beam me up
guided tours

24.05.2009 18:17
Not Neither, Not Nor
The Musical Space in Opera Work
Notes on Morton Feldman
Back to home page
Not Neither, Not Nor
The Musical Space in Opera Work / Notes on Morton Feldman

Preliminary note: the following text is based on a lecture I gave in April 2008 at the symposium Musik-Raum-Resonanz [Music-Space-Resonance], which took place during the Witten Festival for New Chamber Music. In this revised, heavily cut written version I have retained the style of spoken language, as the performative aspect is immanent in my topic.

I. When Which Space Where

'But if a space existed, where would it have to be?' – it would initially seem that only a question as paradoxical as that of Zeno of Elea can provide an answer to a conference theme whose productive difficulties are concealed by the fact that it appears self-evident. The 'space of music' – what is that? A space with no corners, admittedly. But what is the location of a space that requires no system of co-ordinates? It certainly lies within compositional architectures, musical interiors in which the exterior resonates aesthetically, as well as in acoustic surroundings – as a shaping principle, or one that enables shaping, and is not primarily physical. On the other hand, music per se appears to be a temporally based art. Gunnar Hindrichs imposed the following formulation: 'Beings that could only hear', he said, 'would perceive the world as temporally, but not spatially constituted.' 2) One could derive a matrix from the theme of the symposium: right, so music is a space that flows in time.
To us, however, those official makers of music and space who call ourselves opera directors, fluid spaces seem much like what might move mountains in other settings: a noble wish. They cannot be produced with the customary means and vocabularies. Even film and light projections only offer a peripheral solution, in so far as they merely simulate movement through space. Heiner Müller's Tristan of the century in Bayreuth (1993) remained a manifest 'building' in its references – perhaps it was so great precisely because the lighting by Erich Wonder (re)created a delineated architecture on the stage. Fluorescence depends on rear walls that enable it to question them in the first place. In this sense, even the stage career of Wagner's bon mot of 'time that here becomes space' from Act I of Parsifal has scarcely produced more than scenographic Einsteinian kitsch. And how could it be otherwise? For the dynamic space defined by Einstein can only be attained by moving at the speed of light. In other words, we opera directors are evidently too slow, and simply too phlegmatic in our staging methods, for such forms of heightened reality. In basic motoric terms, Wagner's changing decoration [Wandeldekoration] for those bars in the music that were supposed to become space in Bayreuth (1882) was already lagging behind his own theorem. As the landscape view scrolling on the festival stage via two rolls proved too long in relation to the utterances of the score, and threatened to stifle the musical development in an alarming fashion, Wagner was forced to compose several minutes of additional scene change music in order to maintain the illusion he was aiming for. In short, opera direction is the field that has progressed least from the standards of Newton's day. The space posited is something that 'rests': an inversion of unfolding – but therefore something completely alien to music. Temporal modes are overlaid with a spatial concept and thus disabled. For the new 2006 production of Tristan at the Lindenoper in Berlin, the Swiss architectural group Herzog & de Meuron created a stage set that breathed. Voila: the result was a moving, in fact adventurously active space whose pressure and air chambers one could even have related to the 'billowing torrent […] in the wafting Universe of the world's breath'. Unfortunately, however, the hydraulic pump made so much noise that comparatively little could be heard of the music. The kinetic impulse compromised the very aspect that it was supposed to render spatially present.
From the perspective of opera direction, spaces therefore seem like a form of semantic vacuum, 'encircled all around' and 'confined by the boundary', as Parmenides already put it in rather theatrically apt terms, fenced in by hardware, proscenium and walls. One reason for the failure of the space stage of the 1920s to gain widespread acceptance in opera productions instead of the picture-frame stage was surely that the construction itself was, once again, simply a structural-architectural fantasy. The weir used by Patrice Chéreau for the opening of his Bayreuth Ring (1976) thus strikes me, for all the suggestive power it had at the time, as the symbol for the standard of opera direction: inevitably halting something that flows through time. More and more, the price of the desire to highlight scenographic concerns is the subordination of the musical.
Therefore, owing to pre-existing material obligations, opera direction can only ever scratch the surface of what musical space presumably means. One could conclude that it is damned to be mere resonance – an echo chamber. Yet one is by no means less inclined to listen to an echo than its sound source. On the contrary: the effect of an echo is due precisely to the fact that the echo draws additional attention to its mother impulse by dispersing its messages through multiplication. So I do not see anything wrong with the fact that the relationship between direction, music and space can initially best be described ex negativo. In the following section – which deals with the Topographical Space in opera work – I will take this even further, finally using this emphasis to catapult myself argumentatively into the opposing camp. In the third and final section, The Medial Space, in which I would like to present a production of my own in conjunction with Morton Feldman's Neither, the concern will be to show that directing can indeed access a musical space and, in operatic practice, free it from its metaphorical content.

