Bitter Greens
By: Charlie Bertsch
Tikkun, Jul/Aug2006, Vol. 21, Issue 4
Section: CULTURE


Bitter Greens

Walter Benjamin Goes to the Opera

SHADOWTIME, an opera composed by Brian
Ferneyhough. Libretto by Charles Bernstein.
NMC Records. April 25, 2006

IS IT POSSIBLE TO FORGET WITHOUT remembering that one has forgotten?" The words ring out clearly, in stark contrast to the ones that precede and follow them, forming an island of sense in a sea of sonic confusion. Even so, they don't sound right. There's a trace of a lisp in the voice. The pronunciation of "remembering" is askew, with a delay on the second syllable, creating an aural hyphen. The strings in the background underscore the vocalist's mannered delivery with a tension that holds no promise of release. If Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland had been properly set to music, this is what his hookah-smoking caterpillar would have sounded like. And this is one of the more accessible moments in composer Brian Ferneyhough and librettist Charles Bernstein's challenging opera Shadowtime.

Indeed, it's hard to imagine more uneasy listening. For those music lovers who keep their home or car stereo tuned to a frequency that plays a steady stream of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, Shadowtime is bound to be off-putting. Whereas the music of the masters creates a bubble of comfort that wards off everyday pressures, Ferneyhough's composition stabs violently into the personal space of its audience, savaging the illusion of serenity promoted within the world of mainstream classical music. But because Shadowtime reflects on the life and work of the leftist Jewish thinker Walter Benjamin, noted for the density of his melancholy, and focuses in particular on the tragic circumstances of his passing as he was trying to flee France after the German invasion, the work's edginess is understandable. The burden of hearing Shadowtime serves a purpose. This is art that refuses to let you forget what you should always bear in mind. That means the Shoah, first and foremost, but also loss more generally.

Aside from its atonality, the opera's most salient feature is Ferneyhough's decision to obscure most of the words he asked Bernstein to write. Unless a listener has the separately published libretto in hand while the CD is playing, the majority of the text proves impossible to hear as text. Words are reduced to the same status as other sounds, their meaning under erasure. Asked, in an interview conducted for this piece, how it felt to see his sublimely inventive poetry treated this way, Bernstein expresses complete support for Ferneyhough's approach, underscoring the importance of, "the different things that you can't hear, that are not audible,' and those, "that become audible at the price of other things not being audible. You can't hear everything all at once in crystal clarity." The title of the opera, he adds, derives from the interplay between what can and cannot be discerned. "The idea of the shadow or the echo is crucial to the whole meaning of the opera. And it's played out in this very issue of only partial legibility at any given time. When you move to another mode, you gain something and you lose something."

This formulation provides a way to think more broadly about the aesthetic that Shadowtime exemplifies and its implications for our understanding of Benjamin's approach to culture. While drawing on recent innovations in the use of rhythm and meter, as well as the vocal and narrative conventions of Baroque opera, Ferneyhough's score is first and foremost a tribute to the twelve-tone "new music" developed by Arnold Schönberg, Alban Berg, and Anton Webern in the first two decades of the twentieth century and then vigorously promoted by Benjamin's friend, philosopher Theodor Adorno, well into the post-World War II era. The paradox of this music's novelty is that, while it was already dismissed for being dated when Adorno took up its cause as a music student in the 1920s, it continues to sound more cutting edge than much newer work. To the extent that the musical avant-garde is still associated with a kind of sonic punishment, in which the listener is forced to confront the ideological implications of pleasure, the "new music" of 1910 remains the standard-bearer for progress.

It is worth noting that even Schönberg ended up softening his opposition to tradition and, as a consequence, his more popular rival Igor Stravinsky. Over time, the innovations of the "new music" were incorporated into pieces that also made use of traditional octaval melody and harmony. In the work of Kurt Weill and Hans Eisler, the two composers who worked closely with playwright Bertolt Brecht, traces of Schönberg's most radical work give an edge to a sensibility that derives as much from the cabaret as the concert hall. Despite the overwhelming evidence of serious music's need to breed with popular culture, however, Adorno never relented in his insistence that such hybridization represented the worst reactionary tendencies. When he set out to write his own short "song-play" in the early 1930s, a piece based on Mark Twain's fiction called The Treasure of Indian-Joe, he composed vocal parts that refused the conventions of nineteenth-century bourgeois opera and their modern continuation in the work of Sergei Prokoviev, Richard Strauss, and Stravinsky. The two extant songs from this unfinished project sound like a lot like Schönberg, not to mention the Ferneyhough of Shadowtime.

This is where things get a bit tricky. Eager for the approbation of his intellectual elder, Adorno sent the libretto for The Treasure of Indian-Joe to Benjamin, who managed not to comment on it, despite several requests, until he finally provided his assessment in a letter. Lamenting the text's "reduction to the idyllic," Benjamin compared it unfavorably to Jean Cocteau's novel Enfants Terribles. He also indicated his lack of interest in Adorno's struggle to defend the "new music." Benjamin writes that, "the range of material itself--quite apart from the musical question about which I cannot venture any opinion whatsoever--appears to me to be an unpromising one." For someone who wrote so widely on modern culture, it's truly startling how little Benjamin had to say about music. Despite the fact that Adorno repeatedly refers to music in their extensive correspondence, all that Benjamin could muster in response was this rather condescending profession of ignorance.

There's something a little odd, then, about an opera on Benjamin's life and work that largely conforms to Adorno's rigid musical standards. It begs the question of whether a more populist approach might have been preferable. After all, during the same period in which Adorno is writing Benjamin about The Treasure of Indian-Joe, Benjamin is praising Brecht in reply, almost as though he wanted to raise his friend's ire. Bernstein remarks that, "in terms of Benjamin's interest in popular culture, there doesn't seem to be a sampling or an engagement with certain aspects of what people would consider to be popular music within the Ferneyhough score. That's something many people mention to me, even if they don't say it in those terms" What Shadowtime loses, in other words, in prioritizing the "new music" over newer, less pure musics, is this engagement with the popular.

But it also gains something in the process. Bernstein goes on to contrast Ferneyhough to "a John Adams or a Philip Glass or any number of other contemporary composers that are doing opera, who make many more concessions to a certain aspect of popular music." Bernstein continues:

I like popular music quite a lot. And I'm not a composer. Probably if I were a composer I'd be more like Kurt Weill than I would be like Brian Ferneyhough. A lot of people don't like severe, atonal music. But that's what he does. You never hear it on the radio either. Not just Brian's music, but the whole twentieth-century tradition of it rarely comes on the radio, even on the satellite radio shows. It's almost like spinach or something. I love that music. I find it very engaging. There's a lot of stuff that people enjoy and I enjoy too, that gets a lot of mileage in the New York classical and new music scene. And ! understand that this is what Ferneyhough doesn't do, which is what a John Zorn, say, does. But, in the end, it seems to me that Ferneyhough's project is a very powerful one and complexly interesting, whereas some of the stuff that we all enjoy seems slighter to me.

Even if Shadowtime seems to place Benjamin too squarely on the side of an anti-populist Modernism, people interested in his work might benefit more from the bitter greens of Ferneyhough's uncompromising music than from the artificially sweetened fare we have come to expect in this era of guilt-free collage. That bitter taste in your mouth might just remind you of what you would have otherwise forgotten.


By Charlie Bertsch

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Source: Tikkun, Jul/Aug2006, Vol. 21 Issue 4, p77, 3p
Item: 21414298
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