A BUSY HOUSE OF VOICES
Brian Ferneyhough's Shadowtime



Shadowtime is primarily an essay, as written as if by a practising artist who is also a critic. There are wonderful moments where, if you know Ferneyhough or Bernstein, you do momentarily think of either as the author of some passages that (daringly) push them a little further (working in a new way) to more literariness or more lyricism than they previously overtly showed. Each moment of apparent departure for Bernstein turns out to be by Ferneyhough, and vice versa, but you do get taken in, you do fear lapse of taste in your favourite, seduction, compromise, but more consistently the synergy you hope for, that must skirt appearing these things. Don't just think anything-goes, ah-the-all-encompassing, the-postmodern. Think essay, and think Coleridge, Arnold, Eliot, Pound. Don't just think stylish essayists. As far as "stylish essayists" go, maybe think Susan Sontag for a point of reference, a critic who practises art that doesn't really do it for you as much as her criticism does, and then place this work as a little nearer to good art and a little further from good criticism. An architect once told me he got Wittgenstein far better after seeing the house Wittgenstein made for his sister. The kind of essayist I'm thinking of is noble and is, to paraphrase Donald Davie, a centaur in a world of either horses or men (except I really do like artists who are not essayistic equally to the centaur). His or her work billows out a space, held open sometimes as tensely as the big tent of which Tony Blair used to speak, sometimes with eight or ten basic pegs and lines of basic force yet billowly to wallow in nonetheless.

What is an essay? It opens up in performance, as a work set in time, some of the thoughts I have here - had, before the performance? not sure. It may have a puzzle element. In any of its forms, it dawns on people. It does not talk to system, nor merely join with other essays in agitating for a system ("against" is often invisibly for). Because it is a good essay, it will not leave my thoughts about Benjamin untouched, or merely feeling defensive, as its misreaders, most of its reviewers, have found theirs left. It is not a dramatisation working from others' writings about Benjamin, it is an essay. On Benjamin, on life (but through a process of unpacking a text).

Shadowtime
is an essay in setting postmodern text to and/or with postmodern music. It has the nimbleness we hope for in contemporary text-setting from modernism on. It makes lines dance, as they can in the mind, in the air. It is a lesson in having a panoply of delivery techniques for any poet who reads aloud. But is it postmodernism? Moreover, is it postmodernism text meeting postmodernist music, both aspects cutting-edge? It does something more than the two things we know can happen when words and music meet: more than finding some of the molecular three-dimensional modelling in a map of words flat on the page (or that modelling in the sayings in the language, and possible in the language, through which the poem attempts to pass resonantly; where the composer returns the poem to the potential and current language wherefrom it fell flat - that, or the composer wrenches it like dragging it through a hedge, depends on the piece); more than what a text can do to a composer's oeuvre in violent return, bottom it, as some of Donne but not all of Donne successfully does to Britten,  Britten who drags the never-that-good-in-the-first-place Owen through the apparently peace-loving, actually pushy and thus utterly hedging War Requiem (resonantly renamed by Stravinsky "the battle of Britten".) To those who fear my writing here sounds as if from the non-musician who can only deal with music with words, with a text to read while listening, I dare to say that is Ezra Pound not me.

On the simplest level, let me start anew, anyone with any interest in words set to music will recognize, from experience, that at some point the libretto and synopsis in the programme or CD booklet must not dominate. No, they must be put aside and the ear opened. This is already supposed to happen in postmodern text, and in postmodern music, an acceptance, a curiousity in, the medium it postmodernises, reframed. Decide where you think it belongs and let the musical/textual cross-genre titillation make its impression. Otherwise, only the occasional obvious flourish will impress, and a second hearing of the music be rushed through by waiting only for the obvious flourish to come around again. Let the undercurrents come through. That's what the commentators current in their art - and good for them - will be trying to put their fingers on. That's what (in your personal discussion lists) you will delight in if you hit on one with a friend. It takes all of us some time to let go of libretti, and longer to let go of the myriad of synopses - that range from the sweeping generalisation of "this is what is supposed to be suggested in this whole scene" to the gossip of "this conveys the following sad/happy biographical episode in the artist's life".

Not that there can't be helpful synopses, like Charles Bernstein's in the programme to Shadowtime
- perhaps reproduced in the Green Integer book of his libretto to it, but I have not seen that, and anyway I am reviewing the performance here. I don't want to reproduce the programme notes here, either. I read Bernstein's synopsis near the end of hearing Shadowtime and I want to see what I can remember now of what I thought of the whole piece before I read them. It has taken me a long time as a wordy person coming to terms with my love of music (and lack of musical training at school) to let go of my feelings of "I can't follow all the words", to hear what I hear and not unconsciously, as it were, correct its spelling and try to hear what the line is in the libretto when it's not clear in the sound. It has taken me time to find it can be good to surrender to the warbling calls of the very power sopranos whom Ezra Pound assailed, reportedly reducing one to tears, when on his hobby-horse that all sung words should be intelligible or else.

