Morton Feldman and Samuel Beckett

1977. For chamber orchestra and soprano.
Morton Feldman's Neither
In 1976 Morton Feldman met Samuel Beckett in Berlin, at the Schiller-Theater, where Beckett was overseeing rehearsals of Footfalls and That Time. Coming in from the sunlight into the dark theatre, the already terribly myopic Feldman could barely see Beckett, and literally tripped on the stage after "shaking his thumb." Inviting the author to lunch, and armed with a partial, tentative score for a section of Film, Feldman attempted to get the slightly embarrassed writer to provide text for a work commissioned by the Rome Opera. The two discussed their mutual disdain for traditional opera, groping around each other for a possible middle ground -- Feldman didn't want to use any existing text, and Beckett wasn't fond of having his words set to music. When pressed for an explanation of just exactly what it was that Feldman wanted, the composer responded "The quintessence. Something that just hovered." Eventually, Beckett agreed to elaborate on some words he called "the theme of his life," the result being Neither, mailed to the composer a few weeks later -- before Beckett had ever heard a note of Feldman's music! Coincidentally, the very week he mailed the poem, he heard Feldman's Orchestra on the BBC, and found that "he liked it very much." Of course, Feldman, being quite independently minded himself, had already begun to score the work, getting several pages into it before receiving Beckett's full text. When it did arrive, the composer was at first puzzled, calling the poem "peculiar." Finally it occurred to Feldman that every line of Neither "is really the same thought said in another way. And yet the continuity acts as if something else is happening." From that point on, setting the text was natural to Feldman, whose own "peculiar" music could quite easily be described in much the same way.

From this unusual beginning was born one of Feldman's finest works, a meditation on self-awareness colored by pungent, unsettling sonorities webbed by passages of ethereal beauty. Although Neither is frequently called an opera, and occasionally even an "anti-opera," it bears more relation to a "Monodrama" than any conventional opera -- imagine a droning, minimalist Erwartung freed from the constraints of narrative. Rather than relying on the unfolding of a story to provide a sense of drama, Neither draws its persuasive power from an escalating musical tension, relentlessly cycling between Beckett's harrowing stanzas as it spirals toward its "unspeakable home." Another label often inaccurately applied to Neither is that of "collaboration." While Beckett and Feldman certainly discussed the piece at its inception, there was little communication between them during its composition. While this seems a bit surprising, and perhaps even disappointing, the numerous parallels between their styles and philosophies suggest that a more traditional collaboration might have been superfluous. Constant, ebb-and-flow tension; an impending sense of revelation that never quite flowers into climax; an apprehension of the timeless present as being both liberation and prison -- all are qualities that may equally well describe the music of Feldman or the writing of Beckett. Also common to both artists are a pared-away minimalism grounded in a less-is-more aesthetic, a revolutionary approach to the instruments of their craft, an implicit demand on a receptive audience for patience and open-mindedness, and an almost neurotic fixation on extended repetition and minute variation. Beckett's libretto unpacks its ideas from a single existential suitcase in several progressive arrangements, and Feldman's score proceeds through numerous cycles and motifs that return in slightly new disguises. In Neither, words and music coexist as sympathetic soulmates, neither partner dominating, yet neither surrendering their identity in the marriage one might find in traditional opera with its arias or even Wagnerian music-drama. In truth, Neither is more of a "co-elaboration" than collaboration, a work containing the input of two like-minded visionaries focused on a single theme: the endless and perhaps hopeless quest for understanding of the self and the universe, as carried out within the flash of a single life.

