an opera with music by Brian Ferneyhough and libretto by Charles Bernstein

Shadowtime is a "thought opera" based on the work and life of Walter Benjamin (1892-1940). Benjamin is one of the greatest philosophers and cultural critics of the twentieth century. Born in Berlin, he died on the Spanish border while trying to escape the fate that awaited most of his fellow Central European Jews. In its seven scenes, Shadowtime explores some of the major themes of Benjamin's work, including the intertwined natures of history, time, transience, timelessness, language, and melancholy; the possibilities for a transformational leftist politics; the interconnectivity of language, things, and cosmos; and the role of dialectical materiality, aura, interpretation, and translation in art. Beginning on the last evening of Benjamin's life, Shadowtime projects an alternative course for what happened on that fateful night. Opening onto a world of shades, of ghosts, of the dead, Shadowtime inhabits a period in human history in which the light flickered and then failed.


I. New Angels//Transient Failures (Prologue)

Level 1: Lecturer
Level 2: Radio (1940)
Level 3: War Time (Spanish Border, 1940): Innkeeper, Henny Gurland, Benjamin, Doctor
Level 4: Reflective Time (Memory + Thought) (Berlin, 1917): Benjamin in dialog with Dora Kellner (Benjamin)
Level 5: Five Rimes for Stefan Benjamin
Level 6: Redemptive Time (Triple Lecture): Benjamin in separate dialogs with Gershom Scholem and Hölderlin (who appears as a pseudo-Benjamin and as Scardanelli)

II. Les Froissements d'Ailes de Gabriel (First Barrier) (instrumental)

III. The Doctrine of Similarity (13 Canons)

1. Amphibolies I (Walk Slowly)
2. Dust to Dusk
3. Cannot Cross
4. Indissolubility (Motetus absconditus)
5. Amphibolies II (Noon)
6. In the Dark (But Even Fire Is Light)
7. Sometimes
8. Anagrammatica
9. dew and die
10. Schein
11. Dusts to Dusks
12. Amphibolies III (Pricks)
13. Salute

IV. Opus Contra Naturam (Descent of Benjamin into the Underworld)

1. [untitled]
2. Katabasis
3. Kataplexy

V. Pools of Darkness (11 Interrogations)

1. Three Giant Mouths
2. Headless Ghoul
3. Karl Marx and Groucho Marx, with Kerberus
4. Pope Pius XII
5. Joan of Arc
6. Baal Shem Tov Disguised as Vampire
7. Adolf Hitler
8. Albert Einstein
9. Border Guard
10. Four Furies
11. Golem

VI. Seven Tableaux Vivants Representing the Angel of History as Melancholia (Second Barrier)

1. Laurel's Eyes (after Heine's "Die Lorelei")
2. Tensions
3. Hashish in Marseilles
4. After Heine's "Der Tod, das ist die kühle Nacht"
5. One and a Half Truths
6. Can'ts
7. Madame Moiselle and Mr. Moiselle

VII. Stelae for Failed Time (Solo for Melancholia as the Angel of History)

Summary of the Scenes:

Scene I -- In September 1940, one step ahead of the Nazi invaders, Walter Benjamin fled France, taking an arduous journey, on foot, over the Pyrenees mountains. He died the day after his arrival in Spain. Benjamin's final day is the central motif of the prologue, "New Angels / Transient Failures." "New Angels" refers to the Paul Klee painting, "Angelus Novus," which Benjamin writes about in "On the Concept of History." The scene opens with some metaphysical speculations by a quixotic Lecturer, a mercurial figure who reappears in Scenes IV and VI. Scene I has several overlapping layers and is presided over by the chorus, whose members represent the Angels of History.

The prinary layer, "War Time," takes center stage. The setting is just over the French border, in the Pyrenees, at the hotel, Fonda de Francia, Portbou, Spain. The time is just before midnight, September 25, 1940. Benjamin has arrived at the hotel with his traveling companion Henny Gurland. The trip had been made more difficult by Benjamin's bad heart: every ten minutes of walking was followed by one minute of stopping. Benjamin's plan was to continue on to Lisbon, and from there to America. But the Innkeeper informs Benjamin and Gurland that their transit visas have been voided and that they must return to France (and to the dark destiny that would await them). At center stage, the cruel Innkeeper gives the exhausted travelers the bad news, to Gurland's protests and Benjamin's growing despair. The Lecturer, now in the guise of a doctor, enters the scene. Having been called to the hotel because of the alarming state of Benjamin's health, the doctor says Benjamin must rest.

