Distribution Automatique

Saturday, July 23

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."

Thursday, July 21

Shadows of *Shadowtime*: Bernstein's Benjamin

Charles Bernstein had occasion to remind me recently of the interest we share in the concept of art as object. Now, I see why he might have been thinking so much about this topic of late. In his libretto for Brian Ferneyhough's opera which premiered in Munich in May 24, 2004, and will be peformed at Lincoln Center on July 21st and 22cd, Bernstein mentions Walter Benjamin's famous discussion of the Paul Klee
painting Benjamin owned -Angelus Novus- which serves as an insignia for Benjamin's voyage into time,
also functioning as a kind of abacus for decoding -Shadowtime-:

"There is a picture by Klee called *Angelus Novus*. It shows an angel who seems about to move away from something he stares at. His eyes are wide, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how the angel of history must look. His face is turned toward the past. Where a chain of events appears before *us*, *he* seems one single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it at his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise and has got caught in his wings; it is so strong the angel can no longer close them. The storm drives him irresistibly towardsthe future, to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows towards the sky. What we call progress is *this* storm ("from *On The Concept of History*)

Another essay Bernstein points to in the libretto is Benjamin’s *On the Doctrine of The Similar*.This essay is about the human proclivity for mimesis, a significant topic in itself, but Benjamin rides this horse a bit further than might be expected, discovering in the outreaches of this territory a basis for a theory concerning the underlying equivalence of languages. No surprise that Bernstein would find this intriguing, given his fascination with homolinguistic translation, I happen to have participated in such a writing experiment at the invitation of David Nemeth. It is an uncanny experience working this way; there is an excitement in having the experience of creating a new language with a group of writers- each one translating the poem before, into an new arrangement of words by mimicking the sounds of the previous poem, which in turn had evolved from the one previous, etc.
Benjamin states:

“If, at the dawn of humanity, this reading from stars, entrails, and coincidences was reading per se, and if it provided mediating links to a newer kind of reading, as represented by runes, then one might well assume that this mimetic gift, which was earlier the basis for clairvoyance, very gradually found its way into writing in the course of a development over thousand of years, thus creating for itself in language and writing the most perfect archive of nonsensuous similarity….So tempo, that swiftness in reading or writing which can scarcely be separated from the process, would then become, as it were, the effort, or gift, or mind to participate in that measure of time in which similarities flash up fleetingly out of the stream of things only in order to sink down once more.” *Doctrine of the Similar.*

It is of interest to note, speaking of similarities, that following this essay in the new Selected Writings is a piece called *Short Shadows III*.

Bernstein’s Benjamin in *Shadowtime* is riddled with similarities and clues to further connections and solutions to the rhymes, rhythms and runes underlying both their works- and the innumerable tie-ins between them. Like Benjamin’s, Bernstein’s concept of literary time focuses on harmonics and dissonancesacross languages, cultures and periods. To get *Shadowtime*, you have to work the same way Benjamin worked, like an archeologist searching in the arcades and in the annals of literary history: trying to unlock puzzles, uncover clues, you listen to the similarities, you dig it.

Tuesday, July 19

Do Bloggers Dream of Electric Sheep?

Bemsha Swing {click here}
remembers to forget.
Thought Police in Australia
Mark Young (Pelican Dreaming) {click here} on this Orwellian world.

Sunday, July 17


1. Writing that is devoid of ideas.

2. Deluged with fact and description, we are left with a craving for writing that is rich in ideas. Ninety- nine percent of writing consists either of some frequently encountered discourse or refers to it.

3. Writing that evolves out of ideas has its own flavor.

4. A lot of poetry points to an idea about poetry and that is all it does. Even if it is lacking its own idea it can refer to an idea about poetry that we support- an innovative idea, for example. This is poetry as fast food.

5. Ideas invariably lead to other ideas- but fast food poetry doesn't completely satisfy the craving for a fresh idea; instead, endows the poems with energy derived from the ideas than engendered the spark of the poems.

6. I enjoy fast food sometimes- and certainly the fast food of poetry. But I know that in the long run it will not sufficiently nourish or meet my craving for writing that is more substantial.

7. An idea may be likened to a perception as compared with raw data or input. An idea frequently combines an interesting observation with a thought about an observation.

8. Since the genesis of perceptions and the ideas constructed out of them involves halting the rush of observations there is an accompanying sense of a slowing down of the rapidity of thought, the stream of consciousness. At such moments you are mounting the beach near the river or the ocean of consciousness.

9. A memory of the ocean may be refreshing and sufficient but is not enough- in itself- to be considered an idea.

10. Two young women friends of similar stature in bathing suits standing side by side on the beach each with a small camera identically placed at their eyes, taking a photo at exactly the same time is itself a theme for an imaginary photo. Ideas, in themselves, have no abode. A photo, in and of itself, projects an idea but of itself does not necessarily encompass an idea. Something that incorporates an idea may not
of itself generate a fresh idea.

11. Like everything else ideas have a life span. Ideas are patient and will wait- this is the secret of
their longevity. Ideas inspire devotion. This places them in realms that offer sustenance. There is no doubt that there are destructive as well as constructive ideas.

12. Tracking the contours of an idea can stimulate a fresh idea. Take measure of feelings that accompany the emergence of ideas, a process with a beat, a rhythm. The beat anticipates the emergence of subsequent ideas echoing and building upon the pattern of the given ones.

Complexity and the Failure to Further Understand: Benjamin, Blankness, Bernstein and *Shadowtime*

Today's article in the New York Times Arts Section about Charles Bernstein and Brian Ferneyhough's
Shadowtime (click here), in true Benjaminian spirit, concludes with Charles B. posing a powerful political critique stated in the form of a an aesthetic paradox. [From an interviewconducted with Charles B. by the New YorkTimes.]

The opera will be performed at Lincoln Center on July 21st and 22cd.

From the New York Times arts section, Sunday July 17.

"'Shadowtime' had its premiere last year at the Munich Biennale, and critical reaction ranged widely. The Süddeutsche Zeitung hailed it as "an apex of modern operatic artistry," but The Sunday Times of London described it as overly cerebral, "an abstract idea of an opera rather than the thing itself." The truth may well depend on one's definition of modern opera.

Mr. Bernstein, for his part, readily concedes the many difficulties of "Shadowtime," and argues that they arise not only by design but by necessity. "Clarity is valuable in many situations, but not necessarily in art," he said in a recent interview at his Manhattan apartment. "Many will no doubt be befuddled, just as a work that seeks to be clear risks boring people. These are the risks you have to take."

Yet more seems to be at stake than simply keeping an audience challenged. When pressed, Mr. Bernstein echoes Benjamin's friend and colleague Theodor Adorno, who defended difficult music as having its own social value precisely because it teaches us how 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.

Listeners will be able to judge for themselves the effectiveness of the difficulty of "Shadowtime." Mr. Bernstein insists that its ambiguity and often impenetrable surfaces are all the more crucial because of its subject matter. At the opera's center is what he describes as "the blank space of what happened to Europe between 1940 and 1945." Attempting clarity would be futile, or simply false.

'There have been a lot of very clear books written on the subject of this catastrophe," he said. 'But can anyone say that they truly understand what happened?'"