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Beckett as Librettist

by Howard Skempton

The following article first appeared in Music and Musicians (May 1977) pp5-6.

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.'

© Howard Skempton 1977

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