Angelus was released on New Focus Recordings in April 2020, just as the pandemic was beginning. This is a personal work that reflects on the history of displacement and isolation my mother encountered as a child refugee in Germany after WWII, but that, as many reviewers have commented on, has taken on eerie contrasts to our own current moment of tragedy and uncertainty. You can read more about the work’s genesis in a recent interview I gave with Keith Powers. I am indebted to the Ecce Ensemble for their expert performance and to Nina Guo for her captivating interpretation.
“It’s impossible to deplete the thematic and expressive density of “Angelus” in a single listening: in just over forty minutes John Aylward manages to condense with absolute originality the linguistic innovations that have evolved over more than a hundred years of the avant-gardes, while never resorting to sterile twists and turns nor to exaggerations suitable only for épater le bourgeois. With the complicity of a precise and close-knit ensemble, the young composer finds here a very rare balance between the fin de siècle decadentism of the last Romantics and the irrepressible exuberance of the contemporary.”
— Michele Polozzo
The album’s composer’s notes and acknowledgements and notes by Martin Brody are below the track listings.
Album Notes, by Martin Brody
The point of departure for John Aylward’s Angelus was a chance encounter with an enigmatic image. As we enter into the piece, we should recall its provenance.
The philosopher, Walter Benjamin, purchased the delicate, astonishing monoprint, Angelus Novus from the artist, Paul Klee, in 1921. As Benjamin’s dear friend, the Kabbalist Gershom Scholem informs us, he repeatedly referred to the picture as his “most important possession.” Not long after he acquired Angelus Novus, Benjamin was inspired to start an eponymous journal, with a Talmudic legend as its founding premise: “Even the angels,” he wrote, “new ones each mo- ment in innumerable bands — are created so that, after they have sung their hymns before God, they cease and dissolve into the naught.” A decade later, shortly after the Reichstag fire, the exiled philosopher reimagined the angel as talisman of all that he had left behind: “The angel…resembles all from which I have had to part: persons and above all things,” he mused, before posing a char- acteristically taut, dialectical paradox: “In the things I no longer have, he resides. He makes them transparent, and behind all of them there appears to me the one for whom they are intended.”
Although Benjamin was able to reclaim Angelus Novus in 1935, when an acquaintance carried the drawing from Nazi Berlin to Paris, the reunion was short-lived. As Scholem tells us:
“When, in June 1940, he fled from Paris and stored his papers in two suitcases — which George Bataille, connected with Benjamin through the College de Sociologie, founded by Bataille, temporarily kept hid- den in the Bibliotheque Nationale—Benjamin cut the picture out of the frame and stuffed it into one of the suitcases. And so after the war it made its way to Adorno in America and later in Frankfurt.”
Only months before he relinquished Angelus Novus for a second time, Benja- min produced a harrowing verbal precis of the image: the ninth of twenty enig- matic “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” In this psychedelic text, the focus shifts from the viewpoint of the author (who joyously conjures an infinite pro- gression of ceaselessly dissolving angels, or mourns the loss of “things I no longer have”) to the frozen stare of a “weak Messianic power” (Benjamin’s phrase, from the second “Thesis”), unable to save the cultivated European from the catastrophes of history.
Benjamin’s Midrash on Klee’s image fused with his personal fate. Like the picture itself, the text almost disappeared from history. While crossing France to escape the Gestapo, the philosopher sent a copy of his “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” with its commentary on the Angelus Novus, to another intellectual comrade, Hannah Arendt. Several months later, on the day after he was denied passage from Franco’s Spain into Portugal, Benjamin killed himself. Arendt, who herself barely escaped from internment in southern France to make the perilous journey to Portugal and then America, carried the unique copy of Benjamin’s manuscript with her. Arendt’s biographer, Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, reports that she and her fellow refugees read the manuscript of Benjamin’s “Theses” aloud, as if it was a sacred text, while they traveled by sea from Lisbon to New York.
Adorno returned Benjamin’s beloved picture, Angelus Novus, to Gershom Scholem, who had immigrated to Palestine in the 1920s. Scholem’s family be- queathed the picture to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Years later it was lent to the Centre Pompidou, where John Aylward and his mother, Monika, encoun- tered it in 2014.
In re-envisioning Angelus Novus, John Aylward honors its accreted meanings and catastrophic history. In his hands, however, Benjamin’s mystical vision of impotently flapping wings (brilliantly rendered at the end of the work’s second movement) appears at the vanishing point of an all-too-human, psychological drama: a struggle for transcendence rendered in a torrent of virtuosic vocaliza- tion. The voice is alternatively lyrical, didactic, ironic, bemused, inquisitive, con- templative, and ecstatic. It fitfully glides and soars in the stratosphere. It speaks plainly and sinks into noise. Its volatile relationship to the iridescent colors of its instrumental environment reveals a precarious and never fully-resolved accord between subject and world.
