It all began last year, when the Library of Congress presented Samuel Beckett's Ohio Impromptu alongside a piece of music by composer Dina Koston, which responded to the text. A New York group, the Cygnus Ensemble, played the music, while Washington, D.C., director Joy Zinoman staged the play, for one night only.
"And when it was over, Bill Anderson, the head of the Cygnus Ensemble, said to me, 'Might you be interested in taking this to New York?' " Zinoman recalls. "And I said, 'An 11-minute play in New York? Where in New York is that gonna happen?' And he said, 'Well, maybe you could chose two more that could go with it.' "
And Sounding Beckett was born.
Beckett's style has a lot in common with contemporary classical music — it strips away ornament to reveal an emotional essence. Sounding Beckett features three evocative, memory-laden plays from the playwright's final years.
"They're united by various things," Zinoman says. "First of all, they have ghosts, or shades, or semblances, or mysterious figures in them."
Cygnus Ensemble Music Director William Anderson thought Beckett's sometimes cryptic modernist work would appeal to some of his composer friends.
"I often approached with the question, 'Do you think that the Beckett audience could be a good new music audience?' That was how I approached the whole project," Anderson explains.
Then too, each of the plays has some sort of rhythmic component. In Footfalls, a woman paces the floor like a caged animal, nine steps back and forth, as she interacts with her unseen mother. There's even sandpaper attached to her shoes to make the pacing louder. Chester Biscardi's musical interpretation of the play uses guitar plinks to represent her pacing.
Ohio Impromptu features two characters seated at a table, dressed exactly alike; one is silent, the other reads from a book. The silent character knocks on the table.
Composer Scott Johnson explains, "Every time the silent character knocks, the speaking character has to stop and repeat what he just said."
So Johnson put knocks and repetition in his musical response. However, Johnson says it wasn't all about literal interpretation of the text.
"I felt like I had a choice between reacting to the flat, subdued surface of the play and the more colorful language," Johnson says. "Well, I voted with my feet and went for the language, and there are moments in [my piece] that are sort of uproarious in a way that the play is not."
All told, Anderson brought in six composers for the project, so there are two separate programs; adventurous audiences can compare different composers' takes on the plays.
"And I have to say that the results — I'm still discovering just how rich the connections are," Anderson says.
Sounding Beckett runs at the Classic Stage Company off-Broadway through Sept. 23, 2012.