Morton Feldman’s anti-opera ‘Neither’, a collaboration with Samuel Beckett

neither

The Rome Opera commissioned Morton Feldman to write an opera in 1977. In the same year, the composer collaborated with Irish writer Samuel Beckett, and Neither was completed and premiered. However, it is not an opera in the traditional sense of the word.

Feldman and Beckett had first met in 1976 in Berlin, where the latter was directing a stage version of The Lost Ones. They discovered that they shared a mutual hatred of opera. Beckett further told Feldman that “I don’t like my words being set to music,” to which Feldman replied, “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.”

Encouraged by these remarks, a few weeks later, Beckett sent Feldman a card bearing a handwritten text (not quite a poem) called “Neither,” which began with the words “to and fro in shadow / from inner to outer shadow/ from impenetrable self to impenetrable unself / by way of neither.” These short phrases became the germ of Feldman’s 1977 “anti-opera” Neither, the composer’s first work to consist entirely of the repetition and mutation of tonal forms.

Feldman’s score, made up of thirty-three fragments, calls for two flutes, a vibraphone, piano, violin, and violincello. These fragments must be understood, not as isolated units, but as relational properties that play with and against the words they modify. Croak dominates only as long as Words and Music work against one another; as soon as they follow his order “Together!”, Croak begins to lose control. In the final moments of the play we hear his club fall, his slippers shuffling away, and a “shocked” Words says “My Lord!” for the final time. But the shuffling suggests that Croak has not died; rather, his commands are no longer necessary for Words and Music now sing together, their song invoking the depths of memory and desire.

 

So don’t talk to me about systems, don’t talk to me about aesthetics, don’t talk to me about life, in fact don’t even talk to me about art, and let’s end it with this thought: that it all has to do with nerve, nothing else, that’s what it’s all about; so in a sense it’s a character problem.  (Morton Feldman in conversation with Alan Beckett, 1966)

R-1150736-1391763220-2669.pngThere are two recordings that I am aware of, the first was offered by hat[now]ART in a limited edition of 2500 copies and quickly sold out.  However, it is widely available on streaming services and on YouTube.

Performed by soprano Sarah Leonard and the Radio Sinfonie Orchester Frankfurt conducted by Zoltan Pesko, this recording is very good.

2_20081_feldman_mv1The other recording is on col-legno: Kwamé Ryan leading the Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks with soloist Petra Hoffmann.

I h aven’t heard this recording, but I think most people consider the Hat Art recording the better of the two.

 

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