Feldman's music is difficult to analyze, but lends itself readily to colorful description, and this dramatic work in particular is filled with astonishing passages that evoke numerous visions -- machines churning away in the subterranean depths, interstellar spaces haunted by distant sirens, wheels within wheels grinding down time and space in slow revolutions. More than anything else, Feldman's music creates a strange sense of presence, of place, and the imagination often seeks to populate it with familiar images. So be warned, the following description of Neither may read more like a personal travelogue than a music review!
Neither opens with an abrasive, glassy drone, as if Feldman were slowly pulling a raspy cord from the heart of the blunted orchestra, both sharpening its instruments and winding up the piece like a giant machine. It is a truly menacing opening, less theatrical than the beginning of Strauss' Elektra but no less unsettling. After the cord (chord?) is released, the opera begins, unwinding in a vaguely spiralling, back-and-forth pattern over the next fifty minutes.
Things are rough from the get-go, and the listener is immediately plunged into a Feldman soundscape at its atonal bleakest. The first few moments pulse, creak, and shamble ominously, preparing us for the entrance of the soprano, who impales her atmospheric syllables across a high row of identically-pitched hooks. The very first stanza sounds the keynote of angst for the entire work: "To and fro in shadow from inner to outer shadow." Within this "hovering" zone, the music harries out a dreamlike space, suffused with the feeling of suppressed terror that lies coiled just beneath the surface of nightmares. As mentioned, it's all quite evocative: dream? nightmare? vast machine? a frozen storm of anxiety? This whole first section is also my favorite: I imagine a vast, submarine labyrinth, its walls of corroded iron slowly rotating in the hidden distance, the weight of the ocean pressing down on the dark, muttering ceiling. The forced elevation of the soprano bestows her with an almost godlike aura, and yet she seems oddly trapped, as if compelled to watch over our anxious movements in the rumbling labyrinth. Occasionally some unseen leviathan collides into the outer wall and slips back into the abyss, the iron walls groaning in protest....
Soon the tension abates, and for a few moments the orchestra sinks into a restless slumber, breathing softly in the quiet between stanzas. About thirteen minutes into the piece, a muted "fanfare" appears (a sequence of repeated notes that sounds like some previously angular ostinato has been flattened by a hammer), announcing our passage into a new section of the work. This repetitive figure is soon picked up by the strings and then passed along to other instruments, heralding the return of the soprano, who alternates her lines between the recycling ostinato and various atonal fragments which bubble up from the general drone. After the line "heedless of the way, intent on one gleam or the other" is completed, things shift gear again, as Neither unfolds from the claustrophobic depths and expands into outer space. After a particularly haunting passage -- a dream of distant bells, slowed down and distorted -- the soprano enters again, initiating a cycle of wordless, melismatic singing. No longer raining down Beckett's stanzas from an imperial perch, her voice rises and falls in a mesmerizing wail, an interstellar siren disturbing the dreams of a deranged cosmonaut. (Indeed, things get quite otherworldly, and the entire section would make the perfect soundtrack for a trippy Ken Russell space opera, or perhaps the sequel to David Lynch's Eraserhead.) As her cycles of vocalise grow slower and more dreamy, the music follows suit, and everything glides to a state of timeless suspension. A little before thirty minutes have passed, the flat, affectless fanfare returns, and failing to propel the work along again with its slippery pawing, things lapse into a disquieting silence illuminated by a steady drone and the occasional distant rumble. We are at the center of the opera, a point of tense stasis like the eye of a slow, existential cyclone.
Motion resumes startlingly with a sharp burst from the brass, punctuating the line "unheard footfalls," and we are again in transition to a new level of the dream. Indeed, when the omnipresent, low drone cuts off under the word "till," it seems disorienting -- we forgot about the machines in the basement until Feldman shut them off. No matter, Neither has more surprises in store, and when the piccolos and strings start in with a sharp, pizzicato-spiked rhythm, it seems as if a whole different piece has begun, until the familiar soprano unspools a near-painful "melody" above the intensifying orchestral thickets. Voice and orchestra claw their way to the phrase "then no sound," delivered a cappella with a striking clarity and surprising intimacy. The final segment of Neither begins wearily, and despite the run-down feeling of exuastion conveyed by the music, the soprano is forced into some of her most tortured vocal lines yet, her staccato syllables varying wildly in pitch and delivered with a fragile urgency that sounds physically distressing. The concluding line, "unspeakable home," is almost destroyed beyond recognition, its syllables broken down and reiterated in a nerve-wracking mantra. The end of the piece is sudden; and the silence that rushes in to fill the void seems like Feldman's final gesture, as if Neither contained one final, extended "rest," an unstable vacuum lasting as long as the listener pauses before breaking the spell. Truly, a remarkable work!

Libretto, by Samuel Beckett


to and fro in shadow from inner to outer shadow
from impenetrable self to impenetrable unself by way of neither
as between two lit refuges whose doors once neared gently close, once away turned from gently part again
beckoned back and forth and turned away
heedless of the way, intent on the one gleam or the other
unheard footfalls only sound
till at last halt for good, absent for good from self and other
then no sound
then gently light unfading on that unheeded neither
unspeakable home