My Witten lecture contained two further sections that have to be omitted here. The first dealt with the conception of my production Fidelio, 21st Century (premiered in 2004 on the Stage for Music Visualisation at the Beethoven House in Bonn), as well as opera direction and the acoustic space; the second dealt with opera direction and the simultaneous space, as well as a current production of the Ring (Ring-Study 01: Rheingold, Berlin/Hildesheim/Zurich 2008/09). 3)

II. The Topographical Space

I recently read about an illness known as 'space sickness', mostly experienced by astronauts at the start of a space flight; the unpleasant sensations are always based on the fact that during the rocket's takeoff, the brain is unable to reconcile the signals coming from the eye with those from the inner ear. The result: loss of orientation. Without a moment's hesitation, I thought of opera. Everyone knows: the opera genre reaches for the stars, but was born with the very same illness: the irreconcilability or respective autonomy of images and sounds within space. The discipline of opera direction has used this uncertainty principle as the basis for what I consider a heart-rending pragmatism. Certainly, directing opera inevitably involves committing prudent sins of omission; the stage is no castle in the air, but rather a wooden hut that constantly necessitates cuts and patched-up connections. In recent decades, however, one has increasingly been able to observe an incredible fuss in which the problems of opera direction almost seem to be coming into their own. I am referring to what is known as 'director's theatre', which displays a most peculiarly concretist approach to the stage space, and is latently willing to neglect the musical story in favour of the one in the libretto. I should add that I am genuinely not one to denounce my own field, and am not interested in a critical demolition of director's theatre. As I have explained elsewhere, if it had not been for director's theatre, we would not have the critical faculty that now enables us to test the option of abolishing it. 4) And yet: time and again one can observe a certain irritation as soon as one speaks of separating the (presumed) space in the music from the space in which music takes place. It is almost a kind of mental blackout caused by the pressure of the business. Because music in opera has to appear within a concrete architectural framework, its own compositional, sonic and physical directional tendencies are scenographically enclosed and walled in – quite literally. There is some kind of rampant fear among directors of losing one's sense of orientation in the visual interpretation, and they would rather hold onto what is locally tangible than place themselves at the mercy of insubstantial contexts.
An example: in the mid-90s, Michael Leinert directed Die Walküre at the Staatstheater in Kassel (and I was not uninvolved, so I am presenting hard facts here). For the second act, which culminates in the disavowal of the world knowledge that defines Wotan's claim to leadership, Leinert designed a library room. Books – culture of memory – exclusivity – knowledge: the genesis of the image is obvious enough. The aim was the representative location of a philosopheme. The problems began when Bodo Brinkmann, who was singing the part of Wotan, raised the question of where to put down his spear when the time came. Leinert suggested leaning it against the bookshelf. Brinkmann disagreed, and very vehemently so. He said (to paraphrase somewhat) that it was an impermissible trivialisation, that a spear is not a broomstick, but rather – precisely in this situation – a code for something imposed even on this god. And he was right. For this shows that the image of the library may click visually, but is ultimately inadequate as a symbolic representation because it is quite simply too concrete for that which cannot be shown. Leaning the spear against the shelf meant demoting the store of knowledge in Valhalla from a parable to an interior – rather like 'having Moses put the stone tablets on the cupboard'. 5)  But through the scenic diminutive – and this is the crux of the matter – Wotan's great multi-perspectival monologue could no longer be grasped in music-dramaturgical terms. The space was too small for anyone to credibly lose themselves in the infinity of knowledge.
This incident and other similar ones illustrate how many of the conceptions in director's theatre are based on a fundamental error: they confuse the space with an empirical point within it. The topographical location or relocation of music-theatrical events strikes me as a defining characteristic of director's theatre. And so we end up with the familiar, all-too-familiar sites: Fidelio in the Spanish court dungeon, Fidelio in the French Bastille, Fidelio in the American Guantánamo. The space of theatrical action has shrunk in its significatory perspective, and may even disappear entirely from the space of musical action without being able to posit substantial statements in doing so. This ultimately results in the aesthetic of the snapshot. Director's theatre is infatuated with stills and closing images, and the entire production leads up to them as if they offered some market-related benefit. But a photographic memento as a derivative of the yearning for a fixed location naturally undermines, in my view, every compositional texture, every kind of layering, and ultimately the entire musical edifice.
It is not the fourth wall that is the problem in opera today, then, but rather the first, second and third – and the fifth and sixth, if you like – which respectively show where above and below end. The misconception is the belief that the space within which the 'space of music' is meant to take place needs to be based on documentary factors and be architecturally generated. I would therefore never argue the case for new theatre buildings, but rather that the existing, fixed stage space should be beaten about, overstretched, blurred, made amorphous, oscillating, diffuse and transparent long enough for us to view the necessity of a smooth, musicophilically stimulable space as something normal. The essential concern should be a musicalisation of space, which brings me to the next section –

