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Pianists will evoke Benjamin’s life, death

Walter Benjamin (in 1928 photo), a philosopher and critic, a Jew and Marxist, killed himself rather than face capture by the Gestapo.
Walter Benjamin (in 1928 photo), a philosopher and critic, a Jew and Marxist, killed himself rather than face capture by the Gestapo.

On Tuesday, pianists Karl Larson and Andy Costello perform a joint recital for the Equlibrium Concert Series — three minutes of which implies an entire intellectual universe. Costello will play the first movement of Brian Ferneyhough’s “Opus Contra Naturam,” itself an excerpt from the opera “Shadowtime,” a dreamlike evocation of the life and death of the German philosopher and critic Walter Benjamin. In September 1940, Benjamin, a Jew and a Marxist, crossed from France into Spain, hoping to eventually flee to America, only to learn that the Franco government had rescinded travel visas. Fearing that returning to France would lead to capture by the Gestapo, Benjamin killed himself with an overdose of morphine. He was 48.

At the center of “Shadowtime,” Benjamin begins an “Orphic descent” into the underworld, led by a pianist, “a Joker or Liberace-like singer in a Las Vegas piano bar,” tossing off keyboard riffs in Ferneyhough’s fiercely intricate and complex style while reciting philosophical speculations. In the imagination of Ferneyhough and his librettist, poet Charles Bernstein, the realm of the dead is, indeed, Orphic in the same way that Vegas is: a place of capricious trial and rueful hindsight.

Las Vegas well might have intrigued Benjamin, whose fascinations veered from literary monuments to popular culture’s mass-produced churn, whose massive, unfinished “Arcades Project” assembled a mosaic of quotations and observations excavating another playground of conspicuous consumption, 19th-century Paris. Benjamin, in fact, devoted an entire section of “The Arcades Project” to the subject of gambling, how it secularized and commercialized the human aspiration to divination. “Gambling,” Benjamin concluded, “is the infernal counterpart to the music of the heavenly hosts.”

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Another section of “The Arcades Project” concerned the equally Vegas-like subjects of “Boredom” and the “Eternal Return.” Here Benjamin made heavy use of a very obscure book: “L’Eternité par les astres” (“Eternity According to the Stars”), written in 1872 by the French socialist and revolutionary Louis August Blanqui. It is a strange book, a survey of 19th-century cosmogony that eventually yields pessimistic political truths, promulgating a precursor of the theory of multiple universes: billions of earths, forever acting out “the same drama, the same setting, on the same, narrow stage.” Blanqui ends up echoing both Benjamin’s hidden realities and Ferneyhough’s imagined afterlife: in countless ways, on countless worlds, Blanqui writes, “we return as prisoners of the moment and place that our destinies have assigned to us.”

Equilibrium Concert Series presents pianists Karl Larson and Andy Costello, Tuesday at 7 p.m. at the Lily Pad Gallery in Inman Square, Cambridge. $10 cover. www.equilibriumconcertseries.org

Matthew Guerrieri can be reached at matthewguerrieri@gmail.com.