Meanwhile, on the right side of the stage, at the same time as the central scene from Benjamin's last hours, a dialog takes place, in flashback, between the young Benjamin and his wife, Dora Kellner. This layer, called "Reflective Time (Memory + Thought)," is set in Berlin around 1917, the year of their marriage. The dialog focuses on their shared aspirations, in their youth, for the radical German student movement of the years immediately prior to World War I, and touches on the nature of emotion, eros, and prostitution.

Another layer consists of five short children's "rimes" (dedicated to Benjamin's son Stefan, who was born in 1918), performed by a quartet from the chorus.

The final layer is a triple lecture called "Redemptive Time." It follows the dialog with Dora and occurs simultaneously with the central 1940 scene. This layer has two parts: a philosophical, political, and theological dialog with Benjamin's closest friend Gershom Scholem, the great historian of Jewish mysticism; and a dialog with Friedrich Hölderlin, the German poet of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, who was important to Benjamin. The text of these two dialogs are unfurled on stage from large scrolls.

Scene II -- "Les Froissements d'Ailes de Gabriel" (The Rustling of the Wings of Gabriel) is instrumental, scored for solo guitar and thirteen players. The guitar suggests the just audible, transitory, flickering, chimerical rustling of the wings of Gabriel, the angel of Messianic time. This is Shadowtime's first barrier, marking the beginning of the journey of Benjamin's avatar (shadow or dream figure) from the represented historical times of Scene I to the nonhistorical time of the unfolding opera.

Scene III -- "The Doctrine of Similarity" -- consists of thirteen short canons, sung by various groupings of the chorus of the Angels of History. Each of the movements reflects on the nature of history, time, and translation/transformation. The title comes from an essay by Benjamin with a similar name -- "Doctrine of the Similar" -- in which he considers the ways that the physical sounds of language echo or mimic the primordial structures of the cosmos. In the scene, various numeric patterns create reverberations within and between the text and music. The theme of temporality is explored musically by the use of canon forms throughout the scene. Canons 1, 5 and 12 are called "Amphibolies," suggesting mineral ambiguities, where "pricks are points on a map" and "where shadows are thickest at noon." Canons 2 and 11 have the same text, which ripples from one end of the chorus to the other: "The leaves turn dark before the trees are shot with light." Canon 3 is a lyric both lamentory and defiant. In canon 4, "Indissolubility," the concern with the temporal is represented by the choice of a multiple, palimpsestic parody of a late medieval motet from the Montpelier Codex. The libretto extends these investigations through the use of linguistic translations and displacements. While the text roams in time, space, and content, it returns to the knotted dead-end situations of life in extremity, as in canon 6, "In the Dark," and canon 7: "Sometimes / you burn a book because / it is cold / and you need the fire / to keep warm / and / sometimes / you read a / book for the same reason." Canon 8, "Anagrammatica," consists entirely of anagrams of Benjamin's name. Canon 9, "dew and die" is a homophonic (sound) translation of a poem by Ernst Jandl, while canon 10 refers to a key Benjamin concept: schein. The last canon, 13, is based on the final stanza of Mallarmé's "Salut."

Scene IV --"Opus Contra Naturam (Descent of Benjamin into the Underworld)," a shadow play for speaking pianist, is the pivotal scene of Shadowtime, inaugurating the second half of the opera. "Opus Contra Naturam" is an alchemical term for work against, or beyond, the constraints of nature. The Lecturer from Scene I appears in guise of a Joker or Liberace-like singer in a Las Vegas piano bar (that suggests also a Weimar cabaret). He leads Benjamin's avatar, set adrift after the fateful events of September 1940, on the Orphic descent into a shadow world ("katabasis") of shock-induced paralysis ("kataplexy").

Scene V --In the darkly surreal "Pools of Darkness (11 Interrogations)," Benjamin's avatar is interrogated by a series of haunting, masked figures. Each interrogation is set to a distinct musical form. Three Giant Mouths (Canon/Heterophony) question the Benjamin figure about the nature of the future; a Headless Ghoul (Isorhythmic Motet) asks about dreaming; the two-headed figure of Karl Marx and Groucho Marx joined to the body of Kerberus (Hoquetus-Melodrama) taunts Benjamin's avatar about the nature of memory; Benjamin's contemporary Pope Pius XII (Dramatic Madrigal a Due) wonders if his fate is part of God's plan; Joan of Arc (Palimpsestic Chorale) worries about the fate of history; the Baal Shem Tov, disguised as a vampire (Rebus), poses a series of impossible comparisons, such as "Is assimilation better than estrangement?"; Adolf Hitler (Rondo) considers the nature of existence; Albert Einstein (Passacaglia cum Figuris in Eco) asks "What time is it now?," a Border Guard (Pastoral Interlude) makes the standard interrogation; Four Furies (Fugato) ask "What is to be done?" and receive the reply: "The light spills into pools of darkness. I can no longer find it." Finally, the Golem (Quodlibet / Abgesangszena) asks a set of menacing questions in an invented language; the final response is from a line of Heine: "Keine Kaddish wird man sagen" ("no one to say Kaddish for me").

