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Seen and Heard Opera Review


BRIAN FERNEYHOUGH: Shadowtime, An opera in seven acts, Nicholas Hodges (piano/speaker), Mats Scheidegger (guitar), Neue Vocalisten Stuttgart, Nieuw Ensemble, Jurjen Hempel (conductor), ENO at the Coliseum, London, 9 July, 2005  (AO)


During the course of this opera, a border guard asks Walter Benjamin what his profession is. “Indeterminate” is the terse reply.  Ferneyhough considers Benjamin one of the last true intellectuals in that he was able to live for the sake of ideas.  His limitless mental horizons roamed free, challenging the very concepts of thought and experience.  When finally trapped by unthinking mindlessness, he chose to die.   Benjamin may not have crossed a geographical border to freedom, but he transcended it metaphysically.   Ferneyhough does much the same thing.    He uses the medium of music but transcends form:  this is a profoundly philosophic exploration of the drama inherent in thought.  It is music that goes beyond music, for in its own way it is a meditation on the issues of our time, of modernity, of human existence.   Ferneyhough may not believe it, but he, too, is a true intellectual.

Benjamin's last hours are depicted in the first scene.  The music with its rises and falls expresses the difficult climb up the Pyrenees and the soprano trombone wails with a sense of disturbing ambivalence.   It's difficult to make out what is being said by the singers, but I think this is the whole point – the situation is meant to be incomprehensible.  Benjamin's companion seems to represent the voice of conventional wisdom.  “But that is what we were told”, she repeats out of the miasma of swelling anxiety.  Unlike the Munich premiere in 2004, this production is a concert version, but this has its advantages.  When Hempel conducts, for example, he isn't visible to the singers, and they are on their own – another subtle comment on their predicament.    Benjamin was preoccupied by the concept of time, breaking down the borders between past, present and future.  One of his key inspirations was Paul Klee's watercolour, “Angelus Novus” in which the Angel of History is propelled into the future, while still looking back on what has gone before.  Brilliantly, Ferneyhough expresses these concepts on several simultaneous levels. Indeed, he titles this act “New Angels/Transient Failures”.  On one side of the stage, Benjamin is in his “present” while on the other his past is portrayed by another set of singers depicting Benjamin's youthful idealism.  On yet another level, childhood rhymes appear, evoking not only Benjamin's family but his fascination with the experience of youth.  Even more dramatically, Ferneyhough creates yet another dimension, depicting the conflicts of the world that led to the fateful day of Benjamin's death.  The choir sings a bizarre “radio music”, sounds as if heard on a crackling radio, incoherent, as if spoken by sleepwalkers.  They are jumbled words from Heidegger, whose views were a twisted parallel universe to Benjamin's.  Still later there are “dialogues” with Benjamin's heroes, Gershom Scholem and Friedrich Hölderlin.  Ferneyhough said he wanted to create a dense “flickering” effect, condensing 128 sections into 17 minutes.  Indeed, the effect is of intense colour moving so fast that it blends before it can be perceived.  At a stroke, Ferneyhough creates music that links threads in Benjamin's philosophy, the “flickering” of a dying society and the internal process of death as it closes down Benjamin's mind.

This amazing scene, however, is just a prelude for what is to come. Benjamin is dead, but what Ferneyhough is doing is creating an entirely original exploration in imagination, speculating on how Benjamin's ideas might evolve.   The second “scene” is titled in French, “Les Froissements d'Ailes de Gabriel” (the rustling of the wings of Gabriel) to make a direct connection with the music of the past, specifically the genre of baroque music.  Benjamin's avatar crosses the boundary into another mode of afterlife, like an Egyptian soul in mythology. Connecting the ur-past with the present gives this music a  deep, atavistic character.  We hear dramatic music from before nineteenth century opera, and realise that Shadowtime's operatic roots go much deeper than the narrative entertainment we've become accustomed to.   We are left in no doubt that this is Ferneyhough's persona.  The virtuoso guitar playing is a clear reminder of Ferneyhough's Kurze Schatten II from 1983-9.  That was based on a quotation by Benjamin, too.  It may sound crass, but it's true, Benjamin casts long shadows. 

Benjamin wrote about Trauerspiel, dramas about mythic heroes, rich with allegory, and rather like what we'd call today Jungian symbols.  The third scene The Doctrine of Similarity comprises 13 Canons for choir.  The music harks back to a kind of medieval Requiem.  Interestingly, though the music sounds vaguely monastic, the choir stands in a straight line, voices coming in small blocks and combinations  from the line, rather than singing en masse.  Even when they are singing together, microtones differentiate.  It is fascinating, coming from a composer not generally known for his vocal writing.  He treats each voice as an individual instrument.   He may say he prefers music about concepts rather than about messy human emotion, but I suspect he may happen on a way of resolving this.  Most of the canons are reinforced by inventive ensemble writing, notably bassoons and oboes ululating to male voices, and a section where drum and voices interact.