The fraught psychological drama, however, is contained in a taut frame—or rather, a pair of frames, one inside the other. The outer frame consists of settings of two mid-century American poets, avatars of the time and place Benjamin failed to reach. The piece begins with a musical rendering of a conditional verb in Adrienne Rich’s repeated phrase—If the mind were clear. Instrumental tex- tures progress from pointillism to arabesque and then coalesce to form coher- ent harmonies supporting a sustained vocal line. The work’s overarching riddle comes into focus here, at the borderline between transcendence and disenchant- ment: how to “manage the miracle/for which mind is famous.” At the end of the piece, a second American poet, Weldon Kees, presents an unambiguous but still enigmatic resolution—“Life offers no miracles, unfortunately, and needs assistance”— as voice and instruments achieve a more relaxed but still uncertain rapprochement.
Within this structure, two evocations of an angel’s beating wings comprise an internal framework. The first, a wheezing arpeggiation that trails into noise in the second song, evokes Benjamin’s vision (“the angel can no longer close its wings”). At the end of the ninth song, the climax of the work as a whole, a hair-raising, tutti ascent culminates in a high register halo, the sound of acoustically-beating antique cymbals. The angel has achieved liftoff, but only, it seems, in the ecstatic hallucination of the composition’s protagonist.
Within these paired frames, two sets of songs explore the themes of failed and fleeting transcendence, even as they grasp for essences. In the work’s early settings of Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, D.H. Lawrence, Carl Jung and Thomas Mann, voice and instruments seem to be playing a game of metaphysical hide and seek. In the Nietzsche setting, for example, their convergence on the same pitch (on the word “willing”), seems to hint at an imminent revelation. But later, when this pitch class (sounding an octave lower) is linked to the word “truth,” there is no union of word and pitch: the word is spoken, not sung, and the evanes- cent hope for an epiphany evaporates. In the run-up to the piece’s climax, settings of excerpts from Plato’s Phaedrus, music and text turn more frankly spiritual, but, in a further twist, with an explicit link between spirituality and insanity. The music’s final apotheosis refuses to settle the question.
Near the beginning of Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt spoke to the horrors of the recent past by restating the message of Benjamin’s Angel. “[T]here remains also the truth,” she wrote, “that every end in history also con- tains a new beginning; this beginning is the promise, the only ‘message’ which the end can ever produce. Beginning, before it becomes a historical event, is the su- preme capacity of man; politically, it is identical with man’s freedom.” John Ayl- ward’s Angelus pays tribute to Benjamin by making a new beginning, retelling the story of Angelus Novus through the eyes of another refugee, his mother Monika, and her brief, chance encounter with Benjamin’s picture in Paris. In transposing the story to another time and place, Aylward’s Angelus joins Arendt in affirming the first and most hopeful of Benjamin’s readings of his beloved picture — an interpretation in which it is emblematic of music-making itself: Angels — new ones each moment in innumerable bands — are created so that, after they have sung their hymns before God, they cease and dissolve into the naught.
– Martin Brody
In the summer of 2014, shortly after the death of my father, I took my mother back to Europe for the first time since she fled Germany as a refugee after World War II. To be able to bring my mother back to Europe after 60 years was one of the most profound experiences I have ever had. Together, we viewed Paul Klee’s painting Angelus Novus at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. We saw the ‘Angel of the Future’ together, across generations. A few weeks later, I came across a Walter Benjamin text that powerfully describes a vision of Klee’s painting. The words struck me and I set them to music. Slowly, over the course of four years, other texts revealed themselves and Angelus began to come into focus.
Angelus is a monodrama in which the voice is speaker, vocalist, witness, agent, and storyteller. The piece is an exploration of life felt through the lenses of various cultural histories, represented in the pastiche of authors that inhabit the work’s landscape. By invoking this range of influence and ordering it into physical, psychological and spiritual concerns, Angelus became a kind of treatise on the human experience for me. The piece begins with a poem by Adrienne Rich that lays out the broad concerns of the entire work: the possibilities of life, the mind, and connection to others. The nine texts that follow approach these concerns from metaphysical, then psychological, and finally spiritual perspectives. The work concludes with a passage from a poem by Weldon Kees, A Distance from the Sea, which likens the psychological sensation of memory to the often confusing physical sensation of viewing the depth of the horizon and landforms between.
Angelus was composed between 2014 and 2018 and the complete work was recorded at the American Academy of Arts and Letters on June 19, 21, and 22, 2019. It was a special pleasure collaborating with soprano Nina Guo on the performance and recording of this piece. Her grace, spirit, and absolute virtuosity shine across the entire work.
This work is dedicated to my mother and to all those who have been displaced by violence and war, to their resilience and search for meaning in darkness.
– John Aylward
I would like to thank all the performers of Ecce who dedicated a great deal of time to this piece, and to Joel Gordon, Sarah Borgatti, Jonathan Dana, and Tina Tallon for their help in organizing the recording session. I would especially like to thank Nina Guo for her tireless dedication to this piece and her original and inventive interpretation. Also, for their love and support, I would like to thank my wife Kate, my friends Hassan and Marty, my mother and father Monika & Thomas (dearly departed), and my siblings Clare, Roberta, Eric and Frank. I would also like to thank Paul Buttenwieser for his unending support and belief in my work and Cynthia and John Reed for their support, friendship, and shared love of all that’s new in culture. All of these people have given meaning to this piece and to my work in general. Angelus is dedicated to my mother’s journey as a refugee in post-war Germany and to all those displaced by war and violence.