È Perso Nel Tempo

for mezzo soprano and chamber orchestra

Susannah Self

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for mezzo soprano and chamber orchestra

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Composer Susannah Self
Year of Composition 2021
Duration ca.15'
Instrumentation Mezzo Soprano, Chamber Orchestra
Forces 2 flutes (2° also piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani (1 musician), percussion (2 musicians), harp, celeste, strings (10, 8, 6, 5, 3), mezzo soprano solo
Categories (all composers) ,
Catalogue ID ce-ss1epnt1


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At the beginning of lockdown I embarked on composing my fifth symphony, inspired by Jung’s The Red Book. I searched for a way to focus on a fragmentary aspect of the work that could reflect the context of the current pandemic. I found useful insights via the conversations of Sonu Shamdasani and James Hillman in their book Lament of the Dead. In particular, they discuss the idea that The Red Book invites us to connect with the dead from all of time as a form of transformation and self-actualisation.

It’s as if the man has crawled up from his grave, like an old wine that is still full of vigour.
Lament of the Dead: Hillman/Shamdasani.

This concept reminded me of Richard Wilhelm’s book of lectures on the I Ching in which he suggests that we can become deeply connected to people from the past by engaging with their work. Therefore, as I focused on reflections on the past when reading The Red Book, I went on to discover resonances with Dante’s Divina Commedia which had been created nearly 700 years earlier. I was struck by the similarities of these two epic works in relation to their cathartic inner revelations which, although biblical in their proportions, are delivered in a secular form. Both visionaries refer to their turning points as being instigated by an internal crisis. Sonu Shamdasani contextualizes Jung’s experience:

“There is a moment when he lets the chaos in”. He says at one point, “This was the night on which all the dams broke and he lets it in, but he doesn’t remain there, within the anarchy, within the chaos”.
Lament of the Dead: Hillman/ Shamdasani.

Jung mentions the presence of tempestuous serpents during chaos and in a remarkably similar way the sinner is pierced by a serpent in Dante’s Inferno.

là dove ’l collo a le spalle s’annoda
just where the neck and shoulders form a knot
Inferno: Dante

The sinner is incinerated and then recomposes into human form. This metamorphosis from man to dust and again to man is compared to the death and rebirth of the phoenix, a mythological bird in Christian imagery.

Così per li gran savi si confessa, che la fenice more e poi rinasce
Just so, it is asserted by great sages, the phoenix dies and then is born again
Inferno: Dante

Jung goes on to say

If no outer adventure happens to you, then no inner adventure happens to you either.
The Red Book: Jung

Having discovered segments from these works that could provide an angle, I began composing a first draft during the first six months of lockdown. Composition flowed easily so that I had completed it by Christmas 2020. Resuming work in New Year 2021, I suddenly fell into an abyss and became uncertain that the symphony worked as a piece of music, or that it represented what I needed to compose in response to the subject matter. In particular I felt that I had not managed to interweave the shadow narrative present in The Red Book and Divina Commedia. Also, the extracts of the Jung that I chose to set for the mezzo soprano didn’t sit well within the music. What followed was a six-month period of purgatory, a state of confused limbo. I became increasingly uncertain that I would ever have the strength to resume an interactive dialogue with the symphony’s materials. In Dante’s Purgatorio, 13, the job of the mountain of Purgatory is to dishabituate us from vice. Dismala, literally, “dis-evils” (verse 3) — or dishabituates from evil — those who climb:

Noi eravamo al sommo de la scala,
dove secondamente si risegalo
monte che salendo altrui dismala.

We now had reached the summit of the stairs
where once again the mountain whose ascent
delivers man from sin has been indented.
Purgatorio: Dante.

Dismala is a verb formed from the privative prefix dis + verb malare, based on the noun male, evil. Therefore, the mountain dis-evils us or purifies us from vice. I began the practice of opening The Red Book randomly to invoke synchronicity in a similar way to the I Ching. The first quote was:

The soul demands your folly, not your wisdom.
The Red Book: Jung

Jung’s words resonated as I re-opened the score. Also, I drew closer to finding similarities between his inner journey and Dante’s. Here was a universality of experience going beyond that of the individual. Both suggest that all human behaviour, good and evil, is rooted in love. Thus love can incline toward the good, or toward the bad (malo amor). Therefore, relationships are not so clear-cut as they might seem. I set to re-forging the material of my score with a new energy and transformed the original compositional material from the perspective of The Red Book to reach back in time with a compositional response to Dante’s Divina Commedia. I even went on to further reference Virgil, from whom Dante drew his inspiration. I replaced Jung’s words with the Dante quotes in Italian which are embedded in this article. Like an ouroboros, the alchemical process of renewing my original composition created an entirely new work. I was driven by a demonic energy during a three-week period of transformation. Through reaching out to ancient times via Dante’s work, I sense I was perhaps fulfilling one of the aims of Jung’s work as suggested by Shamdasani and Hillman.

Through contemplating the dark, the nocturnal, the abyssal (relating to or denoting the depths or bed of the ocean, especially between about 3,000 and 6,000 metres down) in you, you become utterly simple. And you prepare to sleep through the millennia like everyone else, and you sleep down into the womb of the millennia, and your walls resound with ancient temple chants… He who sleeps in the grave of the millennia dreams a wonderful dream. He dreams a primordially ancient dream. He dreams of the rising sun.
The Red Book: Jung

Paradiso 30 opens by conflating time and space. If noon is 6,000 miles away, then sunrise must be 900 miles — about 1 hour — distant. The opening verses 1-15 suggest that at about 1 hour before sunrise, the stars disappear one by one before the arrival of the sun, and the angelic choirs fade away leaving only Beatrice. Paradiso echoes the spiral looping of forward motion and nostalgic. Dante records his final tribute to Beatrice in a metapoetic passage. Her words present interwoven language, a distilled version of the Occitan technique of coblas capfinidas, in which the last word of a strophe is picked up in the first word of the next strophe. È PERSO NEL TEMPO concludes with Dante’s words:

Noi siamo usciti fore
del maggior corpo al ciel ch’è pura luce:
luce intellettual, piena d’amore;
amor di vero ben, pien di letizia;
letizia che trascende ogne dolzore.

From matter’s largest sphere,
we now have reached the heaven of pure light,
light of the intellect, light filled with love,
love of true good, love filled with happiness,
a happiness surpassing every sweetness.
Purgatorio: Dante.