Containing Multitudes, One Shadow at a Time:
on Ferneyhough and Bernstein's *Shadowtime*
“The past and present wilt- I have filled them and emptied them,/
and proceed to fill my next fold of the future/
Listener up there! What have you to confide in me?
/Talk honestly, or no one else hears you, and I stay only a minute longer.
/Do I contradict myself?/Very well then, I contradict myself
/I am large/I contain multitudes”
*Song of Myself*
Imagine if, when Debussy was looking for a libretto for his opera *Pelleas et Melisande* he had chosen Mallarme instead of Maurice Maeterlink. Well, maybe if he had written the work at age 61, as is Ferneyhough, he would have, but he happened to have been in his 40’s. Anyway, Debussy didn’t and wound up having to fire Maeterlink’s wife who had been offered the leading role, but far from Debussy’s ideal for the part. I spoke briefly to Brian Ferneyhough after tonight’s performance (which elicited quite a few curtain calls, allowing composer and librettest an opportunity both to take separate bows and to embrace.) He emphasized how pleased he was for his music to connect more with contemporary literary life.
Let’s put it this way. The Mallarme/Debussy comparison is apt because if there is one point that no one will disagree with: this writer and composer have produced a work that is anything, if not nuanced. Nuance is incorporated literally into the title of this complex, many faceted work, Shadowtime. In a typical slapstick
moment after the performance Bernstein pointed out his tie, subtly painted in shades of gray: “My Shadowtime tie” he told me, with a smile.
I liked the sonic shivers in all the instrumentation in this music, and the way this composer uses sound reminds me of both Debussy and Webern. Not that he overindulges in it, but there is not a small amount of very sophisticated humor in this music, that dances nicely with Charles B’s not infrequent joshing around. This is real amiability but it is a very intelligent amiability, and, sorry, that Debussy connection pops up again; Charles’ poetic horseplay, sometimes of a mildly self-deprecating Woody Allen type, which always includes joking about joking, corresponds nicely to Ferneyhough’s music which is freely at ease and comfortably conversant with all his influences, to a point where he can echo his idols to the edge of flattery- Charles, I think, has to compensate for an awful lot of affections for very many voices with a considerable dose of irony and not a small amount of lightly laced Manhattanite sarcasm.
The piece stretches out for a leisurely 2 and one half-hours, but not a second is wasted. Like Bernstein, Ferneyhough has quite a lot to say about his literary, philosophical and musical references and he is not going to leave out a single utterance or voice. I like to see artists take their time; set the slate, allow the music to double back on itself and rediscover its shadows.
Bernstein’s focus on time is Benjamin’s focus. Bernstein is showing clearly how Benjamin’s idea about time had to do with layering, with, as Benjamin states in the passage I quoted yesterday, the way things pile up at our feet in contemporary life. They confront us, these shattering contemporary events, Benjamin said; so there is no choice but to search for their harmonic and dissonant corresponding patterns in the past. Listening to this music I never felt impatient for it to end, I continually felt the moments were constantly varied and reconfigured.Sometimes the orchestral layer was foregrounded, sometimes the words, from time to time projected on the small screen above the curtain, rang out clearly in the mind and inner ear. As Charles has occasion to elucidate in the subtitle: this is a “thought opera.” Whatever the physical objects put in front of us, sound, image, voice, instrument, human body, we are constantly drawn to their counterparts in thought and time. For once, relationships are not the main story, the human ones anyway. Each presence, from memory, to association, to light (there were several lovely LED light bars added onto the stage and curtain towards the end, for example) sound, object, thought, word, phrase, interpretation, in the past, present, or future all have equivalent significance ("And the new angels pass away/ like sparks on coals/ Just as we/ no sooner than/ we had seen each other for the first time/ journeyed back together/ from where we came.").
This libretto substantially demonstrates one of Bernstein’s, and now Bernstein and Ferneyhough’s common political values; the democratic tenet of acknowledging, and trying to identify and comprehend as many connections conceivable between each and every character and moment in the world’s imagination, as they present, and have presented themselves: photographs of books, a man getting undressed and getting dressed again; the same scene projected or animated on the screen; or a figure leaning back over a chair as in a trance or a dance; cutouts of Einstein, Hitler, the Marx Brothers, Karl Marx;all appear as actors for cameos. There are references to philosophy, but there are also references to Benjamin’s essay on Hashish in Marseilles.
We are made out of everything we have experienced, that is sure: we hunt out words for the components of the experiences and the resulting present is a weave that is complete in every subsection but these are not necessarily, anyway, as yet named. This is true in Ferneyhough’s music as well. Not pastiche as the critics
will no doubt say, but collage, collage in the best sense meaning complexly multifaceted but not necessarily intentionally so, just as in life and democratic in being open to the next episodic insistence patiently. This is all we have, as Creeley might have put it. I’m thinking of some quote from the libretto now,but more on these soon. It’s past 3: 30 am!
note added 7/24
Although I had not read it (promise) before this morning, Brian Ferneyhough adds this note about his music in Shadowtime in the playbill:
"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 one of these little scenes runs through some emblematic classical form with nonclassical means, no stylistic imitation at all."