Modernism Eats Itself

By Greg Last edited 166 months ago
Modernism Eats Itself

If you haven't purchased your tickets for the English National Opera's unstaged production of Brian Ferneyhough's Shadowtime on July 9, not to worry! There are still tickets available! Um, that is, there are, it seems, quite a few tickets still available. In fact, to no one's surprise, not very many people want to see Shadowtime at all.

In case you missed the deafening buzz surrounding this UK premiere, Shadowtime is an Opera about the philosopher and critic Walter Benjamin, author of "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," etc. The libretto, by American avant-garde poet Charles Bernstein, has no plot, but rather a series unconnected events and images. Hitler, Einstein, and a two-headed figure with the heads of Karl Marx and Groucho Marx all make appearances. Some of this is supposed to be funny, apparently.

The synopsis contains passages like:

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").

Your guess is as good as ours. This opaque action is accompanied by similarly opaque music, which sounds for all intents and purposes like entirely random, free-form noodling for two hours, but which, one must be repeatedly reminded, is actually the result of strict, rigourous intellectual construction.

It should be clear at this point that the reason no one is buying tickets, is because this is a work of masturbatory in-jokes set to music incapable of communicating anything. Of course, there are still powerful people out there who would brand us philistines for even suggesting such a thing. And since Ferneyhough has lived in California for the last two decades or so, he can furthermore be branded "the prophet without honour in his own country" (as Andrew Clements wrote in the Guardian a year ago). Kieth Potter, in the Independent, laid it on thick:

Paris and New York are guaranteed to see Shadowtime this year or next, but planned shows at Sadler's Wells in September 2005 are uncertain. Can Britain avoid the usual story with the composer who has always felt himself a prophet fêted everywhere but in his own country?

Well, thanks to the support of Radio 3, London is getting to hear the work, although for one night only, and without sets or costumes. But please, spare us the moral indignation at our lack of support for a composer who has gone to such great lengths to make his music impenetrable.

Listen, we believe new concert music can still matter. We're not saying only want superficial music that exhausts all its meaning on first hearing. We want music that challenges and engages us emotionally, intellectually, and physically. But, prophet or not, Ferneyhough's music doesn't (and maybe can't) provide that kind of experience, and we won't be brow-beaten into accepting his importance as an article of faith.

Clements in the Guardian tried to answer this objection directly: "Beneath his tangled modernist rigour Ferneyhough hides a passionate commitment to expression." Well, exactly! We'd just prefer a composer who, rather than hiding his expressive potential, expressed something, dammit!

So we won't be attending Shadowtime, but we couldn't go even if we wanted to, since it's on the same night as the kick-ass new-music band Icebreaker's performance of Philip Glass's emotionally, intellectually and physically engaging and challenging "Music with Changing Parts" at the Almeida Theather. You should go too. Except I'm afraid that concert might already be sold out.

Last Updated 24 June 2005