Morton Feldman Writes an ‘Opera’ December 11, 1978

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 on 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 in 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 they 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.