Scene VI -- In the second and final barrier of Shadowtime, the Lecturer reappears, in a new guise, to perform "Seven Tableaux Vivants Representing the Angel of History as Melancholia." Both Scenes VI and VII imagine Benjamin's Angel of History as the angel depicted in Albrecht Dürer's 1514 engraving, "Melencolia," which shows a dejected, winged figure, surrounded by instruments of scientific inquiry. Tableaux 1 and 4 are reworkings of two poems by the nineteenth-century, German-Jewish, post-Romantic poet Heinrich Heine, a distant relative of Benjamin's. Both poems are standards of the lieder repertoire, previously set by many composers -- "Der Tod, das ist die Kühle Nacht" and "Die Lorelei." (Heine's work was censored and banned by the Nazis.) Tableau 2, "Tensions," is a series of sound translations of ten-word propositions, as, for example, "each ear's sly fiction a toy taboo which founds us." Tableau 3 is based on permutations of phrases from Benjamin's essay "Hashish in Marseilles": "Seeing only nuances." Tableau 5, "One and a Half Truths," takes its title from one of Benjamin's favorite contemporaries, aphorist Karl Kraus; it is a set of imaginary epigrams, concluding "Truth / Is a gun loaded with a parachute." Tableau 6 presents a full set of syntactic rotations of the sentence, "if you can't see it it can still hurt you." The final tableau ends with a play on negative dialectics, asking "whether what is is so because / Is so because it's not."

Scene VII -- "Stelae for Failed Time," the epilogue, is an elegiac solo by the Angel of History (imagined as the angel in Durer's "Melencolia"). The angelic chorus sings to and for Benjamin. For the Angel of History, the song has a single voice; in the historical time of the performance, this solo is splintered into the many voices --the angels -- of the chorus. "Stelae for Failed Time" has two overlapping layers. The first is a reflection on time and uncertainty in the context of historical recrimination and erasure: "I back away / helpless, my / eyes fixed. / This is my task: / to imagine no wholes / from all that has been smashed." In a lyric that echoes a lover's lament for her lost lover, the first layer ends with an evocation of one of Benjamin's central concerns, the radical break with historical time into "now time" (jetztzeit). The second layer is a reflection on representation: "The best picture / of a picture / is not a picture / but the negative" and ends on the theme of failed -- and falling -- time: "as now you fall / from my arms / into my capacious / insomniac forgetting."

--Charles Bernstein
June 2005

Musical & Other Notes by Brian Ferneyhough:

Scene II
The piece is made up of 128 small fragments, some of them lasting 2 or 3 seconds, some of them lasting maybe 15 seconds, which are played continuously. I was concerned with making each of these segments just slightly too short, so that the length of the segment is not adequate to the time required to understand it. We are continually being thrown back and forth like a ball being exchanged, across a ping-pong table, between realizing we need to attempt to understand the next texture, but not having entirely understood where to place the previous texture or the one before that. Time in music fails if it disappears without remainder into the musical experience.

Scene IV
There are two reasons for Las Vegas: one, because Las Vegas seems to me to be the hypersimulation of the world, put into one very small isolated place….It’s quite an incredible and frightening collection of very pregnant images of Westernculture and the understanding of Western culture over the years. It’s also the main portal to the underworld—my theory is that the under-world has many portals, of course, each of us knows some, I suppose—however, the main one is in Las Vegas precisely because the hypersimulation reaches a feverish pitch at that particular time.

Scene V
The second aspect of this music, that makes it perhaps a little bit dynamic, is that I do a quick run through of the entire history of Western music, from about the year 1000 up to about 1825, which is where, I think, the history of the genre comes to a stop and then the individual style takes over. Each of one of these little scenes runs through some emblematic classical form with nonclassical means, no stylistic imitation at all.

 Scene VII
Two layers of text are going on at once. In the moments where all people are singing the same text, they are singing international phonetic alphabet transcriptions of my language-sounds. At the end, there is a very long fade-out, just of my voice in many versions, fading in a sort of spatialized spiral, which goes on quite a long time. In this piece, which is in itself a bit long, in terms of the opera as a whole you need this very long moment of closure.

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