Gheorghi Arnaoudov's FOOTNOTE
Bearing the improbably long title FOOTNOTE (...und Isolde/ns Winkfall lassen...)an imaginary interlude to the second act of "Tristan und Isolde" after the text of James Joyce, this 15-minute piece is scored for a cello, chamber ensemble and a female speaker. As its name suggests, the work is meant to be heard as an "imaginary interlude" within Act II of Wagner's opera Tristan und Isolde, connecting the scene where Isolde parts from her maid, Brangäne, and awaits a rendezvous with her illicit lover, Tristan. (The German in the title is partially invented, combining an archaic possessive with a word coined from semiotics. It may best be translated as "...and Isolde's episode of falling through all signs and significations.") For his text setting, Arnaoudov selected Joyce's poem "A Prayer," an anguished cry for erotic bliss and oblivion from Pomes Penyeach. Although the poem is not directly related to the story of Tristan and Isolde, both the Celtic legend and Wagner's opera were of interest to Joyce, so the fit of subject and text resonates on more levels than simple emotional sympathy. Indeed, Ulysses contains a very important Wagnerian allusion, and the daughter of HCE in Finnegans Wake bears the name Izzy, short for Isolde.
Although the idea of adding a Joycean "interlude" to Wagner's masterpiece could be seen as courting a certain sense of reckless arrogance, Arnaoudov pulls it off nicely in the hands of a lesser composer, the result might have been pastiche, parody, or slavish derivation. But the result here is a unexpected and engaging hybrid of styles, one of many possible extensions of Wagner's language and theme, and Arnaoudov does a remarkable job in capturing the spirit of Tristan und Isolde while still asserting his own idiom. While no rival to the Liebestod, FOOTNOTE holds its own, growing from the dense Wagnerian thickets like vines entwining along a trellis into the twentieth century.
The piece opens quietly, the cello unfolding in a dark, gliding line as the rest of the instruments come slowly to life. Although not particularly melodic, the music is quite sensual, mysterious; and the ghost of Wagner's score may be felt flickering through its measures: occasionally a clarinet or harp will shudder with a familiar, momentary figure before returning to its languid drifting. The poem is read in a breathy whisper, the words slipping through a sparse, dreamy soundscape of spidery piano, quivering strings, and fluttering woodwinds. Hearing FOOTNOTE brings to mind a vivid set of impressions bordering on synesthesia. I imagine Isolde on the forest floor, her mind unmoored at the edge of sleep and hovering at the nightmare shores of premonition. Her familiar world, as represented by the opera's lush score, has lost its hold: much in the same way as Joyce relaxes and breaks down familiar language in the nocturnal swirl of the Wake, Isolde's world of nineteenth-century harmony has become slurred, its various elements unbound and floating free, changing their shapes like ephemeral tendrils of vapor. Only the intermittent presence of the cello anchors her body to the damp, Wagnerian moss, holding her earthbound as her unconscious prayer rises to drift among dark branches. Climbing a ladder of notes softly plucked from a harp, her final words "O spare me!" are delivered into the silent void.
A bit heady, perhaps, but the entire piece unfolds in a hothouse atmosphere of strange, exotic beauty, and the stanzas of Joyce's poem certainly merit such a reading. Although Finnegans Wake contains more overtly "Wagnerian" passages, Arnaoudov has selected wisely: the words of Izzy's Wake would be too abstract, mercurial. Truly, "A Prayer" is better suited to these operatic lovers anguished, joyous, predestined, and doomed.
Come, give, yield all your strength to me!
From far a low word breathes on the breaking brain
Its cruel calm, submission's misery,
Gentling her awe as to a soul predestined.
Cease, silent love! My doom!
Blind me with your dark nearness, O have mercy, beloved enemy of my will!
I dare not withstand the cold touch that I dread.
Draw from me still
My slow life! Bend deeper on me, threatening head,
Proud by my downfall, remembering, pitying
Him who is, him who was!
Together, folded by the night, they lay on earth. I hear
From far her low word breathe on my breaking brain.
Come! I yield. Bend deeper upon me! I am here.
Subduer, do not leave me! Only joy, only anguish,
Take me, save me, soothe me, O spare me!
Footnote has yet to be commercially released, but you may download the entire piece at Arnaoudov's homepage:
Gheorghi Arnaoudov (Composer), WAV or MP3
The quality of the recording is excellent, and the playing is utterly delicious, languid and ripely decadent. Dobrina Ikonomova reads with poem with a hushed intensity, though her command of English leaves much to be desired, and her flinty accent strikes every syllable with an Eastern European edge. Still, there's something charming about her idiosyncratric reading, which evokes the Teutonic Isobel of Wagner quite a bit more than the willowy lass of Irish legend!