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More Shadow than Light: Ionarts on Ferneyhough

Detail from Angelus Novus, by Paul Klee. Object of fascination for - at one point owned by - Walter Benjamin.

When ‘jumping for joy’ in honour of a known work, or holding it up to execration, you may be writing in accordance with the prevailing view or against it. Now suppose that you are urging your readers to amend the unfavourable opinion they entertain of works which you think highly of: you are promising them something positive, an addition to the range of their enjoyment. They may wonder at finding works which leave them cold described as thrilling and lovable, yet eventually be swayed by the inducement held out.

On the contrary, if you are trying to make people see that their taste and faith is at fault, the position is that you are holding out no direct, positive inducement: ostensibly, you are proposing, not to add to their stock of artistic pleasure, but to detract from it. The task is as graceless as that of taking a bone from a dog. […] Wordsworth is reported to have alleged that ‘a stupid invention, in prose or verse, is quite harmless’. Knowing how much smaller the average man’s capacity for and chances of assimilating music are than with literature and the other arts, how very much less varied his musical experiences are than any others, one could hardly say the same with reference to the stupid inventions in music with which the world is overrun. Judicious criticism, therefore, has a great and much needed part to play with regard to the extirpation of bad music.

(M.D.Calvocoressi, "Musical Criticism," 1931)
Last Friday, I saw Shadowtime, Brian Ferneyhough’s “thought opera” on the life and work of Walter Benjamin at Lincoln Center Festival. As the Star-Ledger wrote on July 10th, 2005, the festival has a way of “showcasing experimental new operas that likely could not find a home at a standard American opera house.” And experimental an opera Shadowtime is. Some might question whether it is opera at all, but that of course would be as silly as the claims (that I’ve heard) that Peter Grimes is not opera or, for that matter, should not be called art. Shadowtime is an opera, it is art… it is merely difficult art based on a difficult subject and with an aim (according to the composer and librettist Charles Bernstein) to target the engaged and thinking, rather than sympathetic, listener. I am not sure if “unreconstructed high modernism” would do any more to explain the opera than a summary of the nonexistent plot or the suggestion that it sounded like sheet music of John Adams sent through the shredder and randomly glued back together, but it is this critic’s best attempt to describe charitably the experience that has brought him the closest to physical pain ever experienced in a concert.

Other Reviews:

Daniel Schlosberg, A hero takes morphine, but it won't ease the pain (New York Newsday, July 26)

Fred Kirshnit, Shadows of Schonberg (New York Sun, July 25)

Anthony Tommasini, For a New Operatic Type, Complexity Rules (New York Times, July 23)

Bradley Bambarger, Ferneyhough's 'Shadowtime' -- Absolutely inscrutable (Newark Star-Ledger, July 23)

David Patrick Stearns, Daunting imaginary journey (Philadelphia Inquirer, July 23)

Willa J. Conrad, New British opera provokes thought, not emotion (Newark Star-Ledger, July 10)

Anne Ozorio, BRIAN FERNEYHOUGH: Shadowtime, An opera in seven acts (Seen and Heard International, July 9)

Andrew Clements, Opera of the phantom (The Guardian, July 8)

Tess Crebbin, Life and Death (Music & Vision, June 3, 2004)
As the New York Times pointed out in an article on the subject of this opera on July 17th, Theodor Adorno defended difficult music as “having its own social value precisely because it teaches us to withhold understanding and therefore helps us resist the allure of false clarity in the world beyond the concert hall. Complexity, in other words, is a worthy ideal in art because reality is even more complex and dissonant than the thorniest work of modernism, even if politicians and the commercial culture reassure us that everything is simple, clear and harmonious.” But does that really justify the “ambiguity and often impenetrable surfaces” that Mr. Bernstein figures are crucial because of the opera’s subject matter? That impenetrability starts from the opening sounds. Street-scene-like, a cacophony arises with chattering aborted here and there, sparks of ideas that fade away as soon as they flare up. Before long the tones and musical sputtering settle in, though… attributable to the ear and mind-adjusting, I suppose, rather than the music relenting. And that is just Shadowtime’s – dare I say “traditional” – overture.

Language is employed as a formative element of the rhythm and music, but all a garble of German phrases, English sentence fragments, hissing, and hiccupping. Which might be arresting, if it were in the least bit new – which, full-blown modernism though it may be, it simply isn’t. If you’ve heard a fair share of modern works, vocal or not, then you’ve heard the truncated musical huffs, the upward surging lines, and other stock phrases that are almost identical in every second avant-garde work. (Especially those for solo flute.) The long guitar solo of scene II gave plenty of time to be mesmerized by a video loop of changing train-schedule boards… or at least ponder the point whether such music, such an opera, can convey anything (and if so, what) to its audience.

available at Amazon
B.Ferneyhough, Shadowtime,
J.Hempel / Nieuw Ensemble, Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart
N.Hodges, M.Scheidegger et al.