What I experienced live at the Coliseum on 9th July may not be what you experience hearing it on a forthcoming CD or broadcast on the radio. Though not the full staged opera, it had visual touches it would help you to visualise. It was a concert performance of the full opera, with the musicians on stage where in full performance they are in the pit, and none of the masks or costumes hinted at in the programme. Above all there were important actions, a sort of low-level choreography of thought-out attitudes and some acting, though you don't need to imagine the acting: that at least is deducable from hearing and not seeing it. What you can't deduce, and need to see, is how the singers happened to walk off and on, sometimes forming a line from which two or three might drop out and walk off.


The radio listener merely hears a new voice suddenly come in, perhaps not to be heard for a while. If Shadowtime is to be a busy house of voices then one craves a short phrase sotto voce from an announcer, as in reports from parliament that chip in "The member for Brent East" or the full name of the member. It is utterly impossible to amend a radio broadcast to bring the full pleasure, when one has  looked at bodies all night, of the marvellous moment when disembodied sound projection not used in the production so far bursts out at the end through speakers around the auditorium, expressing hauntedness, a great theme of the piece.

I don't want to compare staged concert performance with opera in full costume, only sound with visual bookmarks, and sound (on radio and CD) without. I am not sure, frankly, how much I missed by having only a staged performance. I think by comparison of hearing a broadcast of one of the days of Stockhausen's opera Light
, where recordings are mixed with live performance. In Stockhausen on the radio, the mix of the two is clear and delineated, each aspect assigned a (musically, odd to say) symbolism and the two set in useful tension. I have also seen a staged performance of one of the Stockhausen Light operas, which fell flat for me in specific parts though I loved the whole. I could hardly believe huge ten minute chunks of cackhandedness. Then I read about the missing actions and costumes Stockhausen intended for the full operatic performance. Suddenly, all made sense. If there were flat parts in Ferneyhough's opera, I'm not sure they are anything that can be solved by staging.

In a piece by Stockhausen (whose self-penned libretti are, by my many musical and literary friends who nevertheless love at least one Stockhausen piece, disliked) there is a sort of fugue and canon to the music, a "game" you might say. In Stockhausen there is neo-baroque, that plays some of the intellectual games Bach plays, grafted onto something of Mozartian flair (for showmanship). In Ferneyhough, there is more of the symphonic wash, analysed by him as a scientist of, and lecturer on, hydraulics. For me, the beauties of Beethoven went in the twentieth century into Les Six, and French music between the wars, and rather too bombastically into Shostakovich. One recognizes, in the French of that period, figures and gestures and little runs from popular music and from romantic music, yet they eddy back and forth and the whole feels something to drift away on. It does not feel like a game or puzzle. It feels like a dream, a rapture. I think of a colt sombered by an atonal melancholic trainer it is trying to please. In Ferneyhough, these little Parisian runs also bolt briefly out - throughout the apparently Schoenbergian, shoah-haunted, whole.

In the world of writing, since the writings of Benjamin, there has been plenty of coltish giddiness; the music here, not by any means making a neat allegory of my world of writing, manages to start in pleasure, musically, to promise pleasure to a modern reader scanning the libretto, and make giddy plunges into grief. It does not tie its wagon to a Speilbergean high seriousness by noting the shoah. It doubts itself, as music, the way a playful text doubts itself whenever it mentions the persecution of the Jews. Somehow the stakes seem higher when it's music, and impossible to make as giddy as this in spoken drama. In performance, to non-specialists, and with music, it gets at something that the  most powerful postmodern writing nevertheless only rarely manages to skim. I speak, as an essayist, about the essay that any expression is, for someone who loves poetry, loves music, loves art, loves the world.

What do I mean about Mozartian flair? I mean, for example, the drama Mozart brings to the already dramatic form of the live string quartet Many will have seen the (sometimes acted-up) eyeball-to-eyeball repartee when a string quartet play. Ferneyhough's score requires some of the same, with performers striking very short surging passages, then coming to rest around very quietly played moments in which you can see all the players listening out for each other and you try to hear all playing at once. For this, TV broadcasts of classical music, in which one camera goes to a close-up to pick out a quieter part, are no substitute. It is much harder to concentrate live on all the interrelationships in an orchestra, assuming in fact that they exist.

While one is listening out for this, one attends to Bernstein's libretto (although passages are inserted written by Ferneyhough). The reviewing and general publicity around Shadowtime has talked up Bernstein's being a L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E writer, sometimes written without equal signs between the letters, sometimes as well-phrased as to say "associated with Language magazine" (where the equal signs should be present, however). Some have mentioned his Artifice of Absorption
as the piece Ferneyhough read that inspired him to work with Bernstein. One speculates on what kind of discursive text Ferneyhough expected, a more language-alive version of the segments Ferneyhough writes himself for the libretto, perhaps. What we get, in my opinion, is nearer to the text Bernstein creates for his collaborations in concrete poetry (or poetry with drawings, poetry arranged in curves around them) with Susan Bee. These are rarer texts, and have about them some of the plainness, the "I can get away with this" sigh of relief, of those most lovely rarely reprinted visual texts.

