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S & H Article/Interview

John Warnaby in conversation with Brian Ferneyhough about Shadowtime, an opera in 7 scenes

Brian Ferneyhough is one of Britain's leading composers, though only devotees of the Huddersfield Festival of Contemporary Music seem disposed to recognise his achievement. His stage-work, Shadowtime, has its first performance at the 2004 Munich Biennale, in May. It is not an opera, as the term is generally understood, but is likely to be the composer's magnum opus. The following is based on a conversation with the composer.

Tuesday, 25th November, Huddersfield. Brian Ferneyhough's last day at the Festival, with several works of the retrospective still to be performed, and a workshop to direct. Yet he is preoccupied with Shadowtime, not least because one section is due to be premiered in Paris in January. He has already outlined the work in a public discussion with Christopher Fox. Nevertheless he is happy to talk about it in greater detail.

Shadowtime is primarily concerned with ideas, stemming from one of Walter Benjamin's earliest remarks that, essentially, philosophy is about representation. Thus, as Ferneyhough suggests, "the whole concept of mimesis goes swimming out into very deep waters. Is music mimetic? If so, in what sense? Is there a dialectic between form and expression in contemporary works? If so, what is the positive side of that?" Hence, everything in Shadowtime is concerned with re-presentation: "either through repetition, through variation, through refraction, or similation". Only the opening scene bears any relation to conventional realism.

The work can best be described in terms of the 17th-century Italian Rappresentazione, complete with metaphysical connotations, but devoid of religious sentiment. Its genesis ultimately stemmed from the complex cultural background into which Walter Benjamin projected his ideas: the philosophy of Theodor W. Adorno, with whom he exchanged much correspondence; the music of Arnold Schoenberg and even the association of Adorno and Schoenberg with the writer, Thomas Mann.

Schoenberg and Mann were forced into exile and arrived in California fortuitously. Fifty years later, Ferneyhough made the same transition, but for different reasons. He needed to consider the European new music scene from a greater distance, and the original plan was to leave Europe for three or four years. His decision was not influenced by his composing activities, though he now maintains that Shadowtime would not have reached fruition had he remained in Europe.

Though Ferneyhough moved to California for teaching, rather than creative reasons, the change prompted two compositions reflecting Schoenbergian models: the Fourth String Quartet, with soprano, and, later, the String Trio. The Schoenbergian dimension inevitably included the philosophy of Adorno, and ultimately, Ferneyhough embarked on a fuller appraisal of the intellectual achievement of Walter Benjamin.

Ferneyhough was already acquainted with some aspects of Benjamin's philosophy before he went to the United States, but two factors contributed to a more detailed study of his oeuvre during the later 1990s.

Firstly, there was a sudden awareness of Benjamin's writings among composers, especially his celebrated interpretation of Paul Klee's painting, Angelus Novus - The Angel of History. Ferneyhough attributes this to the fact that Benjamin's writings do not adhere to a particular ideology: he "seems to represent a rather touching compromise between the austerities of Adorno's … extremely abstract theories, and the more obviously humanising manipulations of the culture industry". Thus,
Klaus-Steffen Mahnkopf used Benjamin's text as the basis of his music-theatre presentation at the 2000 Muenchener Biennale; while Vinko Globokar chose Der Engel Der Geschichte as the overall title of his recent orchestral trilogy, without initially being familiar with Benjamin's work.

Secondly, Ferneyhough was approached by the Muenchener Biennale. Though he had previously stated he would never write an opera the death of the main protagonist at the end of the first scene meant that he had "untrammelled entry to a sort of underworld and overworld of ideas".

As with Ferneyhough's other larger works, Shadowtime began as a series of independent pieces, which evolved into a cycle as "things got tacked on, or slotted in, and certain generalised ideas about musical drama were subsumed into certain sorts of dramas of ideas".

The result was a work in seven sections which descends into the depths, and then achieves a metaphysical transformation. There are superficial similarities with Carceri D'invenzione, but these should not be taken too seriously: accordingly Opus Contra Naturam, for a speaking pianist, the fourth and central section of Shadowtime, fulfils the same pivotal role in the cycle as Etude Transcendental, for soprano and small ensemble in the earlier work. Additionally, electronics are deployed in the final section of both works, thereby extending each into a new realm.

