I was recently very fortunate to have had my piece Murphy vs Mr Endon performed. Written for 2 pianists, 2 silent actors, and a narrator, it is a depiction of a chess game. I say depiction and not representation very deliberately. In my initial planning, throughout the compositional process, and during the performance, my intention was not to give the audience some idea of a chess game. Rather, I wanted to present it very literally, perhaps even engage the audience and draw them into the game, rather than have them simply sitting through another new music concert.
In the centre of the stage was a chessboard, at which Fizz Margereson and myself played the infamous game from Samuel Beckett’s Murphy. This was then projected onto a large screen behind. Behind the board where two pianos, played my Tom Sissons and Jan Li Tan, slightly in the shadows, mapping the game move for move in their own imitative duel, their gestures following the same lines and characters of the chess pieces. The narrator, James McIlwrath, stood to one side, again slightly in the shadows, reading the chess moves, and Beckett’s witty commentary. Everything, the visuals and the sound, were intended to draw the audience into the world of chess. We played at two concerts that day, and I was absolutely thrilled at the performances (one on which can be seen here).
However, the reaction to the piece was mixed, or rather divided between those who ‘got it’ and those who didn’t. People to whom I explained the chess-centric concept, or those who were knowledgeable of Beckett, seemed to enjoy it, whereas others were confused. Considering how happy I personally was with the performance, I was confused, even perturbed – not by any negativity, but puzzled that the point that I desperately tried to make clear was simply missed (perhaps I would have preferred someone to simply say that they hated it). I got comments such as ‘how does the chess game relate to the music?’, when my intention was exactly the opposite. After clearly my head of pathetic self pity, I asked myself two questions: ‘why was the point missed, and how could I correct this in the future?’ and later ‘was it even necessary that the whole concept was conveyed?’
Chess is widely known – if the audience does not necessarily understand each of the individual moves, the game can at least be understood as a form of choreography. No pieces are taken throughout the game – would the audience not recognize this as bizarre (more on this later). I do not think the subject matter was inaccessible, even with the Beckettian weirdness attached. I had provided a programme note explaining that the focus was, but getting an audience to read programme notes in an exercise in futility (commanding them is condescending and far too lecture-y for what is after all a piece of entertainment). Perhaps a spoken introduction? Again far too distracting. Increased focus on the chess game in performance? I’m not entirely sure how to accomplish this.
Perhaps however, I should celebrate these reactions. As my supervisor pointed out, the premier of Beckett’s Not I was met with confusion, but in no way diminished the play! Perhaps simply confusing the audience got my point across – that the novelty of having a chess game performed in a new music concert is usual in itself, and uncertainty reflects Beckett far better than instilling clarity! Regardless, I would have preferred a strong negative reaction to semi-ambivalence, but audiences will never have the courage to do this it seems.
Similarly, another recent work of mine about ASD didn’t clearly relate the layers of meaning to all audience members (though some understood), but simply its being somewhat disturbing is enough to spark conversation, and visibility about ASD – the ultimate goal in any discussion about neurodiversity. I need to reconsider whether forcing an audience to ‘get it’ is the best approach, or whether I simply leaving them uneasy is success in itself.
Bottom line: grow a thicker skin!