Monday, June 5, 2017

Brian Ferneyhough: Fractured Energies


This year June in Buffalo is delighted to welcome Brian Ferneyhough back to its composition faculty. Ferneyhough is one of the most celebrated composers of his generation, with performances at most major European new music festivals by most major European new music ensembles, a publishing deal with Edition Peters (who sign few living composers), and numerous recordings (at least 29 currently in print) devoted to his music. His Collected Writings, published in 1995, is widely read, and his influence on multiple generations of younger composers (a not unreliable predictor of future reception) is enormous. His pedagogy is also highly regarded: he is currently Professor at Stanford University, having taught previously at the University of California San Diego, the University of Chicago, and the Freiburg Musikhochschule. He is also a frequently invited guest teacher at music festivals around the world, most notably at the Voix Nouvelles Course at the Abbaye de Rouyamont near Paris; he returns to June in Buffalo after previous engagements in 2013 and 2015. At this year’s festival, Ferneyhough will give a lecture and masterclasses, while guest ensembles and soloists will perform five of his pieces drawn from different periods of his output.
from the score of Unity Capsule

Before discussing specific pieces, it is worth taking time to unpack Ferneyhough’s project as a whole. While he is among the most lauded composers today, he is also one of the most widely misunderstood. The term “complexity”—whether meant as a criticism or not—is not exactly conducive to a wholistic understanding of his music. The significance of his music lies not in its quantitative complexity alone, but in how its increase in quantitative notational complexity induces a more consequential qualitative shift in the nature of the score, performance practice, and interpretation. Therefore, to understand his work primarily in terms of a quantitative deviation from a presumed notational norm overemphasizes its surface features while obscuring their unique, innovative raison d’ȇtre.

Unity Capsule performed by Ine Vanoeveren

The material of Ferneyhough’s music is kinetic energy: melodic mobility, and instrumental physicality, as well as intersections between the two. His approach to notation does not per se specify an ideal sound image, but codifies a field of colliding energies--an obstacle course of sorts--for the performer to navigate. The notation aims to create a white-hot but specific energy in live performance, bringing the liveness of music making to the fore. 

Unity Capsule performed by Carlton Vickers

Ferneyhough’s scores employ a range of strategies in their quest for a variegated, animated energy in live performance; here I will discuss three strategies: turbulence, torque, and pressurization. Turbulence means deliberate undercutting of stable reference points through the use of fine, rapidly changing differentiations of pitch, dynamics, articulation, physical parameters (i.e. bow position), and above all rhythmic density (whose shift at each barline undercuts the orientation afforded by a stable pulse). Torque refers to intentional collisions between notational parameters: phraseological emphasis operates against metric emphasis, meaning that the performer must swim upstream against the inherent tendency to emphasize downbeats; concurrently, dynamics, accentuation, and register often operate semi-autonomously, creating resistance to received linear phrasing conventions. Finally, pressurization involves extreme performative and notational registers--high, continuous rhythmic density, together with a saturated notational image--which raise the temperature in live performance. If turbulence and torque fracture kinetic energy in different ways, pressurization intensifies its impact. Therefore, for all its intricacy, the notation conveys and elicits a fundamental physicality.

Electric Chair Music, a documentary about performance practice in Ferneyhough’s Time and Motion Study II

For performers, the path towards unlocking this music’s restless kinetic energy lies in learning the music from two incompatible perspectives: on one hand, attending to the accuracy of individual details, and, on the other, focusing on kinetic energy, on wholistic volitions of gestures and phrases (as the composer describes in more detail in the preface to his solo piano work Lemma-Icon-Epigram). Learning a Ferneyhough piece means finding a personal way to mediate between these competing perspectives. As such, interpretation is not a process of applying conventions for phrasing on the basis of melodic/harmonic analysis (as in pre-1800 Western art music), but rather one of working out a personal solution to the notation’s overdetermined dilemmas from the ground up. Performer and score enter into a non-hierarchical, non-identical relationship: the score renders audible the performer’s individual proclivities, while, in a successful performance, the performer must render audible the broader energetic tensions at the heart of the work. In an era when the overproduction, overconsumption, and museumification of Western art music tightens the grip of habit on performers, encouraging ever more literal, conventionalized interpretations, Ferneyhough’s approach to notation and performance practice offers a unique and ingenious way to place the spontaneity, unpredictability, and vulnerability of live performance at the center of the concert music experience. The two contrasting interpretations of Unity Capsule posted above give some idea as to what this entails in practice.

Time and Motion Study II performed by UB alumnus TJ Borden (cello) with JiB alumni James Bean and Paul Hembree (live electronics)

These concerns are perhaps realized most “purely” in two solo works from the mid-1970s, Time and Motion Study II (1973-76) for cello and live electronics, and Unity Capsule for solo flute. The works programmed at this year’s June in Buffalo date from both before and after this period. Coloratura for oboe and piano (1966), to be performed by Dal Niente, marks an early attempt to translate the pointillistic style of the 1950s Darmstadt composers into a musical language concerned primarily with kinetic energy.

Coloratura performed by former JiB guest performer Peter Veale and former UB Professor James Avery

The Second String Quartet (1980), to be performed by the MIVOS Quartet, marks a break from the solo works of the 1970s. Unlike the solo works, the quartet enters into a more overt dialogue with historical Western art music. Here fractured linear momentum, density, and physicality become a way to defamiliarize clichés of Romantic and expressionistic string writing. The iconic significations of these clichés become liquidated in the music’s multidimensional fractured continuity; their pathos evaporates as heightened physicality gives them a new life.

Second String Quartet performed by frequent JiB guest performers Arditti Quartet

By the 1990s, Ferneyhough had expanded his approach to historical musical materials: “subjective” Romantic gestures are not only recontextualized, but are also placed in conversation with contrasting “objective” materials. Terrain (1992), to be performed by Irvine Arditti and Signal, epitomizes this approach, above all in its instrumentation, counterposing (historically) “subjective” violin soloist with “objective” wind/brass/double-bass octet (the same ensemble as Edgard Varèse’s Octandre).

Terrain performed by Mark Menzies and Wasteland Music

While Terrain activates a collision between Romantic materials and modernist materials, both ostensibly invented from scratch, later pieces have explored what happens when expressionist gestures enter into dialogue with materials from Renaissance music. That is, expressionist materials, predicated upon authenticity of subjective expression, comes into contact with Renaissance materials that predate notions of subjectivity in music (which might be traced to mid-16th century madrigals). Unsichtbare Farben (1999), to be performed by Irvine Arditti, is built from passages of Ockeghem masses that are ultimately inaudible to the listener; here the historical dialectic functions perhaps more as a compositional process towards a result that might not be achieved in other ways, rather than as concrete feature of the listening experience. In In Nomine (2001), however, materials from an eponymous piece by Christopher Tye are more apparent to the listener; Ferneyhough writes that the piece presents found materials “in various distorted forms," exploring a continuum of materials from intact Tye materials at the opening to materials that bear no audible relationship to Tye's style.


In Nomine performed by Mark Takeshi McGregor, Kristen Cooke, and Liam Hockley, clarinet

-Colin Tucker

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