Richard BLACKFORD (b. 1972)
Not in our time (2011)
Paul Nilon (tenor); Stephen Gadd (baritone)
Bournemouth Symphony Chorus and Youth Chorus
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/Gavin Carr
rec. 18-19 September 2011, Lighthouse, Poole. DDD
English texts included
NIMBUS ALLIANCE NI 6161 [54:13]
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 was reviewed 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 and 17th 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 unmemorable.
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 Alexander Nevsky - 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 I tried 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 of Souls 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 itmay be unsettling but it failed to move me.
A direct and visceral musical response to the dreadful events of 9/11: but does the piece try too hard?
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.
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