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Morton Feldman: Neither

  • Opera in 1 act (1977)
  • 3 3 3 4 - 3 3 3 1 - perc(4), hp(2), pno, str
  • Duration: 55’
  • Instrumentation details:
    1st flute
    2nd flute (+picc)
    3rd flute (+alto fl)
    1st oboe
    2nd oboe
    3rd oboe (+c.a)
    1st clarinet in Bb
    2nd clarinet in Bb
    3rd clarinet in Bb (+bass cl(Bb))
    1st bassoon
    2nd bassoon
    3rd bassoon
    1st horn in F
    2nd horn in F
    3rd horn in F
    1st trumpet in C
    2nd trumpet in C
    3rd trumpet in C
    1st trombone
    2nd trombone
    3rd trombone
    1st percussion
    2nd percussion
    3rd percussion
    4th percussion
    1st harp
    2nd harp
    piano (+cel)
    violin I (9)
    violin II (8)
    viola (7)
    violoncello (6)
    contrabass (5)
  • Roles: soprano
  • Composer: Morton Feldman
  • Librettist: Samuel Beckett
  • Editor: Emilio Pomàrico
  • Commission: Rome Opera

Work introduction

Notes of an interpreter:

When we use analytical methods to investigate the origins of that inexpressible sense of ‘suspended time’ which the music of Morton Feldman often gives us, we soon realise that the compositional techniques responsible for the music’s fascination are combination processes in conjunction with a real passion for repetition. Feldman’s minimalism – which has little to do with this concept as conventionally understood, since it is anything but minimal – stands out not only on account of the refined timbral richness of the ‘musical objects’ invented for further exploration but also, and principally, because of the ongoing complexity of the metrical-formal parameters which continue to permeate these objects after they have been introduced and presented, until an explicitly antagonistic and at the same time dialectical ‘disturbance’ appears.

The richness (beauty) of Neither’s own particular collection of sound objects arises principally from such things as: the richly varied interaction of highly personal instrumental techniques, often deliberately chosen for their extreme quality; combinations of dynamics and register which are actually incompatible and yet, in painterly fashion, appropriate to the sense of the music; contradictions in the interaction of horizontal and vertical parameters (formerly one would have said ‘melody and harmony’), which more frequently seem to confront than to complement one other dialectically; and processes of attenuation in the textural density, which sometimes proceed in logical and linear fashion, but are usually abruptly interrupted so that only minimal remnants are left over – ‘husks’ without any directional energy or ‘purpose’ in the compositional process – unless they alternate with events whose exploitation proceeds inexorably in the opposite direction, towards a point of total acoustic unrecognisability, a timbral ‘grey’. And all this worked out by means of an all-embracing, esoterically refined complexity, with metrical micro-variations and structural ‘arrhythms’ whose dimensions may be minute, but which make one’s head spin as soon as one succeeds in perceiving their role in the inexorability of the work’s ‘unfolding’.

One can already see from these (necessarily) brief considerations how difficult it can be to perform (interpret) this music adequately. In order to avoid the danger of a ‘statistical’ performance, which always looms whenever one attempts to make music from a ‘technological’ epoch in love with its own philological instruments of cognition, one should be able to immerse oneself consciously in the psychological game which Feldman’s composition always suggests, once one allows it to operate at a level beyond that of the superficial first impression, the latticework of the score pages. To be complexity’s accomplice, ‘playing’ with the former without hoisting it aloft as virtuosity, accepting it simply as necessity until, delicate and yet rigid, it vanishes of its own accord – this seems to me to be the best way forward, rather than pursuing shortcut strategies of protection by means of preventative control, in which one relies solely and entirely (and, as I believe, dangerously) on those certainties of the printed score which first preoccupy even the most prudent interpreters. On its own, such a form of control, unless practised solely as an interim phase in the process of maturation towards a new significance, in no way guarantees that indispensable requirement of Feldman’s composition: the capacity for (listening) devotion.