One does not study them, but walks through them as in a gallery (I own none, but take out and browse those held in library collections' pamphlet archives from time to time.) There has always been this almost-light-verse side to Bernstein, here a link with Auden the librettist perhaps, of "will this do?" when working with others. It is a human, more naked, even giggly Bernstein there. It would be completely wrong to call any of the pure text language-experiemental post-shoah writing of the Vietnam generation giggly, but the colloborations with Bee are Bernstein on his day off (I rate them, I like ease). What I love in Shadowtime is seeing day-off Bernstein textuality brought into a shoah-haunted piece, where there is no obvious narrative, no obvious essay-writer-for-print seriousness. There feels real risk at play, nakedness before those who would study Bernstein, who would write theses on him. Not nakedness like a streaker at a rugby match, nakedness like trust, intimacy between the lines.

The great symphonists, for me Beethoven and Mahler, do not unconditionally rely on us seeing the orchestra as a big string quartet - it is a strange cloud of sound in which the individual does not so much matter. It has been one challenge ever since the great symphonists to see how far one can decrease from the orchestra's many, how far one can increase the personnel from a string quartetÍs four, and still have a wash of sound being made by a group of musicians eyeball to eyeball, playing intimately and with drama. Shadowtime
manages this, as a technical feat in a work that perhaps wisely does not really aspire to express as a whole - not with anything like the expressive accomplishment of one's favourite intimate or grand works of music. I think, myself, that this is what the "intensity" that some attribute to the experience of Ferneyhough's music (in practice, mostly, going to his gigs): the drama.

His music I myself find consoling, tender, assiduous but not intense. Its puzzle element (if I may continue this theme, it is the hook that took me further in to serious listening, and letting composers train me to hear) is not in overall shape, but in being able to follow a game of musical consequences. If I begin here, where do I go next? If five musicians play together on these few notes, how many will play the next? More, fewer? And will some drop out and others join in? The pop listener who likes to listen out for instrument doubling in the Beach Boys' Pet Sounds
may follow me here: a phrase you like, you learn to hear by reading the booklet notes, is achieved by two instruments playing together until the result sounds like neither, in fact like a new instrument. The question for that pop listener is: if there is no overall puzzle to listen out for (say a palindrome, all the instruments coming in quiet, building to crescendo, quietening just as slowly, applause) and if there is no foot-tapping beat or obvious sentiment (or cue to obvious sentiment in the lyric), what more do I get than enjoying this "instrument doubling"?

If I think about the philosophical quality that most attribute to John Cage's famous 4' 33" - that it makes one hear all the sound in the hall - then I note that this has become a sine qua non
of the modern concert music I have attended in live performance in my lifetime. 4' 33" seems the perfect essay, and yet it is a strong work of art in Cage's oeuvre, where there seem lots of essays, and yet there are for me impressions of Cage pieces that come out over time, as you puzzle over them, that have walked into you as if up the ladder Wittgenstein tells you to kick away only at the end of the (Tractatus) process. There are lots of philosophical qualities in Shadowtime, hopes that we will come to hear all the something in the something. Two weeks after attending the performance, I cannot be conclusive, and thus I shall drop in a closing remark that perhaps belongs more in the body of my essay, perhaps belonged more in the body in Shadowtime too.

One of the hidden histories of the last two centuries, of words, and of music, is the history of the German Lieder: its poignancy for those who have learned a little German, what it is to share Schubert with those who have no German and love his music (whose many strategies, whose wholeness, I did not experience before I learnt my smattering of German, whose wholeness does not exist for me without taking on what Schubert does with language, universally if only we have the German to see it.) Many sang German Lieder before the gramophone. Yet our Joyce-inspired studies of, our thoughts about, what the gramophone has done to poetry and music (how now can they not stray from each other, one wails) resolves itself into wanting to imagine only a world of Irish ballads and Italian arias to which the gramophone is the highwayman. Many sang German Lieder before the gramophone.

Wilfred Pickles praised some Beatle songs as modern Schubert; they were essays, whose surface is imitated, doing to generations after what happened to poetry when late Yeats, as Davie once said, was read yet early (essayistic) Yeats ignored. As someone who has tried to translate Lieder, I was intrigued by what Bernstein was thinking of (I mean I enjoyed his thoughts) taking on at the very least German texts that have been set by several into Lieder, weaving the texts (if not, and to what co-operation or opposition from Ferneyhough I cannot say, the imprint on the ear of the lieder) through games into his text. The result does not enquire wholeheartedly, wholesensedly, enough; does not feel digested, to me; but does not smooth the insertions over and dispel their wholesense links to earlier settings either. Here and there is a good sentence, from a good essay, touching on the strangeness of a phrase that becomes a catchphrase. Why do so many dwell on Eliot's "poetry communicates before it is understood?" and wait, I think, for another sentence like it? Cage's 4' 33" is not such a sentence, not reducible to it. One's focus on Shadowtime
is trying to reduce, kindly, worthily.

     © Ira Lightman 2005