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 String Quartet (1998)

Atar Arad

String Quartet (1998)

ESTRAGON: (giving up again). Nothing to be done.






CLOV (Fixed gaze, tonelessly): Finished, it's finished, nearly finished, it must be nearly finished. (Pause.)
Grain upon grain, one by one, and one day, suddenly, there's a heap, a little heap, the impossible heap. (Pause.)
I can't be punished any more.

Samuel Beckett, ENDGAME

In 1997 I attended a couple of different performances of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot.   Taken beyond what words can describe, I became obsessed by the play.  Not unlike many other Godot  lovers, I read and reread the play, from beginning to end, from end to beginning, in French and in English, thinking, feeling, interpreting...  I was longing for some grasp of the play’s elusive truth. Of course, I also tried my hand at breaking the code of Lucky’s seemingly nonsensical tirade (end of act 1), imagining that I was uncovering a hidden message within.   

As a longtime member of a string quartet, I couldn’t help seeing Waiting For Godot  as--what else?--a quartet!  I wondered: Could the spirit of the play be captured by music? Could its form? Its atmosphere? The characters? The enigma? Given that since early adulthood I had been quite painfully carrying within me the burden of unfulfilled desire to compose for the genre, I felt called by this new source of inspiration, and was about to compose the most “avant-garde” string quartet ever written...   

Something like this:  The quartet is played for the most part by two violins, Vladimir and Estragon, and a cello, Pozzo.  The violist, Lucky, attached to the cellist by means of a rope passed round his/her neck, heavy backpack on the shoulders, is remaining ridiculously tacit for a very long while, looking dumb and expressionless (think of Berlioz’s Harold in Italy).  Only toward the end of the first movement does she/he burst in with an incredibly fast, rough tirade (think of Hindemith’s Solo Sonata Op. 25 No.1  and remember that “Tonschönheit ist Nebensache”--beauty of sound is a marginal matter).  The tirade is made of a multiplicity of distorted quotes from all over the history of music and/or extremely condensed material from the rest of the piece (as black holes are for the universe Lucky’s tirade is for the play, and, sure enough, the viola’s tirade is for my music-to-be).  During the tirade, the other players disturb the violist--indeed attack her/him by way of repetitive and unbearably violent chords. (Are they trying to silence a messenger? In the play they try to stop the tirade by tearing Lucky’s hat off his head....)

The quartet is in two movements (of course!);  the second is the reverse of the first (think of Berg’s Chamber Concerto).  Between the two movements, the players switch seats and turn their backs to the audience, in accordance with the traditional

mise-en-scene  of Godot.  To conclude  each of the two movements a child appears on stage with a half-size violin and plays music to match Yes Sir, No Sir, But it is the truth, Sir (think of...well, in fact this one is a first).

The players, dressed as bums, move around the stage and do some acting as well.  They galvanize the audience with a display of an all-new instrumental technique, crafted for the occasion by yours truly.  They  fill the hall with sounds unreal;  bizarre; provocative.    

    No doubt a tree would have to be placed on the stage.

    There. C’est fait.  Done.  

    Or almost...


     The quartet I did write requires no trees:      

With a great deal of enthusiasm and with only a vague idea of how to go about it, I sat down to create my “quatuor fantastique.”  So as to not stare at the blank page for too long, I was toying with setting to music  “Nothing to be done,” then “Rien a faire,” then both together. (Beckett first wrote Godot  in French, not his mother tongue.  A very slight residue of “translation,” to be found in both the French and the English versions, is in complete harmony with the play’s unique “out of place” universe.)

Next thing I knew, I took off.  I wrote furiously, obsessively, fast, skipping  meals, sleep and Seinfeld.  In other words, I was happy, but had no time to dwell on it. Before long not two, but three related movements of music were in front of me, betraying not a trace of my original design.  Aside from Estragon’s “Rien a faire”/ “Nothing to be done,” gone was Beckett. Gone was the child with  half-size violin and gone was Yes Sir, No Sir, But it is the truth, Sir.  Gone was the tirade and the hidden message within, as were rope, backpack and tree.   No sound-effects, no fancy form;  some dark moods maybe, but no black holes; some poignant chords, some prolonged silence, but no offense, no provocation. The instrumental technique on display had already been in place for a century or more before yours truly was born.   One quote, though, found its way in:  Frederick the Great, of Bach’s Musical Offering  fame, had appeared in my dream;  I had been ordered to crown my second movement, an affair of diverse fanfares and canons, with his royal theme.  I obliged.   

Nothing to be done--this is the music I had to write.  And no more to be said...

Atar Arad

The quartet was premiered in April of 1999 in Bloomington, Indiana, by a young foursome, the Corigliano Quartet.  The performers were very well dressed and didn’t do any acting on stage.  Instead, they gave a gloriously inspired reading of the piece, for which I’ll love them forever.

Click here to listen to an audio sample! (MP3)


To purchase a copy of "String Quartet (1998)", contact Atar Arad at aarad@indiana.edu

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