In other respects, the two cycles are entirely different. Shadowtime is predominantly vocal, with a libretto by the American poet, Charles Bernstein. Ferneyhough suggested that he needed a text whose word order he could manipulate. At the same time, he did not want a text that Bernstein would not be happy to publish as poetry.

One of the themes of Shadowtime is the contradiction between Benjamin's exemplary career as a studious intellectual, and his failure to oppose the rise of National Socialism. "He had fantastic insights into the way we apprehend the universe, but at the same time, he was one of those clerky scribblers who betrayed possibly utopian societies because he was too inward, sitting in a library in Paris when the Germans were arriving." Accordingly, he ignored attempts by other members of the Frankfurt School - particularly Adorno - to persuade him to leave Europe until it was too late.

Another aspect of the work is the relationship between Ferneyhough's 'reading' of Walter Benjamin and his broader compositional preoccupations, for instance, in ‘Shadowtime VI: Seven Tableaux Vivantes, Depicting the Angel of History as Melancholia’. Similarly, the final section, ‘Stele for Failed Time’, reflects his poetic and linguistic concerns in that the computer generated material includes a transformation of his voice, together with a translation of part of the text into a language of his own invention.

In view of the subject-matter of Shadowtime, the Jewish librettist, with the "irreducible impressions of the holocaust" and the German-speaking composer, with a thorough understanding of the German soul, were ideal collaborators. The result is a stagework which concentrates on various borders: the physical border Walter Benjamin failed to cross; and subsequently, the borders of history, language and philosophy he explored throughout his career. Ultimately, in the final section, electronics are introduced to transcend the border between music and poetry.

‘Shadow Time I’ is the only section which cannot also be performed as an independent entity. It outlines the essence of the entire cycle. There are three distinct elements. At the centre is the only allusion to realism in the work: the episode at the Franco-Spanish border in which Benjamin failed to enter Spain en route to exile in the United States. It is preceded by a section in which the choir imitates attempts to tune in a typical radio of Benjamin's era: and followed by a flashback showing Benjamin and his wife in Berlin in the 1930's. There is also a children's game, involving tin drums, which alludes to Gunter Grass.

‘Shadowtime II’, entitled ‘Les Froissements des Ailes de Gabriel’, is a concerto for guitar and small ensemble, based on fragmentary material. It symbolises the notion that angels are deaf in respect of time, and refers to Paul Klee's Angelus Novus. ‘Shadowtime III, The Doctrine of Similarity’, for chorus and ensemble, is concerned with both historic and experienced time. The text is dominated by number symbolism, and the music, in the form of canons, is partially based on a medieval motet.

‘Opus Contra Naturam’ is the title of ‘Shadowtime IV’, for a speaking pianist, dressed in a Liberace costume. It is the pivot of the entire cycle, representing the descent of Benjamin into the underworld, symbolised in terms of a bar in Las Vegas. The pianist discusses such issues as alchemy and the theory of cognition with his instrument, and the music includes elements from ‘Shadowtime II’.

In ‘Shadowtime V’, another incarnation of Benjamin visits Hades and is interrogated by various figures from the past, real, and mythological. They include Karl Marx, two of the Marx brothers, Hitler, Pope Pius XII, etc. The interrogations themselves comprise a rapid survey of music history from the advent of heterophony to six female voices singing for 48 seconds in the style of Beethoven's Grosse Fuge.

The tableaux vivantes of ‘Shadowtime VI’ are characterised by the contrapuntal interplay between poetry, reduced to its sound-structure, and musical expression. ‘Shadowtime VI’ also introduces the allegorical aspect of Benjamin's thought.

Although principally choral, ‘Shadowtime VII’, entitled ‘Stele for Failed Time’, differs from the previous sections in that electronics are used extensively. There are also allusions to Benjamin's preoccupation with wind-up toys. The piece comprises "five rather dense, violent, self-contained pillars of vocal material, supported on a raft of computer generated sounds which also use my voice, speaking a language which I invented and translated some of my librettist's texts into".

Ferneyhough has also described it as a non-Christian requiem, in that the fusion of the various elements, and the gradual transcendence of musical time has metaphysical implications. The intention - to quote the Munich Biennale's introduction to the work - is to lead the audience "into inner realms: the inner realm of Benjamin's philosophy, the inner realm of modernity, the inner realm of Western culture"


John Warnaby


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