Feldman in Berlin

On my way to the SoundSCAPE Festival in Italy, where I’m excited to hear the premiere of my new Sandburg Songs for Tony Arnold and Eastman BroadBand, I’ve made a detour to Berlin, a city that has a special place in my heart as the destination of my first flight (at age 21) and my home for three summers in the International Summer University at the Freie Universität Berlin.  It was in Berlin, more than anyplace else, that I experienced the thrills of public transit, understood the true meaning of nightlife, and learned how being in a different place makes us different people.  Berlin is also where I studied German, New German Cinema, and later Composition with Samuel Adler.  This is Sam’s eleventh and final year teaching students from around the world, and I was happy to meet with him and see that he is as energetic, opinionated, supportive, and wise as ever.

It’s been nine years since I was last here, and the city has changed a lot.  The Ostkreuz of my memory—its dark, rusting, haunting presence—is now a modern train station with a huge McDonald’s on one end.  The big brand names all have their own stores here now, too, so if I have an emergency and need to buy some Timberlands I can do it in Berlin as well!  Everywhere you walk, you hear English being spoken, and there are Mexican, Japanese, Chinese, and Korean restaurants that I never saw before.

One thing that remains the same, however, (in addition to my favorite Eisstand) is the abundance of music being performed, including at the city’s three opera houses.  I was pleased to attend a performance of Morton Feldman’s opera, Neither, at the Staatsoper during my visit.  I first became familiar with Feldman’s music through my participation in the June in Buffalo festival at SUNY Buffalo in 2009 and 2012, and he is a composer whose music interests me more the more I hear it.  I am interested in the ways in which Feldman seems to suspend time through repetition, slight variations, and silence.

Neither, is a kind of anti-opera, lasting only 50 minutes—short by operatic and especially short by Feldman standards, and with only one vocal soloist and a large orchestra.  The soprano sings a short text by Samuel Beckett, which is presented with frequent pauses and always in the very highest register.  Because of this the vocal part emerges as a kind of additional instrument, a special coloristic veil over the changing textures of the orchestra.

The music develops by moving from one texture or gesture type to another with timespans that often lull the listener into a kind of trance.  The trance is only one aspect of the experience, however, for there is also the choice of sequence—of how to move from one element or emphasis to another.  Sometimes the change is a slight shift; in other cases, there is a sudden break to something completely new.  These successions, like a very slow-motion Stravinsky score, create the real drama in Feldman’s music.

In the Staatsoper production, Neither was preceded by Samuel Beckett’s short play, “Footfalls.”  This work, in which a woman paces back-and-forth in a series of nine steps, while having an inner conversation with her mother and with herself, provided a nice compliment to Feldman’s opera.  One of the most striking moments of the evening was when Beckett’s play ended and Feldman’s opera began without pause.  The back curtain rose with Neither’s opening chord to reveal an increasingly deep stage, in which a single woman pacing with one door on either side eventually became nine women pacing and twelve open doors casting light and shadow across the stage.  The choreography of these anonymous women walking in varied patterns across the stage was especially effective in helping to delineate different sections in Feldman’s score.  Like an additional layer to his broken treatment of the text, this physical movement offered a visual metaphor for Beckett’s opening words: “to and fro in shadow from inner to outer shadow….”