FAMA is music as theatre in the widest sense, operating on multiple levels. In the last ten years, it's been performed many times, and there's a recording on Kairos. Experiencing it live, however, is essential since it was created as an experience to be enacted live, for maximum impact. It's a multi-sensory immersion: participation is not passive.
Ostensibly, Furrer's text comes from Arthur Schnitzler's novel Fräulein Else, about a girl who likes a fancy life and makes money from entertaining men, but it would be a mistake if this were taken too literally. The narrative isn't straightforward. The opera begins in Latin. then flows into a stream of consciousness, where ideas constantly mutate. What "is" Else's story? We aren't told in straightforward narrative. We learn through induction, empathizing with the clues in the seemingly disjointed text, and in the oblique imagery in the music. As we learn in real life. Significantly, FAMA begins with a discourse from Ovid, Metamorphoses Book XII, in which Fama the goddess of Rumour intuits meaning by processing what she hears around herself. What we knows, or think we know, grows through interpreting impressions from a non-stop flow of data.
Sparkling bell-like sounds, voices intoning fragments, beautifully pitched but elusive, long elliptical phrases in the orchestra shooting forth, patterns that move and draw back. The first two scenes in FAMA suggest teeming, vibrant happenings, just beyond our grasp. "Ich höre das Feuer.....ich höre den Regen..... ich höre in meiner Erinnerung.....ich höre das Schweigen." Then Else emerges, or rather Isabelle Menke intoning Else's words rapid-fire. The syntax isn't conversation, it doesn't communicate. It's an internal monologue, free associating, random thoughts from which we might, or might not, deduce who Else is. Perhaps Else herself is still figuring things out, asking questions, deducing, unsure. The ensemble reveals little: barely audible clicks and brushing sounds, as if the players themselves were listening and watching. As Else's voice rises, tensely, the orchestra bursts into manic life: cacophony, cut through by long, clear metallic lines, replicated by the voice. It's as if the voice and ensemble were reaching out, feeling out to invisible walls, gauging distance by sound waves. High, clear notes, flutes and clarinets feeling the way, hesitating, interrupted by sudden flashes of percussion. Sounds come from all directions, often out of sight, often distorted. Else's voice sometimes seems to materialize in the air. Piano sounds, accordion sounds, are heard as if from great distances across time. Ticking sounds, sometimes percussion, sometimes bows sawn against strings in bizarrely mechanical fashion. Every noise matters, no matter how subtle.
"Wie hübsch!" said Menke, with a demented smile. "How cute it is to walk around naked" Figuratively, she's watching herself in a mirror wondering what others think, and what she should be thinking of herself. The strings bow violent, mechanical angles, the brass blow mocking raspberries. The text describes how Else puts on a coat and walks naked through a hotel lobby. No-one knows. Then, at first quietly, the sound of a contrabass flute takes over where Else's words end. Contrabass flute: an instrument which looks so bizarre that just looking at it is an act of theatre. It's huge, silvery and metallic but, full blast, it's like a siren, blaring menace and mystery. This contrabass flute interlude is a magnificent coup de théâtre. The whole orchestra screams in response, then falls quiet as the contrabass flute, played by Eva Furrer, continued unchallenged, like a strange dancer, moving and singing with grave but bizarre beauty.
The words "Else, Else, Else" are projected onto the walls. A point is being made, visually, though the words are barely heard, the voices of Exaudi singing pure sound, materializing as if in dream. The effect was both magical and sinister. We don't know what happens to Else, but we could hear the swirling tumult in the orchestra. Walls of sound crashed around us, giving way to uncanny chords resonating in near silence. The contrabass flute led a section that seemed almost fugue-like in its grave but quirky dignity. Else returned briefly. Her last words were "Adresse bleibt Fiala". Whatever that's supposed to mean, I do not know, but the effect was powerful, and lingers tantalisingly in the mind. FAMA is more focused than Furrer's earlier Hörtheater Begrehen, first released on DVD in 2008, which also deals with multi-level concepts of time, space and sound. Thus FAMA lends itself well to semi-concert performance, as we enjoyed at St John's, Smith Square. Although we didn't see the cool, blue walls of the original, the plot. such as there is, predicates on a kind of mental imprisonment. The gold and burgundy of St John's, with its elegant chandelier, suggested the outward luxury of Else's profession, which could take place anywhere, not just in the Dolomites. The drama, and the genius, of Furrer's FAMA is that, through art, we may have come closer to understanding what goes on in Else's soul.
Thank goodness for the London Sinfonietta, returning to their roots in cutting-edge repertoire. For a while, they seemed caught up in sponsor-pleasing "education", but good work is, in itself, educational. Any orchestra can do education, but what the London Sinfonietta does is new music better than anyone else. This FAMA will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 at an undisclosed date, but make sure you book for the next London Sinfonietta concert at St John's, Smith Square on December 6th when they'll be doing Hans Abrahamsen's Schnee, with Fool is Hurt, a new work by Simon Holt.