Friday, May 24, 2019

Brian Ferneyhough: Forces and energies

Continuing our series of profiles of the June in Buffalo 2019 Senior Composers, we'll write about Brian Ferneyhough, a longtime friend of the festival, and one of today's most important composers, whose return to Buffalo after his last visit in 2015 is eagerly awaited.

Born in Coventry in 1943, Ferneyhough enrolled at the Birmingham School of Music, and then at the Royal Academy of Music, London, where he studied with Lennox Berkeley. In 1968 he moved to Amsterdam to study with Ton de Leeuw after receiving a Mendelssohn Scholarship, and the following year a further scholarship allowed him to pursue his studies with Klaus Huber at the Basel Conservatoire. During this early period, his work began to attract attention, being awarded prizes in three successive years at the Gaudeamus Composers' Competition (1968-70). Two years later Firecycle Beta was given an honourable mention (second place) by the Italian section of the ISCM, which also awarded Ferneyhough a special prize in 1974 for Time and Motion Study III as the best work submitted in all categories. In the same year, the performance of several of his works at the Royan Festival established Ferneyhough as one of the most brilliant and controversial figures of a new generation of composers.

(Brian Ferneyhough)

By then, Ferneyhough had discovered a parallel vocation as a teacher of composition. Thanks to Klaus Huber's support, he was appointed onto the teaching staff of the Freiburger Musikhochschule in 1973, remaining there until 1986. Following his move to the United States in 1987 he has taught at the University of California at San Diego (1987-1999) and most recently Stanford University, where he served as William H. Bonsall Professor in Music until last year. Alongside these permanent appointments, he has been associated with the most prestigious teaching institutions and international summer schools for contemporary music. From 1984 to 1996 he was Composition Course Co-ordinator at the biennial Darmstädter Ferienkurse fur Neue Musik, and from 1990 to 2014 the principal teacher at the annual Composition Course of the Fondation Royaumont. He has held Guest Professorships at the Royal Conservatoire, Stockholm, the California Institute of the Arts and the University of Chicago, and a Guest Professorship at Harvard University in 2007-8. In addition, he has given guest lectures and master-classes at the Civica Scuola di Milano, the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique de Paris, the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge, and Durham, and at several North American universities and colleges. The fruits of the more formal lectures have appeared, alongside interviews and texts that have their origins in more personally motivated analyses and stock-takings, in his Collected Writings (Harwood Academic Press, 1995). Goldsmiths College, University of London awarded him an honorary doctorate in 2012.

Five Ferneyhough compositions for different chamber forces—and belonging to different periods in his career, covering 52 years of creative activity—will be performed during the festival. On June 3rd, Michael Matsuno will open the first concert with Superscriptio for solo piccolo, the initial work in Ferneyhough's monumental Carceri d'Invenzione cycle. The following day, Tyler J. Borden will play In Nomine (from Umbrations) for solo cello, from 2017. The work is part of a more recent but equally expansive cycle based on music by English Rennaissance composer Christopher Tye.

Mivos will play Ferneyhough's String Quartet No.2 on Wednesday 5th. The work is, in words of the composer, about silence: "not so much about literal silence (although this, too, is an obvious feature of the opening section) but, rather, that deliberate absence at the center of musical experience which exists in order that the listening subject may encounter himself there." Buffalo audiences have already been able to experience the ferocious intensity of Mivos' version of this piece two years ago, and it is to be expected that the intervening years have produced further improvement.

(Ferneyhough's String Quartet No.2)

On Friday 7th Dal Niente will offer their renditions of the 1965 Four Miniatures for flute and piano—the earliest of Ferneyhough's works to be performed this year—and another miniature of a different kind: Mort Subite for piccolo, clarinet, piano and vibraphone. While the first work is notated in a somewhat less exacting way than Ferneyhough would eventually become known for, and the coordination between flute and piano is not specified at all times, in the latter work, from 1990, the ensemble is divided into two duos (piccolo and piano and clarinet and vibraphone), each with its own metric structure, and the coordination is assured by the use of two concurrent click-tracks for the performers.

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