Somewhere between Scenes II and III (it seemed like an interlude at first), the bass Ekkehard Abele, who portrayed Walter Bejamin, sat in his chair, holding a cutout of Benjamin’s likeness in front of his face and did not move for over 20 minutes. The chorus hissed and hummed around in abrupt patterns. “Ideas are supposed to beget ideas” in these short-breathed musical phrases of Brian Ferneyhough (in accordance with Benjamin’s philosophy ), but all too often orderless complexity begets only numbness of the mind and other senses. Rather than preparing for the complexities of the real world, it seems to undermine our willingness to deal with any complexities whatsoever. Certainly the fair share of audience members who had fallen asleep by now were successfully avoiding present complexities.

At one point, marimba sounds accompanied a Walter Benjamin striptease, tempting commentary on the philosophical depth of seeing the layers of the impenetrable philosopher fall before us, down to the very nakedness of the man – if not existence itself. Well… its boxer-shorts at any rate. An anagram section in scene III (13 Canons on the Doctrine of Similarity) plays with the many possibilities of reassembling Walter Benjamin’s name. "Bann A Real Jew Tim" or something of the sort. The visually appealing backdrop with shadowplays and projections had, at times, a Monty Pythonesque character. The costumes of the chorus, various shapes yet uniform looking through the use of similar shades of blue, could have doubled as North Korean concentration camp garb.

Pianist Nicolas Hodges was swirled around the stage with his Steinway in scene IV (“Opus Contra Naturam”) as he performed fiendishly difficult music while reciting text. Brian Ferneyhough’s piano writing revealed no particular purpose or goal or inherent quality: it merely was… and therefore quite unlike the intellectually appreciable Boulez sonatas, or the gorgeous and telling Carter sonata, recently heard at the French-American Contemporary Music Festival. Humor was attempted with nonchalant combinations of highbrow phrases with offbeat delivery and the banal. After 90 minutes of sounds lacking any form resembling anything graspable, the very mention of a warmly familiar phrase like “knock knock” was able to score laughs of palpable relief. The pseudo-existential questions of the interrogations in Scene V (“Pool of Darkness”) were cute at times (“is it possible to know to have forgotten without remembering?”) but more often were as deep as “if 7-11 is open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, why are there locks on the door?” Not terribly mind-bending, at any rate, even if this particular ‘conundrum’ may not actually have appeared in the work.

The backdrop for this scene was a collection of suspended red-and-black cutouts featuring a gargoyle (or headless ghoul, as the program tells me), three mouths (at least two of which come close to violating a trademark held by the Rolling Stones), a Nosferatu (actually Baal Shem Tov, disguised as a vampire), a screaming Hitler (“who considers the nature of existence”), a triple-headed hydra with Groucho and Karl Marx’s and a French bulldog's head, Pope Pius XII, a pipe-sucking Albert Einstein, one Joan of Arc, and a late addition of a peasant zombie (Golem).

The penultimate scene (VI) over “Seven Tableaux Vivants Representing the Angel of History as Melancholia (Second Barrier)” finally was poignant as all the behind-the-scenes elements of stage props, lighting, hydraulics, neon lights, etc. were revealed. This utter nakedness of the stage and the views into the wings it allowed, slowly, pulley by pulley, prop by prop, was a deconstruction along Brechtian lines that nearly made sense of the pondering tableaux that included phrases like “Truth / Is a gun loaded with a parachute,” “If you can’t see it, it can still hurt you,” “Whether what is is so because / Is so because it’s not.”

Without trying to be ungrateful, I think the performance fell into the "Happy to have been there, happier still not to have to go back" category. Brian Ferneyhough’s music, challenging our senses and tolerance, was mastered with the greatest imaginable aplomb by the singers and players of the Neue Vocalsolisten Stuttgart, Nieuw Ensemble Amsterdam, splendid pianist and reciter Nicolas Hodges, and guitar soloist Mats Scheidegger. Jurjen Hempel conducted; Frédéric Fisbach directed.


Anonymous said...

Personally I dislike his pretentious unfounded alien-styled inhumane chaotic pseudo-random material, which exists only for it’s own sake and creates sensory responses that are not of the composer’s intention, but just happen to occur.
Make no mistake: Ferneyhough is no real composer; and the fact that this has never been accordingly stated or criticized shows the times in which we live: Feed the people any rubbish, with just a hint of added intellectual superiority and they’ll believe it and worship your ‘message’.

... Ferneyhough... the charlatan king of pretentious wishful implication

jfl said...

Re: Anonymous: You can't underestimate the power of that intellectual superiority aspect. If you pretend to like it, you're IN the club and have a license to look down on others. (While pretending not to.)

Anonymous said...

Great to see some comments critical of Brian Ferneyhough’s ummm… “output”.

What I can also recommend, is the youtube channel called “fremsley001”, with great videos such as:
– “Brian Ferneyhough … in his own words”

fremsley001 has written this, about his youtube-channel:

“Devoted to all music that stands up by itself without the use of pretentious titles, pseudo-intellectual posturing or technical complexity for its own sake.

Objects of derision:
Birtwistle, Emsley, Ferneyhough, Finnissy, Stockhausen.

Exposing phonies.

Riling pseuds, sycophants and the humourless.”

jfl said...

I'll have to check out that YouTube channel, Anonymous, if it is still out there! Although I'll say that I might apply for exemption of Birtwistle from being lobbed together with the others... just on account of the conventional strength of his "Gawain’s Journey". [Which is, alas, undermined by the opera-proper.