Walter Benjamin was a philosopher whose mental horizons
roamed free, challenging the borders of consciousness and time.
Ultimately, though, he was destroyed by philistinism. Trying to
escape the Nazis, Benjamin climbed the Pyrenees into Spain,
but was held up at the border by petty bureaucracy. In a last
attempt to assert his freedom of choice, he killed himself. Ferneyhough
takes Benjamin’s death as a starting point, but refers constantly
to his ideas.
In the first Act, New Angels/Transient Failures,
we follow Benjamin as he painfully confronts his final border.
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. What we expect, isn’t what
we get. A single phrase that captures both Benjamin’s and Ferneyhough’s
uncompromising originality. In this remarkable first movement,
we hear layer after layer of images from different times and
places. Childhood melodies appear, evoking Benjamin's family
fascination with the experience of youth and of the process
Then, Ferneyhough creates yet
another dramatic dimension, depicting the social concerns of
Benjamin’s time: modernism, communism, Nazism, fascism, the
mass against the individual. 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.
Knowing something of Benjamin’s philosophy does help
access this amazing, and difficult work, but it’s not essential,
for the music itself expresses a multitude of ideas. This is
Ferneyhough’s creation, not Benjamin’s. The long instrumental
movement, Les froissements d’Ailes de Gabriel (the rustling
wings of the Angel Gabriel) is an abstract musical exploration.
Long searching lines reach out tentatively, contrasted with
staccato passages that cut across them. It’s based on Ferneyhough’s
Kurze Schatten, itself based on an essay by Benjamin
about time and the “long shadows” cast by the past on the present.
Ferneyhough expresses time layers by embedding references to
earlier music, such as baroque and Purcell. Although it can
be listened to as a “stand alone”, it works well in the context
of this opera as a whole, since it separates the semi realistic
narrative of the first movement from the truly imaginative which
is to come. It is a “barrier” to be crossed, as Ferneyhough
says. In a sense we are following Benjamin’s avatar crossing
into another mode of experience, like an Egyptian soul making
its voyage into the after life.
The third movement, The Doctrine of Similarity
comprises thirteen Canons for choir. The music harks back to
a kind of medieval Requiem. Interestingly, though the music
sounds vaguely monastic, the 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. The canons are reinforced by inventive
ensemble writing, notably bassoons and oboes ululating to male
voices, and a section where drum and voices interact. One of
the reasons this music is considered “difficult” is because
we’re accustomed to opera being narrative and words telling
a story. Hearing in recording, minus the visual clues, actually
helps appreciation, for you begin to realize that, while the
words are significant, they don’t necessarily “have” to make
consequential sense. As in a dream, words can be pregnant with
meaning but not explicit. Bernstein’s libretto is impressionistic,
not prescriptive. It reflects many of Benjamin’s ideas on language,
but the whole point, and Benjamin’s too, is that language is
just a tool that can be shaped and reshaped. Meaning is far
more amorphous than the means of expression. It is “beyond intellect”,
so to speak.
This concept is developed even more in the core movement,
Opus contra Naturam (Descent of Benjamin into the Underworld).
Here all is pared down to a monologue by the pianist, as
if we are inside his mind, alone with his intimate thoughts.
Phrases come out jerkily: “like as/as if/if like”, out of syntax
and out of context. Again, it is not be listened to for literal
logic. It is, as the text says, “an echo inside a shadow wrapped
in cellophane”. It’s not supposed to be grasped, any more than
we can grasp onto sound and light. Like a cellophane wrapper,
it is both transparent and distancing. Ferneyhough and Bernstein,
like Benjamin, are exploring the very concept of consciousness
and expression. Nicholas Hodges speaks while playing the piano
plays in a different tune. This alone represents the idea of
non verbal and instinctive thought that is beyond analysis.
It is like anti-Lieder, a parody of form within form, just as
the “opera” transcends classification.
Nonetheless, Shadowtime carries within itself
an avatar of ancient opera. Hence the presence of archetype
figures, like the gods in baroque opera: only here they are
symbols like Einstein and Hitler. Yet Ferneyhough again overturns
convention. When these figures prescribe, they aren’t to be
taken seriously. Karl Marx morphs into Groucho Marx. Karl intones
ponderous sounding questions: Groucho subverts them with ironic
distortion, and cries “Dunkelheit !” with an exaggerated
Mitteleuropean accent. Albert Einstein repeatedly asks, “What
time is it”, but gets no answer. Eventually his phrase becomes
a statement not a question, there is no answer. In the final
section of Points of Darkness, all dreams scatter before
the mindless, primitive Golem. Then Ferneyhough presents Seven
Tableaux Vivants representing the Angel of History. Again
convention is overturned. The images and musical figures flit
past so quickly they hardly register. Perhaps they stick subliminally
in the subconscious, letting the listeners mind cogitate beyond
meaning. The phrase “If you can’t see, it can still hurt you”
morphs into multiple forms in bizarre wordplay. It is both an
illusion and frightening at the same time. Madame Moiselle and
Mister Moiselle go for a walk with their gazelle, but their
music ends with dark, apocalyptic dissonance.
As if to emphasise the dilemma, the orchestra breaks
into huge, multilayered tectonic plates of sound, introducing
the epilogue, Stelae for Failed
the first time there is electronically recorded sound, as if
the time for purely human has passed. Ironically the recording
is of Ferneyhough’s own voice, creating an even more quixotic
layer to this densely scored “drama of ideas”. 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. In the end, language itself disintegrates into sounds
without meaning, invented words so to speak. The libretto isn’t
included because, frankly, good as it is, the point of this
opera is to make you listen, not take the easy way out and follow
a text. It is music that transcends words.
Just as Benjamin was destroyed by the banal and philistine,
is all intellectual striving doomed? It is a question painful
to ponder in these depressing times. Yet I feel, that if there
are composers prepared to write music like this, and performers
who understand it, there must, somehow, be some ultimate hope.
It is music that reveals itself with repeated listening. It
is so different that it may be years before we can fully appreciate
it. The score is intricately constructed, so beautifully formed
that it fascinates even without the important superstructure
of ideas. It reminds me of Mandelbrot’s depiction of fractal
geometry, endlessly complex and varied, yet growing from an
organic concept. Each time I listen, I get more from it – today
I hear the faint sound of hunting horns in the Golem, a detail
I can’t, as yet, assimilate. That perhaps is the key to accessing
this densely textured, highly literate masterpiece: to let it
unfold in your imagination.
see also Review
by Hubert Culot
M J Walker
has written in:
This is a magnificent
review by Anne Ozorio - together by
the equally informative (if a tad less
appreciative) one by Hubert Culot it
tells us more than one usually expects
from a record review, and one senses
the writer's heart is really in it.
These CDs are on the top of my list
& I've started re-reading Benjamin
in preparation. I wonder, though, whether
this is the first time a libretto has
only been available in book form and
not either included or put on a website
- Mr Culot's suggestion that it is "available"
on the website he mentions is slightly
misleading: one can only order it there.
I too, by the way, treasure my worn
copy of In Transit (another complex
vocal work) & wish Decca would issue
it in remastered sound.
echo inside a shadow wrapped in cellophane"
An appreciation of Ferneyhough’s
Shadowtime by Anne Ozorio