Brian Ferneyhough’s Shadowtime

Jun 3, 2006 8:56 am
Ferneyhough is associated with the New Complexity school, often associated with integral serialism. His use of formal schemes differs a great deal from Boulez and he has managed to create works that sound spontaneous and energetic. His works are known to be highly complex and technical but the motivation is similar to aleatory music or other open form compositions, allowing the performer to decide which aspects of the music to emphasize and which to ignore.

Shadowtime is his first opera; in fact his first attempt a longer sustained composition. It is a “thought opera” based on the work and life of Walter Benjamin, a philosopher and cultural critic of the Weimar period. He was a friend of Bertolt Brecht and Gershom Scholem and was associated with the Frankfurt School of philosophy.

Shadowtime is constructed in seven loosely-connected, multi-layered non-chronological scenes that explore some of the major themes of Benjamin’s work, including the nature of history, time and language; the interconnectivity of language and things; the role of interpretation, “aura” and translation in art; and the possibility of transformational politics in an age of mass communications and propaganda.

The opera begins on the night of his death. Benjamin allegedly committed suicide in Portbou at the Spanish-French border, attempting to escape from the Nazis. The circumstances and date of his death are unclear. He appeared to be ill when he arrived in Port Bou and his party was denied passage across the border to Spain. 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 light flickered and then failed.

The scene title “New Angels/Transient Failures” refers to the ninth thesis in his essay “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” Benjamin, inspired by a Paul Klee painting called Angelus Novus in his possession, poetically describes the course of human history as a path of accumulating destruction which “the angel” views with horror but from which he cannot turn away.

There is a full synopsis available here:

Some excerpts from the opera:

And an article on Walter Benjamin:

~ by severalfourmany on June 3, 2006.

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