Susannah Self takes us on her fascinating journey of the compositional process of È Perso Nel Tempo, a new 15-minute chamber orchestral work with mezzo soloist drawing on narratives from Jung’s The Red Book and Dante’s Divina Commedia.
Just before lockdown I moved from London to Ely and joined the Cambridge Jung Circle. Soon after I presented a plenary online about my orchestral work inspired by Jung’s Memories, Dreams, Reflections. I mentioned at the end of my presentation that I would like to compose a work inspired by Jung’s recently published Red Book. The Cambridge Jung Circle encouraged me to undertake this even more ambitious project and so I searched for a way to focus on a fragmentary aspect of the work that could reflect the context of the growing pandemic. I found useful insights via the conversations of Sonu Shamdasmi 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 vigourp.141, 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. As I focused on reflections on the past when reading The Red Boo, I discovered 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.
Jung mentions the presence of tempestuous serpents during chaos in the Red Book 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’annoda24.99, Inferno: Dante
just where the neck and shoulders form a knot
Having discovered segments from these works that could provide an angle, I began composing a first draft of the work during the first six month of lockdown. The 15-minute piece is orchestrated for chamber orchestra and mezzo soloist. 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 music worked, 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 in English translation for the mezzo didn’t sit well within the music. What followed was a six-month period of purgatory, a state of confused limbo. I had never experienced this before although I have heard of creatives who have. Fortunately, I had other commissions to fulfil so it was easy to assign the work to the back drawer. In addition, the issues of the pandemic became more complicated. I gained a profusion of international composition students online and, shockingly, a colleague from my recent studies at Cambridge killed herself; she was only thirty. To process her tragedy, I dedicated a significant section of my new physical theatre opera HER BODY to her memory.
In Dante’s Purgatorio 13, the job of the mountain of Purgatory is to dishabituate us from vice. 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.
Noi eravamo al sommo de la scala,
dove secondamente si risega
lo 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.13.1-3, Purgatorio: Dante
I began engaging with the work in a new way and initiated the Cagean practice of opening The Red Book randomly to invoke synchronicity in a similar way to the way Cage used the I Ching. The first quote was:
The soul demands your folly not your wisdomp. 264, 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. So that 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 now 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 and more effective work. I was driven by a demonic energy during a three-week period of transformation. Through reaching out to ancient times via the Dante, I sense I was perhaps fulfilling one of the aims of Jung’s work as suggested by Shamdasmi and Hillman. In One of The Lowly Jung says:
I went into the inner death and saw that outer dying is better than inner death. And I decided to die outside and live within. For that reason, I turned away and sought the place of the inner life.p. 267, The Red Book: Jung
In Ely where I live, this spring, I discovered a Green Man in the Lady Chapel of the cathedral. Very occasionally there are Green Women too. Both are symbols of rebirth. As I completed È Perso Nel Tempo I also finished my largest lockdown painting: The Green Woman.
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.30.37-42, Purgatorio: Dante.
The scores of È Perso Nel Tempo, Memories, Dreams. Reflections for symphony orchestra and HER BODY for string orchestra and Marimba are all available from Composers Edition website.