Oct/Nov 2000

m a k i n g   t i m e


with Don Mager

Tormented Still

Bainbridge, Simon. Ad Ora Incerta. Four Primo Levi Setting. Susan Bickley, mezzo soprano; Kim Walker, Bassoon; BBC Symphony Orchestra and the Nash Ensemble, conducted by Martyn Brabbins. NMC D059.
Ruzicka, Peter. …Inseln, Randlos… Die Sonne sinkt. Gestalt und Abbruch. …Vorgefühle… Christian Tetzlaff, violin; Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin; RIAS-Kammerchor, conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy, as will as other groups with subsequent works. Thorophon CTH 2402.


After 60 years or more, artists are tormented still by the Jewish genocide under Nazi Germany. Survivors continue to write and analyze those horrors from every imaginable perspective, again and again confronting the incommensurable wall of the inexplicable. Meanwhile, artists who were not born at the time find new means to voice the torment and anguish. The moral, analytic, historical and aesthetic work performed on the Jewish genocide is as urgent and unabated as ever.

Peter Ruzicka (b.1948) in 1995 and Simon Bainbridge (b.1952) in 1998-one German, one English, neither Jewish-have given new witness to the psychic anguish that "high" western culture almost ritualistically offers in its collective expiation. Ad Ora Incerta and …Inseln, Randlos… are both works of deep imaginative beauty and immediate emotional power. In this review, I limit my comments to these works only, as they clearly or the central pieces on each disk.

…Inseln, Randlos… ("islands, boundless") the earlier of the two work, is subtitled a violin concerto. Including the two words of the title and words from a seven line excerpt from Paul Celan's "Eingedunkelt" float through the music's striations of "oceanic" sound, but do not constitute a choric setting of the poem. Nor does the violin constitute the typical romantic concerto gestures of "standing up" to the orchestra. Unlike the heroic solo/orchestral confrontation of the romantic concerto, Ruzicka's work is an anti-concerto. Orchestra, chamber ensemble and solo violin form striations and intensities of sound within a shared aural universe. Islands appear and dissolve, but are less events in some narrative of struggle and resolution, than markers along a boundless drift. These islands of intensity afloat in the drift of striated sound form six variations on the work's fundamental thematic materials, but the listener of the 24'42" …Inseln, Randlos… registers a seeming timelessness. Celan's tormented life of holocaust-aftermath led to the silence-seeking poetics of his dense irreducible poems, and to his suicide in 1970. Ruzicka seems to want to expiate such consequences by filling silence itself with sound structures that carry us beyond outrage, anger, shame, horror and silence-seeking. …Inseln, Randlos… acknowledges the holocaust and its costs while seeming to mark a post-holocaust aural space in which disembodied voices and de-materialized words float through our consciousness on striations of boundless sound. This is a reverential but non-the-less aesthetic posthumous rendering of torment.

Bainbridge, by contrast confronts the materiality of Primo Levi's poems (another writer whose post-concentration camp experience, like Celan's, led to minimalist poems and eventual suicide in 1987). The composer sets out to set the texts to music opulently, nothing disembodied, nothing dematerialized. He attends to the words of the four poems, their nuances, their dramatic moves, their narratives, their personae. Thus Ad Ora Incerta (At an uncertain hour) is a full-scale orchestral song cycle-an almost symphony. The first and fourth songs/movements open into an aural grandeur not often encountered in today's music. "The crow's song" enacts bird flight in a harrowing duet of bassoon and mezzo soprano against the full orchestra's swelling and ebbing "Buna," the fourth song, enacts a torridly hot sunrise upon the chimneys of Auschwitz. These musically descriptive movements are doubtless what won the work the1999 Grawemeyer Award for composition, because their impacts are immediate, relentless and unshakable. Between them, the two inner movements are subdued recitatives in a chamber song style. Together these shorter songs serve to dissipate the volatility of the first movement while building a quietly desperate anxiousness that erupts in the opening bars of the fourth movement. Ad Ora Incerta is a solidly crafted and durable work. As representation art, it is a belated (60 years or more) but nonetheless committed outcry against atrocity.

Bainbridge, the younger of the two composers, seems unwilling or unready to move beyond the imaginative re-presentation of the horror of Auschwitz. He seems bound by the injunction to remember, and ritualistically to not forget, whereas Ruzicka seems to seek an aural space that is post-representational, memorial without being bound by memory. What the two works share is an invitation-or is it an insistence-that as the holocaust generation dies, we as a culture are not prepared yet to let it go. Imaginatively this younger generation longs still to wrestle with the bygone torment as a living psychic event.


Previous Piece forums serendipity Next Piece

What did you think?