III. The Medial Space

– which I would like to relate to Neither, Morton Feldman's 'opera in one act for soprano and orchestra' of 1977. 6)
There is perhaps no other work in the history of music theatre in which it is so difficult to define where, that is to say in what space it is set. No comparable work is as crystal-clearly approximate with respect to concrete information, none eludes all the algorithms of staging so completely; indeed Neither – as the title insinuates – is the essence of the approximate, even cutting itself off on its way to the grammatically complete pairing 'neither… nor'. The other side of reality in musical form, its musical genesis formulating nothing except its own fragility, it is a porcelain work that only makes its appearance at the outermost edges of the scene through its own extinguishment.
Nonetheless, Neither too demands to be performed. And perhaps this work, which remains in a perennial state of evasion and negation, actually offers, because of its natural level of abstraction, the perfect resistance to find out what 'space' in opera work can ideally be if consolidation must be understood as dissolution.
Neither uses a 16-line text by Samuel Beckett that specifies no plot, no characters and no staging. 7) There are certainly suggestive images – doors opening and closing, for example, or footsteps and shadows –, but these all form part of Beckett's archetypal inventory and are not tied to any material reality. Opera itself becomes an 'unspeakable home'. 8) The initial dilemma of a production, therefore, lies in the fact that any kind of stage space already sabotages the space Feldman was concerned with defining, for the simple reason that it exists; even one curtain rising – already wrong. An anonymous soprano without any task except that of making herself perceptible, singing these things at the uppermost limits of articulation, where words dissolve into their component sounds and the messages conveyed dissolve into breathed air. One ferment of the composition is a ppp ostinato that seems to be floating in equilibrium, as if glazed – a material with too little to hold on to for it to gain any profile. The music makes no disclosures and knows no escalations, rather breaking with any formal directionality. But: it is never short-lived. It breathes in long phases, drawing threads together to form surfaces in the expanse of an orbit without centre. It is at all times an affirmation of acted-out negation. And this reminds us time and again of that first conversation between Feldman and Beckett that took place on 20 September 1976 in Berlin. I shall quote an excerpt – the two men were sitting together to consider the collaboration suggested by Feldman:

Beckett: 'Mr. Feldman, I don't like opera.'
Feldman: 'I don't blame you!'
Beckett: 'I don't like my words being set to music.'
Feldman: 'I'm in complete agreement.'
Beckett: 'But what do you want?'
Feldman: 'I have no idea!'

