Wednesday, April 2, 2014

PASSAGE WORK: a path towards stillness?

 This is a slightly revised version of a short article I wrote for the Journal of Music in Ireland on the occasion of the first performance of my Passage Work for soprano, chamber ensemble and electronics which took place in the Project Arts Centre on 20th December 2001. The same musicians will be performing it again in the same venue on 17th April 2014 as part of the FreeState 8 concert that I have co-curated: Sylvia O'Brien (soprano) and the Crash Ensemble, conductor David Brophy.

Composed during the earliest phase of the second Palestinian intifada, my Passage Work begins with a cataclysmic tutti (soprano voice, seven instruments, tape). This echoes the opening of the finale of my Oboe Concerto (1993-4), composed shortly after my return from the Middle East where I had first-hand experience of the first intifada.  The first movement of the Concerto is echoed here in the falling and rising arpeggios which originally characterised the oboist’s “passage work”. In the classical/romantic concerto this term denotes a mere occasion of virtuosic display, but here such “display” forms an intrinsic part of the musical argument.

The process whereby details hitherto considered trivial are brought to the foreground of our attention typifies the thought of Walter Benjamin (1892-1940). Towards the end of his life, Benjamin sought to encapsulate such an approach to historiography in his unfinished Passagen-Werk, for which the English is The Arcades Project (not Passage Work!), the arcades in question being those of Paris.

The story of Benjamin’s Calvary has often been told: his flight from the Gestapo across the Pyrenees bearing a mysterious manuscript in his briefcase, his suicide (by poisoning) in the Spanish Catalan village of Portbou, in the mistaken belief that he was to be returned by the authorities to Vichy France (the death of Benjamin, coincidentally, is the basis for Brian Ferneyhough’s first piece of music theatre).

In January 2000 I visited Portbou and was deeply moved by Israeli sculptor Dani Karavan’s memorial to Benjamin, entitled Passages, the foundation stone of which was laid in 1990, the fiftieth anniversary of his death. This monument consists of some 85 steps descending steeply within rust-coloured walls towards the sea, but stopping halfway at a sheet of glass “that may provide assurance against falling without, however, alleviating the feeling of insecurity” (Konrad Scheurmann in For Walter Benjamin, ed. Ingrid and Konrad Scheurmann, Bonn 1993). Nearby is the cemetery where the local community has erected a simple memorial to Benjamin. Both monuments bear inscriptions taken from Benjamin’s own works. The former: “It is more difficult to honour the memory of the nameless than that of the celebrated”; the latter: “There never exists a document of culture that is not simultaneously a document of barbarism”. Both of these citations are used in my Passage Work’s text-collage.

After my Portbou visit I fetched up in the spectacularly beautiful French Catalan town of Collioure. Being a fanatical visitor of cemeteries, I soon found the grave of Antonio Machado, who had fled here from fascist Spain with his family in 1939; worn-out and grief-stricken, he survived for only a month, dying in the same room as his mother (who died three days later). I was familiar with Machado’s work through settings by Dallapiccola and Nono, and was struck with his use of the imagery of paths and steps and the strange link between this and Karavan’s monument to Benjamin (“Caminantes, son tus huellas/el camino, y nada más;/ caminante, no hay camino,/ …Sino estelas en la mar.” [Traveller, your footsteps/are the path, and nothing more;/ traveller, there is no path,/…only tracks in the ocean]).

Alongside these texts (and a further excerpt from Benjamin’s Passagen-Werk: “to identify the sea upon which we are voyaging, and the shore from which we set out”), I chose a few fragments from other left-wing poet/exiles: Pablo Neruda (“where the militant sea / dashes its blue waves beneath the angry foam”), Paul Celan (“Where did the way lead when it led nowhere?”), and Mahmoud Darwish (“Where should we go after the last frontier, /where should the birds fly after the last sky?” – the last four words became the title of a book by Edward Said, the most famous international spokesman for the Palestinian cause). Whatever about the thematic links between all these excerpts, there are those who will probably find their juxtaposition provocative; I make no apology for this, but would nonetheless stress that a juxtaposition is not an equation.

The text-collage forms the basis both for the solo soprano part, and, broken into its phonetic constituents, for the vocal element of the tape part (which uses the voices of Francesca Martelli and Andrew Redmond). The recorded sound of footsteps, on iron and on asphalt, provides the remainder of the tape material, which was initially notated like an instrumental score. Armed with a commission from the Crash Ensemble, I started work on the piece in Collioure in November 2000 (I feel that the “ebb and flow” structure of the piece owes much to that locality with its three small harbours in each of which the sea sounds quite different) and finished it in nearby Céret the following March. The realisation of the tape part was entrusted to the indispensable Jürgen Simpson. The première took place in Dublin’s Project Arts Centre on December 20th 2001.

Passage Work bears the dedication … “das Gedächtnis der Namenlosen su ehren” (to honour the memory of the nameless), quoting the Benjamin inscription from Dani Karavan’s haunting memorial. Let me finish by quoting Karavan himself: “I think it is very dangerous to work on such a subject because you usually feel forced to do things very expressively – as a kind of loud scream…I would never be able to work in such a way. I believe in the power of stillness and a degree of reserve to awaken emotions. It’s impossible to represent aggression by aggression. The artistic means would never be capable of competing with the terrible reality…” (interview with Ingrid and Konrad Scheurmann, loc cit.) Perhaps, unlike sculpture or architecture, and with no thought of “competing”, music may allow itself the occasional loud scream. Although the many strands of Passage Work do ultimately converge on “the power of stillness and a degree of reserve”, there are times when such a scream is the only articulate response to the injustices of our world.
                                                                        Raymond Deane, copyright 2001.