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“Sounding Beckett” – The Intersection of Music and Drama, featuring the Cygnus Ensemble

A two-day event focused on music inspired by the Nobel Prize-winning playwright, Samuel Beckett. Featuring a concert by New York’s Cygnus Ensemble, instrumental master classes, a lecture and panel discussion with Patricia Boyette, UW-Madison professor of theatre & drama, and a reading/workshop of student composers’ pieces.

Master class times and rooms with Cygnus musicians TBD.


Award-winning Cygnus Ensemble will present works of Prof. Laura Schwendinger and five other composers

By Michael Muckian

Playwright Samuel Beckett, considered by many to be the “bard of silence” for the lean, minimalist austerity of his stage works, may seem the least likely dramatist to have his works interpreted through music.

Samuel Beckett 01-2

That perception will change once again this spring when the University of Wisconsin-Madison hosts a performance of Sounding Beckett, a collection of six short musical works based on three short Beckett plays. Among those compositions will be “Footfalls,” composed by Laura Schwendinger, professor of composition and composition area chair for the UW-Madison’s Mead Witter School of Music.

Schwendinger’s work joins those of fellow contemporary composers Chester Biscardi, David Glaser, John Halle, Scott Johnson and Laura Kaminsky in a performance by the Cygnus Ensemble, the famed New York City-based chamber group. The March 23 performance by the ensemble is scheduled for 7 p.m. in Mills Concert Hall.

Biscardi, a UW-Madison alumnus, will be in Madison for the performance.

Cygnus Ensemble members also will hold a variety of master classes in conjunction with Sounding Beckett, which was first performed in 2012 by Classical Stage Company in Manhattan. Unlike that performance, which also included the three plays on which the compositions were based, the UW-Madison performance will only feature the compositions themselves.

“The Cygnus Ensemble has long distinguished itself as one of New York’s finest new-music ensembles (and has brought about a remarkable amount of excellent music for its unusual configuration).”…..
– Carson Cooman, Fanfare Magazine, January, 2011

Events surrounding the concert include a panel discussion led by Schwendinger and Patricia Boyette, a professor and director of theatre production with UW-Madison’s Department of Theatre and Drama, that will examine the relationship of drama and music in Beckett’s work. The Cygnus Ensemble will follow its March 22 concert performance with a reading of UW-Madison student compositions on March 23.

The six compositions were inspired by Beckett’s one-act plays Footfalls, Ohio Impromptu and Catastrophe, all written between 1975 and 1982. The works come from the “ghost period” of the playwright, who died in 1989, and are populated more by phantoms than by characters.

Schwendinger was struck by the concept of “Footfalls,” which Beckett gave a rhythmic, almost musical structure and populated with a solo actress whose pacing back and forth is designed to resemble the actions of a metronome. The author’s stage instructions for the 1975 play were so precise, in fact, that the character May, who carries on a conversation with her mother’s disembodied voice, paces exactly nine steps in each direction on a landing outside the dying woman’s room.

“The silences and the mystery of the work haunted me,” Schwendinger says. “Is the mother even alive? Or is she haunting a deranged daughter from her deathbed? There are so many readings of the play that can work, and so many layers that are so intricate and hold so much resonance.”

The Manhattan production of Sounding Beckett was greeted with critical acclaim both for the show’s concept and its music. Schwendinger’s “Footfalls” was singled out by critic Jenna Scherer at Time Out New York, who offered the following analysis:

Laura Schwendinger’s piece for “Footfalls” is particularly effective, featuring stretches in which the musicians play their instruments so lightly, it could just be the autumn wind blowing through their strings. Beckett’s works demand postviewing brooding, and these haunting soundscapes offer an appropriately moody place to drift.

 The publication Chamber Musician Today also commented favorably on Schwendinger’s composition:

Schwendinger underscored that the pieces were meant as musical responses to the plays. Thus, her piece responded to the strong emotions churning under the surface of “Footfalls” with sustained passages of controlled, but angst-imbued dissonance. After seeing actor Holly Twyford’s simmering performance in the play, one could readily understand Schwendinger’s poignant, elegantly crafted response.”

The style of the six compositions paired with the three plays, two for each play, are each very different, Schwendinger says. But all are designed to capture the emotional and intellectual content of the plays they represent.

“My take was to allow the instruments to imitate the sounds of rustling leaves and wind that is inferred or directly expressed in the text,” Schwendinger says. “The hushed sounds that encompass this nearly static and internal world of resentment and familial conflict all taking place within the confines of a few rooms in a house, and yet the underlying emotional turmoil that is expressed by the daughter is relentless.

“The rhythm of the ‘Footfalls’ is also a musical reference, as Beckett is a composer of word art,” the composer adds. “The rhythms of the written phrases intersect in a way that bring to mind musical phrases as well.”



We thank the Vilas Trust, the Anonymous Fund, and our many donors for supporting these concerts and other activities at the School of Music.