Liner notes from the HatArt CD

Liner notes written by Art Lang, 1997:
"We do not forget the past, we remember the future." So says James D. Campbell in an essay on installation artist/sculptor/painter Gerhard Merz. Such a position would also seem to apply to the writing of Samuel Beckett, and to the music of Morton Feldman. In Beckett's persoanl view of an existential world, time consists of an eternal present, with a consequent blurring of continuity -- past and future -- given coherence only by one's individual perception of the situation one finds oneself in, however absurd it might be. That is, awareness is the confirmation of the here-and-now, while desire is the anticipation of a future, any future that may be different, that may provide escape. Feldman meanwhile has titled varying pieces False Relationships and the Extended Ending (which could describe any number of Beckett situations), Why Patterns? (questioning the shape of existence), and Triadic Memories (exploring how what we remember affects who we are) -- titles as metaphors for the states of anticipation, expectation, and transformation that music engenders. And then there is their sole collaboration, Neither.
Neither has been identified by some as an opera (it was commissioned by the Rome Opera and recieved its premiere in 1977), but it makes use of none of the conventions of traditional opera. There is no story, no mise-en-scene. Only one person appears, declaiming the text of 87 words divided on the page into sixteen lines, as if poetry. If the presentation can be interpreted as dramatic, it is nevertheless non-theatrical. The intensity results from an emotional/aesthetic tension, not plot manipulation or character confrontation. Yet Feldman was aware from the beginning that this was to be a different kind of formal experience, and in fact began composing the score before he had seen the text, which was provided specifically for this setting by Beckett. Once the words arrived, Feldman went to great pains to adapt his idiosyncratic methods of composing to the thrust of the text. The music does not attempt to accompany or depict the text in the usual fashion; instead Feldman has created a kind of musical equivalent to the environment that the words suggest, invoking the same atmosphere and sharing a similar vision.
And what is that vision? Beckett describes not a place, or a person, but a consciousness, via an internal monologue, which ponders the unique circumstances of its existence and anticipates a final resolution. As the abstract expressionist painters knew, contemplation is necessary for awareness; ideas arise from contemplation, even if understanding is not an ultimately achievable goal. Simple (or, rather, complex) awareness is the continuous proof of existence -- whether felt to be pleasurable or a purgatory, depending upon one's perspective. In the meantime, what we are aware of is an ongoing experience of shifting realities, identified only as somewhere in the ambiguous area in between. In between what? "To and fro." "Inner and outer." "Close and away." "Self and unself." "Back and forth." "The one or the other." The only possible resolution, or escape, is surcease of thought, of experience, of awareness. Death.
Death is the ultimate, inevitable ending, however long the prelude has been extended. Death is the "halt for good," when everything is absent -- no sound, and light is unheeded. It is the final "unspeakable home," the future we remember. To this end, Beckett's words serve as a hymn to perception. Our perception is the only way we know we're alive, even if the state we find ourselves in is ambiguous, uncertain, absurd, in between one, even if it's impossible to know how much of it is memory and how much is happening now. Thus Feldman's music too relates an ambiguous environment of sound -- one of Beckett's proofs of existence -- consisting of the same modes of dislocation and alienation. As is frequently the case in the work of both Feldman and Beckett, the music consists of evocative fragments rebuilt into significance by virtue of its own affirmation of individuality -- its form. Form creates its own truth -- as an individual perspective on the ever-present shifting layers of reality. The music evolves as gradually as a sky darkening before a storm. But no storm arrives, neither thunder nor brightness. What movement there is is energized by the ongoing shifts between stasis and activity (repetition and melody, or memory and observation). Feldman once acknowledged that, in this way, the music for Neither hovers in between what was, for him, a personal style (the "impenetrable self") and an impersonal style (The "impenterable unself."), as can be heard in the alternating episodes ("to and fro") of static chords (at times thinned out to single notes) and flowing melody. It is sometimes the difference between a chilling moment of icy strings, or low ominous rumbles in the brass or percussion. The vocal component, too, while extreme in its tessitura and articulation, varies according to mode of expression and syllabic setting -- for example, an insistence on single uninflected pitches, or its own exotic method of melismatic vocalise. The back and forth of colors and textures, of recurring motifs and notes that link together into chains of melodies, become the physical manifestation of our awareness -- the in and out of breathing, until it stops.
Like the text, the music is filled with ghosts and echoes -- both as a product of memory, as the illusion of absence made real once more -- as well asthe confirmation of the literalness of its doors and footfalls. Neither accepts the reality of each, and offers the opinion of choice (even if its effect remains illusory). Transformation, then, is not a recovery, but a revealing. The eternal present exists in the space between the familiar and the unfamiliar. Which is real? Neither.

Beckett as Librettist

Beckett as Librettist: by Howard Skempton
From the May 1977 Music and Musicians.
Thanks to the Morton Feldman Page.

