me, if it opens, it will be I, it will be the silence, where I am, I don’t know, I’ll never know, in the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on. (The Unnamable )

            one more possible view: distortions of “classical” formal procedures.

            unfortunately, everything is once more set in motion by the second violin recapitulating (exactly) the first violin’s distantly furious utterance (again with practice mute) at the outset of part 1.

            Foucault...asks why “everyone’s life couldn’t become a work of art?” The answer, of course, is that most people’s lives are still...shaped by their lack of access to productive resources and their consequent need to sell their labour-power in order to live. (Alex Callinicos)


part 3: heterophonies


       “heterophony” is intended principally in the sense of “divergent sound”.

            All of old. Nothing else ever. Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. (Worstward Ho )

            two layers:

            1          (con sordini, from the end of part 2) extension of central pitch (slipped down to D) into various kinds of “heterophony” (in the more usual sense), the three instruments (violin I, viola, ‘cello) leaving this strand in turn for:

            2          superimposition of (different realisations of the same materials as) the four solos from part 1, beginning sequentially and ending together, with the rôles of the two violins exchanged, thus opening part 3 with violin II. This time, however, the solo material, gradually sucked further into disorder (the tempi of the four solos are also superimposed), is in turn substituted, and eventually swept aside, by an extension of the “chorale” which brought part 1 to a halt.

            “style” is not a suit of clothes; it is the whole person.

            For years I thought they would cease. Now I don’t think so any more. (First Love)

            the process by which the “central point” of a work evades definition is both its work-process and its form.

            No future in this. Alas yes. (Worstward Ho )

            The art of telling what one has seen, or what one sees. Which, in any case, consists of things that one forgets, for the human eye has a poor memory. Reduced further, then, to imagining what one might have seen. To being what one never was. (Robert Pinget)

            you don’t know...why everything is going so badly, so abominably badly

(Worstward Ho )

            “art” can only be “life-affirming”, because it exists, has been brought into being, in the face of everything. Any further “affirmation” is palliative, untrue.

            Oh I know it won’t happen like that, I know nothing will happen. (Texts For Nothing )

            I reject [social realism] utterly, not because I’m not a socialist but because I am.     (B.S.Johnson)

            the chorale is then repeated at half speed, hushed, denatured in sound and with its rhythmic coincidences worked loose

            should I admit to all the inconsistencies?

            in the dark the mud my head against his my side glued to his my right arm round his shoulders his cries have ceased we lie thus a good moment these are good moments (How It Is )

            the text at three different distances.

            from which a central G# emerges, again on the viola but taken over by a ‘cello harmonic, its fourth string retuned from C to G#.

            All needed to be known for say is known. (Closed Place)

            marble still so long then out. (Still 3 )

            It could not be disimproved.  (”Dante and the Lobster”)


part 4: homophonies


            a single texture, framed by the open G# and a high B harmonic on the ‘cello.

            It breathed of a soul too soon wearied to conclude, that perhaps least arse-aching soul of all. (First Love )

       The following precious and illuminating material should be carefully studied. Only fatigue and disgust prevented its incorporation. (Watt )

            looking through the original workbook I see a wasteland of other possible compositions.

       cf. the appendix of Watt, consisting of nine pages of fragments which did not otherwise find their way into the novel.

            In reality I said nothing at all, but I heard a murmur, something gone wrong with the silence (Molloy )

            The last step! I who could never manage the first. (The Unnamable )

            attempt to return dignity to the act of listening. (alienation creates barriers between individuals as well as between classes)

            a third appearance of the first chord of the part 3 “chorale” leaves in its wake a matrix of greatly denatured, hoarse and wheezing harmonic glissandi, perturbed by residual textural elements:

            no chance of ever setting any of it to music. We owe him that at least.

            glare from above for features on this bonewhite undoubted face right profile still hungering for missing lashes burning down for commissure of lids at least when like say without hesitation hell gaping they part and the black eye appears. (All Strange Away )

            It appears to be easy for many composers to be satisfied with the kind of polite approval (or disapproval) which attends contemporary music events like a plague; many so-called careers have been and are now being based on that, many commissions have been awarded on that basis, many “reputations” are created and accepted without a single person ever having missed a heartbeat in enthusiasm for the music.

            1          multiple octaves on B combined with a lurch into “multiphonic” sound (unstable, in between harmonic nodes) on the ‘cello.

            octaves pretend to be just another interval, disingenuously.

            then back in the room, Holloway: ‘My dear Bolton, it is now past midnight, if you would be good enough -’ , gets no further, Bolton: ‘Please! PLEASE!’ (Embers )

            music should not impose itself but expose itself. (Celan paraphrased)

            -sleep...no more stories...come on...Woburn...it’s him...see him...say him...to the end...don’t let go... (Cascando )

            as in other walks of life the gestation is tedious and uncertain, the birth difficult; whereas the conception was unproblematic, even pleasurable.

            2          a rapidly fraying texture of high pizzicati, falling into the usual disorder.

            unsent love letters in the workbook.

            But mostly not for nothing never quite for nothing even stillest night when air too still for even the lightest leaf to carry to sound no not to sound to carry too still for even the lightest leaf to carry the brief way here and not die the sound not die on the brief way the wave not die away... (Sounds )

            tangential or unconnected?

            3          an extension of the close-harmony texture at the end of part 2, this time forced upwards exponentially in pitch.

            a leap in confidence engendered by self-deception: nothing to it.

            from which violin I emerges with new melodic material,

            form as a series of propositions, examination of which erodes them into untenability.

            Am I as much as...being seen? (Play )

            my style of writing is like bad musical composition (Ludwig Wittgenstein)

            which is extinguished almost as it begins.

            silence at the eye of the scream. (Ill Seen Ill Said )

            Then all go dead still. It is perhaps the end of all. A few seconds and it begins again. (The Lost Ones )

            changing one’s mind, not changing what one has done - not revision but a contextualising of the perceived “error”: not so that it’s no longer one, but so that it remains one, so that it’s more obviously one.

            Hearing it still, without hearing what it says, that’s what I call going silent.

(The Unnamable )

            Ich lebe

            von der Hand in den Mund

            da fehlt die Hand

            da fehlt der Mund                                                                    (Elisabeth Borchers)

            They say, He opens nothing, he has nothing to open, it’s in his head.

            They don’t see me, they don’t see what I do, they don’t

            see what I have, and they say, He opens nothing, he has

            nothing to open, it’s in his head.

            I don’t protest any more, I don’t say any more,

            There is nothing in my head.

            I don’t answer any more.

            I open and close.                                                                                     (Cascando )

            if music were a language it would be an unfamiliar foreign language.


London January 1992

revised  Amsterdam February 1994