Morton Feldman – Neither (1977)

Neither, opera in 1 act for soprano & orchestra (1977)

Sarah Leonard, soprano
Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra
Zoltan Pesko

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. It is not an opera. There are no scene changes, no characters except for one unnamed female singer who performs only sixteen lines of text over the course of more than fifty minutes. There is neither plot nor chorus. However, with creative use of lighting, the work can be effectively staged despite the lack of operatic conventions. Many of Beckett’s late plays rely on little more than lighting to convey their visual worlds. Beckett and Feldman held each other’s work in high regard. Their first meeting was awkward, Feldman being the famously gregarious New Yorker while Beckett was a laconic, unsocial Irishman. They did not actually work together on the project. Beckett simply handed off completed text and the composer set it to music. It is a haunting work with a weird and sublime quality that does credit to both artists.

One of its most compelling qualities lies in the way Beckett and Feldman created and manipulated a text that demonstrates the variable effects of memory. Beckett began with a text that is broken up like poetry, and translated it into French. Then, retranslating one of the fragments into English, Beckett found that the line had been slightly altered from the original. He applied this operation to each fragment several times until the text was almost unrecognizable. This required him to forget what the original fragments said. Feldman’s mature music was likewise grounded in the moment, in the annulment of the listener’s memory of what has taken place beforehand; in the composer’s unique musical outlook, memory is of minor importance. What matters is sustaining the initial idea in a collection of moments until the possibilities of the initial idea have exhausted themselves. In art forms that traditionally depended so much upon memory, Beckett’s and Feldman’s approaches, and their confluence here, had revolutionary aspects.

Both the text and music are eerie in the extreme, suggesting a superficial comparison to Schoenberg’s Erwartung–which features a deranged woman singing of her confusion while the atonal soundscape suggests a Wagnerian treatment of dementia. Neither features a woman singing of something even more difficult to grasp, something unknowable, pointing toward an uncomfortable and unfamiliar world with music in which each moment erases the significance of its predecessor. Erwartung is an excellent example of expressionism, depicting the artist’s journey inward, confronting the inner torments of the subject, and Neither is a unique example of abstract expressionism, which rarely finds a voice in anything resembling an operatic format. The singer’s part conveys a feeling that does not have a name. Neither shocking nor conventional, she illustrates the character of the work. As in Erwartung, the singer in Neither is isolated, but the two states of isolation are different. Erwartung has a subject that cannot grasp the world due to a mental illness, which causes anxieties that unaffected people suffer to a lesser degree. Neither instead involves a truth: that there is no deferring death, whether one’s surroundings are familiar or unfamiliar. This is not madness, but rather a clear yet uncomfortable idea. Listeners learn nothing about the subject in Neither, and never know whether to feel sympathy or aversion toward her. The opposite is true in Erwartung; listeners experience both these emotions. Neither is a strikingly rewarding and original work that completely succeeds; indeed, it is probably almost-opera’s greatest statement. [Allmusic.com]

Art by Ouattara Watts

The first 10 minutes with visuals:




The complete opera:










Read more about the opera here and here.

Arnold Schoenberg – Phantasy for Violin Op. 47 (1949)

The idea of inviting Rudolf Kolisch and Eduard Steuermann to Darmstadt was suggested to Wolfgang Steinecke by Theodor W. Adorno. The efforts on the part of Darmstadt Internationale Ferienkurse für Neue Musik relating to twelve-tone music were, as Steinecke wrote in 1954, “intended to close the gaps that the offical musical world had left in the overall portrayal of New Music. For, at a time when one could reasonably assume a familiarity through a number of performances with the important works of Stravinsky, Krenek, Bartok and Hindemith, it seemed imperative from a pedagogical standpoint that the works of Arnold Schoenberg, which had been passed over in silence by the official musical world, should also be made known, in order to produce an objective and no longer one-side view of the situation of New Music.”



Classical elitism

It took me years to find [Radio 3] the [pop radio] station remotely penetrable. For a long while I had no patience, my laziness supported by the thought that just because classical music – and world music, and jazz, and folk, all played on the station – existed didn’t mean I had a duty to listen to it. But music is music: if you love music you will find something to love about almost any music. It just takes time. In the last fortnight I’ve attended, and loved, two classical performances: Satyagraha, a Philip Glass opera about Gandhi; and one by the London Symphony Orchestra, which featured Glass’s fellow American minimalist composer John Adams conducting his own work and that of Benjamin Britten.

It’s through the music of Glass, Adams and Steve Reich, in particular, that many rock fans have found a way into the fear-inducing labyrinth of classical music, through their use of forms and themes, both musical and topical, that seem to form a bridge between the genres. Jazz is often the halfway point at which even adventurous classical and rock listeners stop, and go no further, with their musical explorations. The former look to jazz for its rigour; the latter for its apparent anarchy.

What you get with minimalism, however, is the chance to listen to little motifs, over and over as you would with a pop chorus or riff, changing and swelling with time. As with any relationship you have in life, it repays the investment of listening well. You can do that with pop music, too, but only if you regard quality as something that is detectable, and appreciable, across the board.

Read the full letter in The Guardian here and a comment here.