MORTON FELDMAN has written an opera in one act to an original text by Samuel Beckett. Entitled Neither it is scored for soprano solo and full orchestra, and was commissioned by Rome Opera, where it receives its first performance on May 13, 1977, conducted by Marcello Panni. The composer was, however, in London last January before attending the premiere in Cologne of his Elemental Procedures for chorus and orchestra, and it was during this visit that he talked with characteristic enthusiasm and affection about Neither, a work (on the evidence of the score) of extraordinary beauty and power.
Actually he began writing the music before receiving the text:

That's why the piece begins textless. I was waiting for the text. I discovered what an overture is: waiting for the text! But I must tell you something about my meeting with Beckett and the conversation, because it's both humorous and very interesting in relation to my treatment, and because I wanted slavishly to adhere to his feelings as well as mine. Yet there was no compromise because we were in complete agreement about many, many things. For example -- he was very embarrassed -- he said to me, after a while, "Mr Feldman, I don't like opera." I said to him, "I don't blame you!" Then he said to me, "I don't like my words being set to music," and I said, "I'm in complete agreement. In fact it's very seldom that I've used words. I've written a lot of pieces with voice, and they're wordless." Then he looked at me again and said, "But what do you want?" And I said, "I have no idea!" He also asked me why I didn't use existing material. We had a mutual friend who told him I wanted to work with a Beckett text. He wrote back to this friend suggesting various things. I said that I had read them all, that they were pregnable; they didn't need music. I said that I was looking for the quintessence, something that just hovered.

When the text eventually arrived, Feldman was struck by the space between sentences -- a form of visual punctuation. His natural, if idiosyncratic, response was to concentrate on each line in isolation. "First of all, like a conventional composer, I started to scan the first sentence: To and fro in shadow from inner to outer shadow; it seemed to me as one long period of time. And I noticed that it fell into a grid."
The "grid" is a notable feature of Neither -- a regular arrangement of bars within the system, each system containing half a line of text. And the voice? At the beginning, while the cellos maintain a pulsating figure to convey "a feeling of quickness" characteristic of Beckett, the voice floats gently, unobtrusively, through the shifting orchestral texture, a fixed point within a changing context. "Superficially it looks like a parlando, but it's going to be very lyrical, and yet there is no melody."
A few pages later there begins a long, purely instrumental section featuring solo cello and divisi violas:

What made me determine the length of the instrumental interlude? I can't answer. It's almost as if I'm reflecting. I didn't want a cause-and-effect continuity, a kind of glue that would take me from one thought to another. I wanted to treat each sentence as a world. And there was much to think about, because I noticed that, as the work went on, it became much more tragic. It became unbearable, while here it's tolerable.

It wasn't until page 30 that I had a glimpse of what To and fro is in the text. What he's talking about is the impossibility of fathoming either the "self" or the "unself." You're back and forth, back and forth. Well, I said to myself, I certainly know more than anybody else in my generation what the "self" is in terms of personal music. I had to invent the "unself". I saw the "unseIf" as a very detached, impersonal, perfect type of machinery. What I did was to superimpose this perfect machinery in a polyrhythmic situation. So there's a new element here, a periodic element, which eventually emerges.

Feldman's music is famous for being predominantly quiet. We draw attention to what is obvious and yet profoundly unimportant, and lose sight of what is paramount:

It's amazing how people think I don't think about these things! What I'm trying to do is hold the moment. I don't think any composer really wants variation, though variation might be a marvellous technical device to achieve the maximum unity of the moment. I don't even like variation as a musical device. I'm trying to hold the moment with the slightest compositional methodology. The thing is how do you sustain it, how do you keep it going? There are many ways you can keep it going. You can become a composer and that's easy! I think that Beethoven's big problem was how not to be just another composer.


Morton Feldman Writes an 'Opera.' Review byTom Johnson
From the December 11, 1978 Village Voice.
Thanks to the Morton Feldman Page.

