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Les Froissements des Ailes de Gabriel

Born 1943, Coventry, England

Les Froissements des Ailes de Gabriel (2003)
guitar solo, flute/piccolo/bass flute, oboe/cor anglais, clarinet/clarinet in Eb, bass clarinet/contrabass clarinet, horn, trumpet/soprano trombone, trombone/bass trumpet, piano, guitar, harp, percussion, violin, violoncello

Les froissements des Ailes de Gabriel (The beatings of Gabriel's wings) brings together two persisting threads in Ferneyhough's music of the past couple of decades. On the one hand, it continues a series of works for soloist and chamber ensemble, each of which finds a new way of evoking yet questioning the traditional "concerto" concept. On the other, it forms part (in fact, the second scene) of the "scenic work". Shadowtime, an "opera ofs" centering on the philosopher Walter Benjamin that has preoccupied the composer since 1999. Without wishing to push paradox too far, one might say that we are dealing here with a "concerto" that is not really a concerto, forming part of an "opera" that is not really an opera.

The figure invoked in the title is, evidently, the angel of the Annunciation, the rustling of whose wings long ago opened Heinrich Biber's cycle of "Mystery Sonatas", and more significantly, led the 12th century Persian mystic Sohravardi to surmise that the two wings -- one orientated to celestial light, the other to earthly shadow -- were the channel by which divinity could pass from heaven to earth. But there's a broader angelology at work here. Since Shadowtime revolves around Benjamin, the natural starting point is Paul Klee's picture Angelus Novus -- in Benjamin's interpretation, an image of the "Angel of History" who gazes back at the debris of everything that still lies in front of us. This in turn evokes the "terrifying" angels of Rainer Maria Rilke's "Duino Elegies": the ones who "serenely disdain to annihilate us".

Les froissements des Ailes de Gabriel is the one scene of Shadowtime where -- perhaps self-evidently -- no words are sung or spoken. So what is it doing in an "opera"? It's no surprise to learn that it has a symbolic function. After a more or less realistic first scene, at the hotel on the Spanish border where Benjamin will commit suicide, this "angel concert(o)" seeks to perform a sort of allegorical "extinction of time" analogous to the "deafness to time" sometimes attributed to angels (who are alleged to act within time, but to be oblivious to it).

The work is written for solo guitar and an ensemble of 13 players: 4 woodwinds, 3 brass, 2 strings, and various "struck and plucked" instruments (harp, piano, percussion, and most notably a second guitar, tuned down a quarter-tone, which one can partly regard as the soloist's "dark other"). Ferneyhough describes the piece as "an investigation of suddenness as aesthetic and formal category", and this in itself gives cause for thought. For most composers (and indeed listeners), musical "form" acts as a kind of security: as something reliable to cling on. With Ferneyhough, this is rarely, if ever, the case: on the contrary, "form" is conceived more as a precarious tightrope over an abyss. But even in Ferneyhough's terms, Les froissements represents an extreme. He once described it, with a touch of gallows humour, as "245 bars of total non-sequiturs"; more specifically, there are 124 fragments, each rarely more than a few seconds in length, and each meticulously sculpted, with its own distinctive instrumentation and (often glittering) "texture types". The point at issue here is that the material intentionally passes by too fast for one to make connections, even if they do in fact exist. This is turn gives an ironic twist to the invocation of Gabriel: can his message -- his "annunciation" - in fact be received within "human" time? In this context, it may not be too fanciful to interpret the soloist's last, whirling figure as a final, exasperated rustling of the angel's wings.

Programme note 2003 Richard TOOP

Last updated Monday 08 March 2004
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