Chaya Czernowin: Infinite Now
Opera Vlaanderen, Ghent, 18 April 2017
The first thing you know going into the theatre for a performance of Chaya Czernowin’s third and newest opera, Infinite Now, is that it lasts two and a half hours, without a break. There are sound practical reasons for giving this information, but it remains a somewhat alarmist way to frame a piece. Yet in the event it proved useful for appreciation too. Infinite Now is a long work, and it is a slow one, adjectives now so negatively valorised these days in relation to music that I must immediately add: but not in a bad way. Big is just how it is.
Feldman’s line about the difference between form and scale comes to mind, but where Feldman’s art was still based on an essentially linear movement through time, an endless chain of extensions, Czernowin’s opera dwells. It inhabits its big box of time-space, all the way to its edges. It penetrates. It overwhelms.
Infinite Now is about entrapment, and about finding life (perhaps hope not hope, as such, but at least a compulsion to go on) in such situations. It is about a woman at home and men at war, about going away and coming back, and about them being the same. In an attempt to capture this, I doodled this image in my notes on the journey home:
The libretto combines Luk Perceval’s play FRONT (based on Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front and texts and letters from World War I) and Can Xue’s novel Homecoming (in which a woman returns to a house she once knew as her home, only to find that it is now perched, in unending darkness, on the edge of an abyss), at first holding the two scenarios quite distinct then, in the opera’s second half, gradually overlapping them until they occupy the same psychological space.
The music is unexpected. In contrast to her hyper-detailed scores of the 2000s Czernowin has been adding more and more space to her music recently, but even so Infinite Now comes as a shock, so pared down is it. This suits its slowness: ‘moments’ in the piece may last several minutes, giving them unavoidable mass. (The staging is even more stripped back, but in keeping with the work’s overall aesthetic also contains some of its most memorable moments.) The orchestra is large, and is supplemented by a concertante quartet of two guitars and two cellos (played by Nico Couck, Yaron Deutsch, Christina Meissner and Séverine Ballon), but it is the electronics that dominate. Composed in collaboration with IRCAM’s Carlo Laurenzi, the soundtrack is based on a number of concrete sounds – metal gates, trains, birds’ wings, breathing, rolling balls, pops of static and so on. These set out the work’s sonic template, around the sounds of air, either moving or being moved through. (Later the sounds of water are added, notably the splintered noise of ice stacking on Lake Superior.) The orchestral writing is related, and centres around sheets of sound and noise – waves of string glissandi, spatters of dots, an especially memorable three-minute quadruple fortissimo G for brass in Act VI. What moments of lyricism there are (and they are but moments, tightly and precisely rationed) are given to the voices and instrumental quartet. One passage at the end of Act IV took my breath away for sheer beauty; looking at the score the following morning I was amazed that it amounted to just two bars of guitar and voices, a fleeting vocal arabesque and perhaps ten seconds of electronics. Such is Infinite Now‘s power to shape and communicate the passage of time. Such is Czernowin’s authority as a composer. I cannot think of anyone else who could have written this opera: she is an artist at the height of her powers.
The next day I visited Ghent’s contemporary art museum, SMAK. Inside was an exhibition of three of Anna Oppermann’s ‘ensembles’, Myth and Enlightenment (1985–92), Paradoxical Intentions – To lie the Blue down from the Sky (1988–92) and, below, On the one hand – on the other hand; both … and (M+M) (1988).
Assemblages of elements, often surrealistically juxtaposed or extrapolated, originating in a small number of found objects brought into fortuitous conjunction, Oppermann’s works are halls of mirrors reflecting out in every physical and metaphysical dimension. No longer paintings or sculptures, although resembling both, they are piles of stuff, retracing, reworking, reimagining, repositioning their objects of attention in ways that penetrate and overwhelm you. More infinite nows, I thought, as I stood before them.