So many negations, and even the exception, Feldman's statement 'I'm in complete agreement', refers to the preceding negation – one indeed wonders how this dialogue was even able to flourish. It is documented non-presence – and, precisely because of this, a parable of this unmistakable, lucid work which, in its own way, recalls the old mathematical formula stating that minus times minus mysteriously equals plus. So, returning to the question 'Where is Neither set?', one could perhaps answer: in limbo. I would say that the famous dichotomy between 'to' and 'fro', which Deleuze describes as conjuring up the image of Beckett's rocking chairs, thematicises the threshold to a space concerned with no less than utterance and perception as such, or perhaps their fluctuating manifestations. Neither sends out a meta-plot. Referring to Elemental Procedures, Marion Saxer writes: 'One could almost say that philosophical thought [...] rises to the surface of the music' 9), and similarly this opera, which is not an opera, is a piece of music theatre that emerges in its own self-transmission.
In my view, therefore, Neither can only be set in a medial space. I would not, however, want the word 'medial' to be misunderstood as a term for something practised by apparatchiks or info-junkies. Nor should it be taken as prescribing artistic approaches that depend on plugs and sockets. I wish to use it in the sense of a specific minimum requisite level of self-reflection. If media art has taught us one thing, it is a critical awareness of the material – something that is especially absent from opera, which could benefit from a chronic infection in this respect. Hence for Neither I rely on a reabsorbing space that is prepared to say something about itself, and validates an interpretation that scenically incorporates it.
In her best-known book, the American media theorist Brenda Laurel suggests treating Computers as Theatre 10). The idea of the theatre house and the computer case overlap, she argues: audience rows correspond to the keyboard, the stage portal to a screen and the backstage to a processor. For Neither I would now like to scenographically turn this hypothesis inside out, so to speak. Feldman once said that the basic concept of his work was located 'between categories.' 11)  And so our stage itself will be a medium, a space mediating and deceptively oscillating between inside and outside as a modem, a self- generating generator that renders the music's material visible in the course of its genesis. At best, this is the simulated interior of a communication machine, for example a computer – not literally, but nonetheless depicting something like a superlativist, music-visualising circuit board whose internal circuits are set in motion on the scale of the theatre portal, thus simultaneously producing and memorising Feldman's 'notation images' 12) and creating a spatial memory structure for sounds that are constantly trickling away.
In this context it strikes me as not irrelevant that in the mid-1970s, Feldman began to study the weaving and braiding patterns of traditional Middle Eastern rugs (Fig. 1), whose structures he saw as models and applied to his own compositional techniques. Repetitive ornaments and lines that are forced out of their overarching symmetrical disposition through slight manual errors or imprecision, yet never negate it, became ostinato patterns and timbres that are processually transformed. 13)

Leaving aside the fact that every carpet can be laid out in a space 14) and define it as such by indicating a gravitational point (Fig. 2), it does seem possible to establish a subtle connection to the patterns that are familiar from circuit boards and wiring diagrams (Figs. 3a – 4b).

In both cases one finds the same irregular rigour, the same vertical perspectives of meaning, whose branches begin to dissolve their own balance through affirmation, meandering leaps across corners, filigree threads that end in knots yet are still continued, offset in relation to their original lines.

The imago of the circuit board is intended to become the catalyst for a staging that seeks to visualise Feldman's composition from a knowledge of its production. A space made of driver technology for Neither. For only a membranous environment can establish a congruence between making present the 'self' and its absence, which Beckett called the 'unself'. Feldman said: 'The main concern was to find an expression of the unself, which I imagined in a completely isolated, depersonalised, perfectly functioning machinery.' 15) In this context a technomorphic medial space symbolically stands, I would say, for the actions of a protagonist simultaneously finding and losing, extolling and surrendering itself, 'beckoned back and forth and turned away'. Feldman's 'unspeakable home' may lie on the horizon of our own desire to communicate.
To conclude: a 'musical space' for opera work would be one that transforms itself by enabling the music to appear within it. This means achieving a mimesis of the music by mobilising and transcending the unambiguous architectures of the empirical stage space, but not atomising them. After all: the only chance we have is to distract systematically from the fact that without walls, we would not have any opera. So, for the record: yes, there is a liquid 'space of music' for opera direction. It can be enabled as a 'musicalised space'.

