Samuel Beckett, the great 20th century Irish playwright, wrote in a highly musical language but his plays don't feature music. Now, a new evening of theater called "Sounding Beckett" offers three of his short plays, followed by new pieces of music inspired by them. Jeff Lunden has the story.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: It all began last year when the Library of Congress presented Samuel Beckett's "Ohio Impromptu" and a piece of music by composer Dina Koston, which responded to the text. A New York group, the Cygnus Ensemble, played the music and Washington, D.C. director Joy Zinoman staged the play, for one night only.

JOY ZINOMAN: 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? And I said, an 11-minute play, in New York? Where in New York is that going to happen? And he said, well, maybe you could choose two more that could go with it.

LUNDEN: And "Sounding Beckett" was born.


LUNDEN: Samuel Beckett's style has a lot in common with contemporary classical music. It strips away ornaments to reveal an emotional essence. "Sounding Beckett" features three evocative, memory-laden plays from the playwright's final years.

ZINOMAN: And they're united by various things. First of all, they have ghosts or shades or semblances or mysterious figures in them.

LUNDEN: Cygnus Ensemble music director William Anderson thought Beckett's sometimes cryptic modernist work would appeal to some of his composer friends.

WILLIAM ANDERSON: And I often approached with the question: do you think that the Beckett audience could be good new music audience? That was how I approached the whole project.

LUNDEN: 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.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Sequel. A little later, when she was quite forgotten, she began to. A little later, when as though she had never been. It, never been. She began to walk.

LUNDEN: And here's Chester Bicardi's musical interpretation of the play, with guitar plinks to represent the pacing.


LUNDEN: "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, explains composer Scott Johnson.

SCOTT JOHNSON: Every time the silent character knocks, the speaking character has to stop and repeat what he just said.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Little is left to tell. One night, as he sat trembling, head in hands, from head to foot, a man appeared to him and said I have been sent by - and here he named the dear name - to comfort you.

LUNDEN: So Johnson's put knocks and repetition in the music.


LUNDEN: But Johnson says it wasn't all about literal interpretation of the text.

JOHNSON: And I felt like I had a choice between reacting to the flat, subdued surface of the play and the more colorful language. Well, I voted with my feet and went for the language and there are moments in this that are sort of uproarious in a way that the play is not.


LUNDEN: All told, William Anderson brought in six composers for the project, so there are two separate programs and adventurous audiences can compare different composers' takes on the plays.

ANDERSON: And I have to say that the results, I'm still discovering just how rich the connections are.

LUNDEN: "Sounding Beckett" runs at the Classic Stage Company off-Broadway through September 23rd. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.


CORNISH: To hear excerpts from the plays and the music inspired by them, go to

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