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Xtet channels Beckett's spirit

The taciturn playwright isn't an easy man to set to music, but 'Exercises en Route' gets to his essence at Zipper Hall.

January 09, 2008|Mark Swed | Times Staff Writer

Samuel Beckett's texts require of an actor or reciter the musician's art. Courses in advanced rhythm and practice in complex meter are useful training to master proper timing. Words must be subtly pitched. Dynamics require sensitive care.

But Beckett, a difficult man, was not amenable to composers. At best, he wished music to stay out of a sentence's way, which is why Philip Glass' incidental theater music to "Company" works so well. When Morton Feldman asked for an opera libretto, the Irish writer reluctantly gave him 87 words. Feldman miraculously spun these few lines, titled "Neither," into an ethereal score, more anti-opera than opera, lasting nearly an hour.

Earl Kim was the rare composer able to set Beckett's texts to somewhat straightforward music by utilizing modern vocal and instrumental techniques in such a way that the notes neither augment expression nor diminish it. In "Exercises en Route," which was the major work on the Monday Evening Concerts program performed by the ensemble Xtet at Zipper Concert Hall this week, Kim did the actor's job, weighing every word exactly and exquisitely.

Kim, a Californian born in 1920, studied with Schoenberg and spent much of his career teaching at Harvard. His music, strongly influenced by Beckett's minimalist aesthetic as well as by a certain Zen-like restraint, languishes since his death in 1998. A violin concerto written for Itzhak Perlman in 1979 is a masterpiece but lacks champions.

The four songs in "Exercises en Route" come from the endings of the novels "Watt," "Malone Dies" and "The Unnameable" and the play "Krapp's Last Tape." A considerable amount of text is utilized in the half-hour piece for soprano and small ensemble of flute, oboe, clarinet, violin, cello and percussion. Kim, who worked on the score throughout the '60s and applies many of the extended vocal techniques that were being developed during the decade, carefully considered each word for its meaning and its sound.

There is high drama here, which soprano Susan Narucki captured compellingly in the more extravagant passages, some sharply exuberant. But there is also a kind of escape from drama as well. Dead calm murmurs along with taps on wood. Words sometimes stand alone as pitches, sometimes connect. A clarinet phrase and vocal phrase slip together and then apart.

At the end of the last song, a long monologue that closes "The Unnameable," Kim sets "I can't go on, you must go on, I'll go on . . ." to a flowing, halting, flowing vocal line mimicked by solo violin. The music perfectly captures denial and acceptance, the amused emotional distance and shocking emotional directness that is the contradictory heart of Beckett, and so did the performance by Narucki and violinist Movses Pogossian.

The rest of the program had nothing to do with Beckett, but when Beckett is effectively produced, everything somehow seems like it has something to do with Beckett.

"Whistling in the Dark," by the evening's excellent conductor, Donald Crockett, is a wistful, winning work, not quite as carefree as its title might imply. A flute whistles, but around every corner is a suspenseful surprise, often inspiring delight.

Oliver Knussen's Cantata is a surprise in that it is not vocal music but a short score for oboe and string trio. The oboe, played here with singing tone by Leslie Reed, strives for, and eventually finds, song. Knussen is Beckett-like in the brevity of his expression, each measure full of inexplicable, but evident, meaning.

Carlo Boccadoro's "Bad Blood" promised a bad mood. The Italian composer, who was on hand, wrote in his program note that the title refers to a method of torture once used on African Americans in Alabama. The music, however, bops along full of, I thought, verve and good cheer. A sadist's happy sentiments perhaps, but not with Beckett's example of bemoaning happiness on hand. Instead, "Bad Blood" in this context sounded like an ironic, even horrifying, instance of the Beckett- ian I can't go on but I'll go on.


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