[Translation: Wieland Hoban]

Text version.pdf


1) The text first appeared in German in Positionen, issue 78 (February 2009), pp. 30-34. (The passages with text and illustrations on Feldman's engagement with Middle Eastern rug patterns were produced separately for the online art forum beam-me-up.)
2) Gunnar Hindrichs, 'Der musikalische Raum', in Ulrich Tadday (ed.): Musik-Konzepte Neue Folge. Sonderband Musikphilosophie (Munich: edition text + kritik, 2007), p. 52.
3) For details on the Fidelio production, which was taken up into the archive for theatre studies in Cologne-Wahn, see Sophie B. Walz, 'Fidelio, 21. Jahrhundert', in Mediale Analogien von Musik und Bild. Theatrale Abstraktionen in Musikinszenierungen [Medial Analogies Between Music and Images: Theatrical Abstractions in Music Productions], diploma dissertation for the University of Munich (2008), pp. 38-59, 79-84; Johanna Dombois, 'Musikstrom. Inszenieren mit Neuen Medien am Beispiel Fidelio' [Current of Music: Fidelio as an Example of Staging with New Media], in Musik & Ästhetik 41 (January 2007), pp. 91-107; Johanna Dombois, 'Master Voices: Opernstimmen im Virtuellen Raum' [Opera Voices in the Virtual Space], in Doris Kolesch/ Vito Pinto/ Jenny Schrödl (eds.): Stimm-Welten. Philosophische, medientheoretische und ästhetische Perspektiven [Voice Worlds: Philosophical, Media-Theoretical and Aesthetic Perspectives] (Bielefeld: transcript Verlag, 2009), pp. 127-142.
4) See Johanna Dombois / Richard Klein, 'Das Lied der unreinen Gattung. Zum Regietheater in der Oper' [The Song of the Impure Genre: On Director's Theatre in Opera], in Merkur vol. 61, issue 10 (October 2007), pp. 928- 937.
5) Bodo Brinkmann, retrospective conversation notes from 11 April 2008.
6) All information on Neither here and in the following relates to Morton Feldman's score Neither. Opera in one act on a text by Samuel Beckett for soprano and orchestra (1977), Universal Edition UE 16326. Our production is scheduled for the 2009/10 season.
7) Excerpts from Neither can be heard at: (last accessed on 5.4.2009).
8) The final line of Beckett's text.
9) Marion Saxer: " explain in philosophical terms what I wanted to say with the music...". Zur Vertonung des »Esse est percipi« in Morton Feldmans »Elemental Procedures« (1976) [On the musicalisation of Esse est percipi in Morton Feldman's Elemental Procedures]. Lecture given at the 21st Dresden Contemporary Music Days, Festspielhaus Hellerau, 2007 (publication forthcoming).
10) Brenda Laurel: Computers as Theatre (Reading, Massachusetts: Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1991).
11) Quoted in Morton Feldman, Essays, ed. Walter Zimmermann (Kerpen: Beginners Press, 1985), p. 84. The text in which this statement appears was originally published in Swedish ('Mellan kategorierna'), then later translated into German and French.
12) Saxer, op. cit.
13) Karlheinz Essl points to the following aesthetic amplification: 'Feldman's engagement with Anatolian nomad rugs [yürük] led him to discover the organic creative power of forgetting, which had a direct effect on his compositional work, for example in Why Patterns? (1978). Unlike Persian rugs, the Turkish yürüks are woven in such a way that the completed sections disappear under the loom, meaning that the results of the weaver's work are invisible to him/her. It is thus impossible to check what has just been produced; it only remains as an image in the memory. And because this remembering will always be subject to mistakes, the pattern gradually changes in the further course of weaving. So Feldman transferred this method to his compositional approach. As soon as a page was completed, he produced a fair copy in ink that could no longer be corrected, put it away, and did not look at it again until the entire piece was finished.' Karlheinz Essl, Morton Feldman Projekt. Concert by the Klangforum Vienna on 22.1.1994. It can be read at: (last accessed on 5.4.2009).
14) Translator's note: the original contains a pun here, as the word auslegen means both 'to interpret' and (using the word's components in the most literal sense) 'to lay out'.
15) Quoted in the programme book of the Metamusik-Festival 3 in Berlin (Neue Nationalgalerie), 19. October 1978.

Comments to this entry