Déjà Review: this review was first published in June 2006 and the recording is still available.
Brian Ferneyhough (b. 1943)
Libretto by Charles Bernstein
Nicolas Hodges (piano, speaker), Mats Scheidegger (guitar)
Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart; Nieuw Ensemble/Jurjen Hempel
rec. live, July 2005, English National Opera, London Coliseum
In conjunction with BBC Radio 3
NMC D123 [2 CDs: 127]
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 of learning.
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 Time. For 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.
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