Of course, Neither possesses all these qualities in common with the other works of its author, but it is unique in presenting its performers with a further problem of a purely practical nature regarding precision of performance. That is to say, there are in addition eight sections of various lengths in which the composition is explicitly polymetric, although no vertical graphic equivalent for this has been realised on paper. For example, there might be a section totalling n bars in which the metre constantly changes; its elements are then recombined in up to three different sequences and superimposed on the original passage but, curiously, the bars begin and end in the same vertical positions.

This is possible in the graphic domain, but for practical performance purposes it is senseless: a 3/8 bar can certainly begin at the same time as a 4/4 bar, but then it is never going to end at the same time as the latter if one maintains the common pulse which, however, actually establishes the difference between the two bars in the first place. And if, instead, one tries to equalise them in terms of length, then one loses precisely that contrapuntal richness which arises out of this simple and widespread technique of ‘concealed’ musical variation. As a conductor, one could manipulate the passage so that it became practicable in performance (i.e. by introducing a common metrical framework, especially when it is a question of an orchestral work). But to realise this kind of compositional procedure (which, moreover, is almost as old as the idea of counterpoint) in this manner, which fails to pursue it to its ultimate consequences, would leave an unacceptably large number of players completely to their own devices, leading to undesirable results that can easily be imagined. The musicians would have to ‘struggle along alone’ through a somewhat imprecise interpretation, since the conductor could only be concerned with one of the several superimposed versions of the passage – in my opinion, the soprano part. This would end up sounding like the superimposition of a larger or greater number of small fragments of chaotic nature, which in the case of such a refined structural aesthetic as Feldman’s, as well as with respect to the ‘continuity’ and inexorable process through which this has been attained, will in every case lead us into error.

Therefore, in order to resolve to my satisfaction a situation full of unpredictable and unacceptable inaccuracies (and it should be emphasised once more that these inaccuracies are not merely inappropriate, but actually misleading), I set to work with pencil and paper ‘finishing’ what was already present implicitly in the score, and which to any eye trained in composition is instantly recognisable as a state of affairs in obvious need of completion. In fact, as far as I know almost all earlier interpreters of this wonderful work have taken the necessary precautions to ensure a performance lacking the inaccuracies mentioned above. And at this point I should also acknowledge the presence of mind of my publisher, who understood this necessity and supported the initiative to produce a new version which would spare all future performers the need to revise the orchestral materials before doing anything else, with its associated costs in terms of nerves, effort and also part of the precious rehearsal time.

In order to limit any feeling of ‘arbitrariness’ in these ‘completion’ measures (I do not in the least regard them as anything more or less or other than this, since they neither direct nor compel the author’s thought towards any aesthetic solutions which were not obviously intended from the beginning, inasmuch as he strikes such an individual ‘tone’ in this extraordinary composition), I have made it my rule – always and absolutely – to take the original version of the metre (which is almost always found in the soprano part) as the common metrical framework within which the underlying metrical variants can then also be accommodated, and a meaningful contrapuntal realisation provided. In this way the soprano part, in accordance with its obvious solistic role – which arises from the fact that it is the only part to give verbal expression to Beckett’s text (and not for example because of any actual predominance in the compositional context) – also acquires the role of perspective vanishing point in the panorama of metrical organisation. A vanishing point from which the variants and projections produced by combinatorial technique emerge, played by alternating instrumental groups, and around which they revolve during the course of the work as though in a kaleidoscope.

Universal Edition of Vienna has made it possible for this version to appear in print. It was produced as the result of long study and reflection to meet the practical considerations mentioned above, during preparations for the staged performance I conducted in May 2004 at the Teatro São Carlos in Lisbon – my first encounter with Neither as interpreter. I hope that, as a result of the way the score has been clarified, the task of future performers – in any case not simple – will be made easier. Naturally such performers, following their own sensibilities and expertise, can still refer to the original score of the piece bequeathed us by the composer, which I regard as one of the greatest masterpieces from the second half of the previous century.

Emilio Pomàrico

(Translated by Peter Burt)


The complete perusal score (PDF-preview)

World première

Teatro dell'Opera, Roma (IT)
Marcello Panni
Main soloists:
Martha Hanneman (sop)

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