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"An echo inside a shadow wrapped in cellophane"

An appreciation of Ferneyhough’s Shadowtime

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 mind.

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.

Nonetheless, Shadowtime 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 subliminally.

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 intellect".

Anne Ozorio


CD review

Brian FERNEYHOUGH (b. 1943) Shadowtime (2003-4) Libretto by Charles Bernstein Nicolas Hodges (piano, speaker); Mats Scheidegger (guitar)Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart; 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]



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