"An echo inside
a shadow wrapped in cellophane"
An appreciation of
Walter Benjamin was
a philosopher whose horizons roamed
free, challenging the borders of consciousness
and time. Ultimately, though, his intellect
did not save him. In a desperate attempt
to escape the Nazis, he climbed the
Pyrenees, hoping to enter Spain. Thwarted
by petty minded bureaucracy, he committed
suicide rather than lose his freedom.
Brian Ferneyhough sees Benjamin as a
symbol of intellectual creativity, destroyed
by philistinism. In his opera, Shadowtime,
premiered in 2004, and now available
on CD, he takes Benjamin’s death as
a starting point, and weaves from that
point an amazingly fertile, imaginative
piece of music.
In the first Act, New
Angels/Transient Failures, we follow
Benjamin as he painfully climbs the
mountains, frail and in ill health,
but hoping for safety. A soprano trombone
keens plaintively. Mixed in with the
orchestration, fragments of disjointed
speech surface, often hard to comprehend.
But the situation itself was incomprehensible.
Benjamin's companion represents the
voice of conventional wisdom. "But
that is what we were told", she
repeats, again and again. But what we
expect is not what we get. What characterizes
this work is its uncompromising originality.
It evokes a "living experience"
in that it follows a stream of consciousness,
without the filters of logic and causality.
In the remarkable first
movement, there are layer after layer
of images from different times and places.
Childhood melodies appear, evoking Benjamin's
fascination with youth and of the process
of learning. Then, Ferneyhough creates
yet another dramatic dimension, depicting
the social concerns of Benjamin’s time:
fascism, the force of the mass against
the individual. The choir sings bizarre
"radio music", sounds as if
heard on a distant, crackling radio,
incoherent, intoned by zombies. They
are jumbled words from Heidegger, whose
views were completely opposite to Benjamin's.
Still later there are "quotations"
from Benjamin's heroes, Gershom Scholem
and Friedrich Hölderlin. Ferneyhough
condenses 128 distinct sections into
17 minutes, creating an effect of intense
colour moving so fast that it blends
before it can be perceived. It flickers
past rapidly, reflecting the embers
of liberal, intellectual society rapidly
being extinguished by brutalist totalitarian
regimes. On a more intimate level, it
also represents the physical process
of death that closes down Benjamin's
In the long instrumental
movement, Les froissements d’Ailes
de Gabriel (the rustling wings of the
Angel Gabriel) long searching lines
reach out tentatively, contrasted with
staccato passages that cut across. This
section is based on Ferneyhough’s guitar
concerto 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 opera
and Purcellian masques. Although it
is 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
soul crossing into another mode of experience,
like an Egyptian avatar making its voyage
into the after life.
The third movement,
The Doctrine of Similarity comprises
13 Canons for choir. Though it sounds
vaguely monastic, the voices come in
small blocks and combinations. The canons
are reinforced by inventive ensemble
writing, notably bassoons and oboes
ululating against male voices. As in
a dream, words can be pregnant with
meaning but not explicit. Benjamin was
interested in the idea that language
shapes itself constantly. This perhaps
is the key to appreciating Ferneyhough’s
use of the libretto by Charles Bernstein,
based on significant snippets from Benjamin’s
work. Words here are not prescriptive,
but are signposts, not the message itself.
Normally, we assume words connect consequentially
and express meaning. Instead, words
are an impressionistic device creating
amorphous and shifting meaning. This
libretto doesn’t tell us what to think.
Our ideas grow from immersing into the
spirit of what’s happening. It is music
to be assimilated in the subconscious.
This concept is developed
further in the core movement, Opus
contra Naturam (Descent of Benjamin
into the Underworld). Here all is
pared down to a monologue by the pianist.
It is 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 and
possess them. Like a cellophane wrapper,
it is both transparent and distancing.
Ferneyhough and Bernstein, are exploring
the very concept of consciousness and
expression. Nicholas Hodges, who has
been associated with this piece since
inception, speaks while playing the
piano in a different tune. Conventionally
man and piano might mean Lieder: here
Ferneyhough bends the form into "anti-Lieder"
turning the genre on its head. Shadowtime
may formally be called "an opera
in seven acts" but it is not, by
any means, conventional narrative opera.
It is not theatre in the sense that
it is a spectacle. Instead its drama
arises from the ideas in the music,
ideas that co exist on several different
levels without contradiction. It is
the listener whose awareness sorts and
processes its multiple images.
carries within itself an avatar
of ancient opera. Hence the presence
of archetypes, like figures in a masque
: only here the symbols are Einstein
and Hitler. Yet Ferneyhough again overturns
convention. 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.
Dogma disintegrates. In the final section,
Points of Darkness, all dreams
scatter before the mindless, primitive
Golem. Then Ferneyhough presents Seven
Tableaux Vivants representing the Angel
of History. The reference is obvious,
but again subverted. The phrase "If
you can’t see it, 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.
Images are beyond meaning, to be absorbed
As if to emphasise
the dilemma, the orchestra breaks into
huge, multilayered spans of sound, introducing
the epilogue, Stelae for Failed Time.
For the first time there is electronically
recorded sound, as if the time for the
purely human has passed. Ironically
the recording used is of Ferneyhough’s
own voice, creating a further, quixotic
layer to this densely scored "drama
of ideas". The scraping wails of
mechanical sound are suitably discordant
with the faint rolling of drums and
the reprise of trombone. At first there
seem to be clues in fragments of text,
but fundamentally it revolves around
invented language, which has no meaning.
In the end, language itself disintegrates.
Just as Benjamin was destroyed by the
philistine, is all intellectual striving
doomed ? It is a question painful to
ponder in these depressing, conformist
times. If anything, our era of instant,
soundbite information devalues the questioning,
open ended nature of true intellectual
depth. Yet if there are composers prepared
to write music like this, there must,
somehow, be some ultimate hope, or at
least the illusion thereof.
This is music that
reveals itself with repeated listening,
each experience highlighting different
aspects and ideas. It is so unusual
that it would not surprise me in the
least if it may be years before we can
appreciate it. Yet even without the
important superstructure of ideas, the
score is intricately constructed, so
beautifully formed that it fascinates.
It reminds me of Mandelbrot’s fractals,
endlessly complex and varied, yet growing
organically, like a living organism.
That perhaps is the key to accessing
this densely textured, highly literate
masterpiece. Ironically, for music so
concerned with the intellect, it is
ironic that it’s best experienced "beyond
1943) Shadowtime (2003-4)
by Charles Bernstein
Nicolas Hodges (piano, speaker); Mats
Nieuw Ensemble/Jurjen Hempelrec.
live, English National Opera, London
Coliseum, July 2005. DDDIn
conjunction with BBC Radio 3.
NMC D123 [64:42 + 62:02] [AOz]