Richard Blackford’s Not in our time
was commissioned by the Bournemouth Symphony Chorus to mark their centenary.
The forces that took part in this recording gave the first performance
of the work in Cheltenham Town Hall on 11 September 2011. That premiere
for Seen and Heard by my colleague, Roger Jones, who was impressed.
Around that time Roger also interviewed
Richard Blackford for Seen and Heard and that interview is required
reading for anyone interested in this work. The composer has written
a useful booklet note to accompany this CD but, if I may say so, what
he had to say in the interview is, in some respects, even more informative.
Not in our time
is a direct and frankly often visceral musical
response to the dreadful events of 9/11. The assault on the World Trade
Center is one of those events, like the assassination of President Kennedy,
which made so strong an impression on people all over the world that
many of us can still remember what they were doing when they heard the
news. In this work Blackford, assembling his own libretto, has combined
contemporary texts about 9/11 and its aftermath with words written in
the eleventh century about the First Crusade. He asserts, with some
justice, that there are parallels.
I may as well be honest and say that I have some problems with Not
in our time
, though I don’t for one moment doubt Richard Blackford’s
sincerity. One problem concerns some of the texts that he’s selected.
He has included extracts from speeches by Presidents George W Bush and
Barack Obama as well as some of the rhetoric of one of Al Qaeda’s
leaders, Ayman Al Zawahiri. These are powerfully illustrative of the
theme. However, the trouble with these various extracts is that they
are pieces of political rhetoric and I’m not sure how well they
sit in a work of art. They seem to me to be stubbornly resistant to
a musical setting. That said, I can see the argument for their inclusion.
More serious, however, is the danger posed by a lack of historical perspective.
Are we not too close to the events of 9/11 and their aftermath to be
able to view them objectively? Blackford says in his interview with
Roger Jones that he was not taking sides in writing Not in our time
and I’m prepared to take him at his word. However, the dispassionate
listener will note that the composer has used words of the present and
previous US Presidents as “bookends” in his score. Thus
the piece opens with a setting of some words from a speech given by
President Bush a few days after 9/11. In this he was probably ill advised
to use the word “Crusade” - which, for Blackford opens up
an understandable parallel with the medieval Crusades. One must not
forget how raw were emotions in the USA in the days that immediately
followed 9/11. In the last section of his work Blackford sets words
from the speech that President Obama delivered at Cairo University in
2009 which, at the time, was widely hailed as an attempt to build bridges
between the USA and the Muslim world. Blackford contrasts the two speeches
in his booklet note, saying that Obama’s speech was ‘the
antithesis of Bush’s evangelical call to arms and to demonize
the “evildoers”’. The inference behind that comment
is pretty plain. I am not defending President Bush; history will judge
his conduct. However, firstly one must not forget the context of his
speech and secondly it is surely legitimate to ask whether there has
been much sign of a rapprochement between the USA and the Muslim world
in the four years since President Obama made his Cairo speech: was it
more than rhetoric? These, I suggest, are judgements that it is difficult
to make yet: we are too close to the events and lack historical perspective.
However, I’m not surprised that Richard Blackford has identified
parallels between the post-9/11 world and the medieval Crusades for
in both cases there was unspeakable conflict involving the Muslim world
and the West. Sadly, these are not isolated examples: the combination
of religion and politics has often produced a toxic brew down the ages.
One need only think of the terrible strife in Europe throughout much
of the 16th
centuries prompted by the
Reformation and Counter-Reformation.
Unsurprisingly, given his subject matter, Blackford’s music is
often violent and graphic in tone. The score calls for what sounds like
a large orchestra as well as adult and children’s choirs. The
tenor and baritone soloist respectively sing words associated with Christianity/the
West and with Islam. The two soloists come together at the end to sing
President Obama’s words in unison, to symbolise reconciliation.
I was surprised that their music at this point is, to my ears, disappointingly
Elsewhere, much of the music in the first three of the piece’s
six parts is very loud and harsh. That’s understandable since
Blackford is depicting 9/11 and the Crusades but the effect is somewhat
unremitting and, eventually, a little wearing. Part IV is a setting
for tenor and orchestra of some words written two years after 9/11 by
the writer, Tom Junod in which he describes the image of a man falling
to his death having, presumably, leapt from one of the Twin Towers.
Much of the music in this section is quiet and almost other-worldly
and, as such rather at odds - deliberately, I’m sure - with the
horror of the man’s fall and the unimaginably desperate choice
he faced prior to making his leap. This setting is highly imaginative.
A poem by Hilda Doolittle (1912-1944) features prominently in the score.
It begins with the lines ‘Not in our time, O lord/The ploughshare
for the sword’. There’s a complete setting of this poem
for the chorus at the end of Part I and they sing parts of the poem
at other points in the work. The poem furnishes the title of Blackford’s
piece and the music to which he sets Doolittle’s words is convincing.
Richard Blackford has written a good deal of music for film and TV and
I think that experience is very evident in this score, which is powerfully
illustrative - more than once I was put in mind of Prokofiev’s
- especially in the section in Part II where
the choir sings the hymn Vexilla regis
to very martial music.
Overall I am afraid that thematically speaking this score is not particularly
memorable; I do
find the use of colour memorable, however.
After I’d finished listening to Not in our time
to sum up my reactions. I found myself thinking of another musical response
to 9/11, On the Transmigration of Souls
by John Adams. I’ve
experienced that piece twice on disc (review
and also live in concert (review
I’ve said previously that I’m unsure if On the Transmigration
will stand the test of time. I’m still unsure but
I believe it’s a more successful artistic response to the event
than Not in our time
. The reason I say that is that Adams’s
score is more restrained
- both emotionally and musically - than
Blackford’s piece yet it still makes its point strongly. As I
said earlier, I don’t doubt Richard Blackford’s sincerity
but I think the piece just tries too hard.
It’s hard to imagine that Not in our time
could have received
a more committed recording than this one and the music is conveyed in
vivid sound. It’s unsettling to listen to and that’s as
it should be, given its subject matter. I enjoyed and admired a previous
disc of Richard Blackford’s music (review
but my response to Not in our time
is that it
may be unsettling
but it failed to move me.
MusicWeb reader, Martin Walker, is a devotee of the poetry of Hilda
Doolittle. I had assumed from the way the information was laid out in
the booklet that she lived from 1912-1944 but I’m advised by Martin
that she lived from 1886-1961. The source of the lines which Richard
Blackford uses in Not in our time
is not given in the booklet.
After some research Martin has established that the lines come from
a poem entitled Tribute to the Angels
(1945) which is contained
in Doolittle’s wartime Trilogy. The dates given in the Nimbus
booklet and which led me astray in fact refer to her Collected Poems
1912-1944. I am grateful to Martin for clarifying the incomplete information
given in the booklet.