In 2003, a favorite pair of actors, Marian Seldes and Brian Murray performed an evening of one-acts, titled "Beckett/Albee." There were three monologues by Samuel Beckett before intermission (Not I, A Piece of Monologue, and Footfalls) and a one-act play for both by Edward Albee after (Count the Ways). It was a thrilling and confounding evening, thrilling because of the virtuoso performances and confounding because of the obfuscating density of Samuel Beckett's texts. Seldes and Murray were interviewed by Leonard Lopate on his eponymous WNYC program (a favorite companion while I make reeds) and spoke about learning the difficult, non-narrative Beckett monologues. To speak their lines as personal utterances of their characters required intensive preparation, both physically and mentally. At times, they explained, the body was more dependable than the mind. Their preparation began with phonetic repetition until the inner structure revealed itself and gave them something to hold on to, and eventually, something to say.
That interview and their performances comes to mind while I'm learning the thorny music of Wolfgang Rihm for next week's Miller Theater concert. At first the notes on the page seem a snarl, quite outside the narrative vernacular of Western music. Learning this material requires repetition to just get the music into the body. Albert Fuller talked about confronting the organ works of Messiaen as a young man; none of the finger patterns were familiar to him. I find the same with Rihm. Yet as the body begins to accept the music, the mind does seem to catch up. Rihm's rhetoric is persuasive, and through repetition, the music moves from notation, through the body, and then into the mind. Finally, it comes out with inner motivation. This process is basically the same when learning a work of Bach or Mahler, however the extreme demands of Rihm's musical language make the inner workings of preparation more pronounced.
This morning while making coffee, I was a little surprised to find myself singing one of the most puzzling passages over and over to myself. My unconscious was learning the music by heart, even away from my instrument.