Scott Johnson Composer

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Last Time Told (2012) 14.30

flute, oboe, violin, cello, mandolin, acoustic guitar

Commissioned for the Cygnus Ensemble by the Robert Shapiro Fund for New Music.  Premiered September 14, Classic Stage Co., NYC

Notes on the Music

“Last Time Told” was commissioned by the Cygnus Ensemble, as part of an evening pairing short plays by Samuel Beckett with musical works reflecting upon them.  Beckett’s haunting “Ohio Impromptu” made an immediate impression on me with its combination of quiet emotional intensity and ingenious structural organization.

The structure of the play announces itself almost immediately, with the first of a series of startling knocks on a table by an otherwise silent character.  These punctuate the entire work, and with each knock the other character must halt, repeat whatever he has just said, and wait for a second knock before proceeding.  The musical implications were irresistible, and I decided to closely follow this segmented structure.

All twelve of these paired knocks appear in “Last Time Told”, each represented differently.  Many are scored to evoke reverberation or echoes, with or without actual tapping on wooden instruments.  In between, each section of music reflects the text between each knock in the play, with musical repetitions or variations appearing where Beckett’s repeated phrases return.  Occasionally, melodies even follow the syllables of specific phrases -- most notably, the first and last lines of the play, “Little is left to tell/Nothing is left to tell”.  But within this structural skeleton, the musical details are written freely and imagistically, with no abstract constraints.

I was often struck by a contrast between the subdued resignation of the theatrical presentation and the rich imagery in the text, sparked by memories of an unnamed person (generally assumed to be James Joyce).  At such moments I put imagery first, occasionally expanding on individual phrases which seemingly contradict the mournful atmosphere of the play.  But the depth of that atmosphere depends in part on reminders of lost joys.

  ©2008 Scott Johnson. All rights reserved.
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