Many of us who have followed the highly abstract output of Morton Feldman over the years were surprised to learn that he had composed an opera, and it is perhaps still questionable whether he really has. Neither, which was written for the Rome Opera two seasons ago and received its first New York performance in the Group for Contemporary Music series on November 21, might be better described as an hour long art song. Samuel Beckett's libretto consists of exactly 87 words, which are sung exclusively by a solo soprano. The only truly dramatic moment in the performance at Borden Auditorium at the Manhattan School of Music was the soprano's entrance. After a few minutes of introductory music by the large onstage orchestra, the singer slowly ascended on a platform behind the musicians, where she remained, score in hand, for the rest of the performance. Is it an opera, an art song, or just another remarkable Feldman work? However one might choose to categorize it, Neither is a gorgeous piece of music, and quite possibly the richest, most rewarding work of the whole Feldman catalogue.
Like most of Feldman's compositions, Neither is concerned primarily with dense atonal harmonies and unusual blends of instrumental color. Here, however, the composer works with a wider variety of instruments and a larger span of time than usual. If most of his pieces are easel paintings, this one is a wall-sized mural, and it is so loaded with activity that there is no room for the silences that play such an important part in other Feldman works. The music flows easily from one section to another, each of which contains its own unlikely combinations of celesta, contrabassoon, harps, tuba, piccolo, low violins, high cellos, or whatever. The instruments are played in conventional ways, but the come together in unconventional combinations, and there is much more repetition than in most Feldman works. A sustained chord may repeat 15 or 20 times, and a couple of other ostinatos may be following out their own reiterations in their own tempos at the same time. The repetitions are seldom exact, however. Little bits of the sonorities are always dropping out, shifting around, and otherwise breaking the rules somewhere in the almost inaudible background.
Meanwhile, the soprano line comes and goes. This extremely demanding role continues on one or two notes for long periods of time and remains above the treble clef the whole time. One senses the difficulty and expects the performer to show signs of strain long before the piece is over. But the performer on this occasion, Lynne Webber, had exceptional endurance and remained completely in control the whole time. Feldman seems to know just how much danger is possible within the context of a still singable role. But then, Feldman has been flirting with performance hazards for a long time. This might even be considered one of his chief stylistic characteristics, and it is clearly one of the reasons why he so often asks performers to play his pieces supersoft, way down on that dynamic level where one cannot be completely certain whether a tone will sound or not. While other composers are more concerned with making their music sound easy, and hunt for the most playable and singable lines they can find, Feldman prefers the kind of fragility he finds on the brink of the impossible. It is a risky but extremely effective way of writing music.
The orchestra of the evening consisted entirely of students from the Manhattan School of Music, but they had rehearsed the score intensively and had it well under control. Charles Wuorinen conducted with great ease, despite the constantly changing meters and obvious difficulty of keeping the dense texture sensitively balanced.

Gramophone Review by Roger Thomas
From the October 1998 Gramophone.
Feldman Neither. Sarah Leonard (sop); Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra / Zoltan Pesko. Hat ART (Full price) (CD) ART102 (50 minutes: DDD). Notes and text included.

The sparse, allusive texts of Samuel Beckett have often attracted the attention of composers, including the more-jazz-than-not of Michael Mantler's, and Phil Gebbett's contributions to Cornelius Cardew’s Scratch Orchestra. Feldman, himself a supporter of Cardew's work, wrote several compositions with reference to Beckett, including the ensemble piece For Samuel Beckett, and Words and Music, composed in 1987 as an accompaniment to Beckett’s 1961 radio play of that name. For Neither, the circumstances were reversed, in that Feldman approached Beckett to provide the words for the piece, which was commissioned by the Rome Opera and premiered in 1977.
Neither is described as opera purely from the point of view of dramatic intensity; in conventional terms the work is for soprano and orchestra. The piece is minimalist in one of the purer senses of the word, the orchestral component comprising slow, deliberately ponderous gestures that make much use of repetition and near-repetition and are melodically restricted but occasionally startling in their use of dynamics. Against this forbidding background, Leonard declaims the 87-word text in brief, almost fanfare-like interjections, her rich, warm tone conveying a comforting sense of humanity.
Although carrying a lot of what now seems like quaintly old-fashioned existentialist baggage, the work is profoundly engaging on its own terms, asking only that the listener accepts and participates in Feldman's desire to step outside conventional notions of time-span and unfolding musical events. A useful antidote to the fluffiness of some more recent music. The accompanying notes are enlightening, but unsportingly comprise individual, untranslated essays in English, French and German.

CD Information

Neither is available on two CDs I have yet to hear the recent Col Legno version, but Fanfare gives it a very positive review. The HatArt version is also quite good, with some acceptible strain on Leonard's voice hardly detracting from her nearly heroic performance.

Feldman: Neither /Radio-Sinfonie-Orchester Frankfürt
Morton Feldman / HatArt CD / Released 1998
(You must use their search engine to find the CD)

Feldman: Neither / Bavarian Radio Symphony
Morton Feldman / Col Legno CD / Released 2000

Credits: Invaluable to the creation of this page has been Chris Villar's Morton Feldman Page, as well as the excerpt "Feldman Meets Beckett" from James Knowlson's biography, Samuel Beckett: Damned to Fame. Additional information may be obtained from John Dwyer's article "In the Shadows with Feldman and Beckett," from the November 27, 1976 Buffalo News.

--A. Ruch
17 May 2001
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