The work crosses another border in the fourth section, Opus Contra Naturam  (Descent of Benjamin into the underworld).   Here the staging is crucial to the piece, and a degree of pre knowledge helps when listening to the music alone.  Ferneyhough said it should be set in Las Vegas, a place that is truly artificial and “against nature”.  He also refers to the hotels shaped like Egyptian pyramids, European castles etc, a pastiche of the world and of history.  Nicolas Hodges is the white suited razzle dazzle pianist and master of ceremonies.  He speaks while the piano plays quite a different tune, as if it represents the non verbal and instinctive that is beyond analysis.  It is like anti Lieder, a parody of form within form.

The 13 Canons of the second scene are paralleled by the 11 Interrogations of the fourth scene – patterns and replications matter in this scheme of things, just as they did to the mystically minded Benjamin.  Each interrogator confronts the Benjamin figure with a dilemma.  A two headed figure, one Karl, one Groucho Marx, like trolls, seek to unseat the traveller by asking riddles.  He replies in riddles himself which they can't answer.  Sometimes, however, he can't answer, such as when Einstein asks him “what time is it now”.  Each interrogation is based on a distinct musical figure, imaginatively and succinctly written.  Finally he confronts the Golem, himself and answers the unanswerable gobbledegook with simple lines.  “If I submit, I die”....”First you know it, then not.  That's where you begin to find out”.

Even more quixotic are the Seven Tableaux Vivants Representing the Angelm of History as Melancholia.  Each of these is a tour de force game of words mixed up and restructured, challenging the very idea of language, syntax and grammar. The first tableau is a bizarre translation of Heine's Die Lorelei, now called “Laurel's Eyes”.  In another parody of Heine, the word “Nightingale” so beloved of the Romantics is broken into single syllables, with emphasis, probably intentionally, on the word “gale”. The imagery reminds me of Rimbaud.  Again, the images and musical figures flit past so quickly they hardly register.  Perhaps they stick subliminally in the subconscious, letting the listeners mind cogitate.  Section 6, “Can'ts” certainly moves round my mind.  If you can't see it can still hurt you” repeats over and over seamlessly.  It frightens me, as if it suggests that the search for understanding can be destroyed by the philistines, bullying and brutishness.   Not everyone escaped the Nazis by suicide.   As if to emphasise the dilemma, the orchestra breaks into huge, multilayered tectonic plates of sound, introducing the epilogue, Stelae for Failed Time.  The full choir returns, as if in dichotomy with the introduction, for the first time of electronically recorded sound.  The scraping wails of what sounds like industrial machinery sound suitably discordant with the faint rolling of drums and the reprise of trombone.  Ferneyhough writes this last scene in two layers.  Textually, one reflects on time and forgetting, the other on Benjamin's concept of “Jetztzeit” (now time).  At first it seems to offer clues (“Blame is a child's game played by men”) but fundamentally it revolves around invented language.  The choir and orchestra seem to cry for emphasis, but it's a battle between them and the electronic incantation – a recording of Ferneyhough's own voice.  The cataclysmic ending left me reeling.  There's no resolution.

There's an anecdote that Ferneyhough writes scores that need three foot tall pages, and another that he writes for instruments that haven't yet been invented.  Good though the performers were, I can imagine a time in the future when truly breathtaking performances will be made, for this is music so ahead of its time that people will be finding more and more in it as time goes by.  Although I've written about it from a dramatic perspective, as pure music, if there is such a thing, it is exquisite.  The details, the puzzles, the quotes, all work together towards an integrated whole.  If it could be represented visually,  Shadowtime would be as Mandelbrot's depiction of fractal geometry, seemingly complex but mathematically elegant.  It's beautiful. 


Anne Ozorio



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Contributors: Marc Bridle (North American Editor), Martin Anderson, Patrick Burnson, Frank Cadenhead, Colin Clarke, Paul Conway, Geoff Diggines, Sarah Dunlop, Evan Dickerson Melanie Eskenazi (London Editor) Robert J Farr, Abigail Frymann, Göran Forsling, Simon Hewitt-Jones, Bruce Hodges,Tim Hodgkinson, Martin Hoyle, Bernard Jacobson, Tristan Jakob-Hoff, Ben Killeen, Bill Kenny (Regional Editor), Ian Lace, Jean Martin, John Leeman, Neil McGowan, Bettina Mara, Robin Mitchell-Boyask, Simon Morgan, Aline Nassif, Anne Ozorio, Ian Pace, John Phillips, Jim Pritchard, John Quinn, Peter Quantrill, Alex Russell, Paul Serotsky, Harvey Steiman, Christopher Thomas, John Warnaby, Hans-Theodor Wolhfahrt, Peter Grahame Woolf (Founder & Emeritus Editor)