Friday, March 03, 2006

The Sounds of Now: Brian Ferneyhough

In the first of a series of contemporary composer profiles, Jenkins discusses Brian Ferneyhough, whose complex scores force performers to confront the boundaries of the possible.

Chadwick Jenkins - 2 March 2006

In my last column, "Stop Playing With Your Ticket", I suggested that one way to make concert music more urgent or immediate to one's life is to seek out the music of living composers. To promote this view, I have decided to write a periodic column (roughly every fifth installation) concerning a composer still alive and working. I will entitle this sub-column "The Sounds of Now", which will introduce readers to the music of the last 40 years or so.

You will not hear this music on your local classical radio station; you probably will not hear it programmed in your local symphonic concerts. However, it is out there. It is important and vital; it is the music that people are making now, the music of your contemporaries. If you care about concert music, if you wish to hear something new and exciting, something that speaks to your concerns (or perhaps those concerns that should be yours), then listen closely. This is music that you should pursue. Form an opinion. I have never met a composer who would insist that you like his output, only that you listen attentively and take a stance.

This sub-column shall feature such composers as Meredith Monk, Roger Reynolds, Anthony Braxton, and Tristan Murail. But my first choice has some personal underpinning. The music of Brian Ferneyhough has intrigued me from the moment (longer ago now than I care to remember) that a friend of mine said, "Listen to this; you will never be able to understand it." I have been listening to his music ever since and this is my attempt to refute that old friend's self-satisfied condemnation in print. If I prove myself incapable of understanding, then at least I will be able to say that I tried.

Born in Coventry, England in 1943, Ferneyhough is considered to be perhaps the primary proponent of the so-called "new complexity", despite the fact that he disavows any real connection with the term. This trend in contemporary composition — it can hardly be called a school — was, in part, inspired by Ferneyhough's highly wrought scores, which demand virtuosity and strenuous attention to detail. Ferneyhough claimed that he arrived at the detailed specificity of his scores from an early desire to furnish performers with the same kind of quasi-conceptual/practical background knowledge that they might already have with other traditions. In other words, while a pianist familiar with the works of Beethoven not only learns the notes on the page but an entire pianistic tradition that stands behind those notes, the performer encountering a work written relatively recently will not necessarily have a performance tradition on which to build.

This explanation for the advent of his complex scores is intriguing on many levels. On the one hand, the comment evinces a pragmatic concern that bears witness to the increasingly specialized nature of the modern musical world. Whereas performers in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries were an integral part of the gestation of musical compositions (both in the sense of participating in the formation of the score and in the sense of realizing the music that lay beyond the notation in the form of ornamentation), contemporary music outside of the experimental impulse that courts the aleatory or the improvised largely eschews the participation of the performer apart from the relatively straightforward realization of scores. This is no doubt the modernist inheritance of early 20th-century composers' (most notably Igor Stravinsky's) insistence that performers were "executants" whose sole purpose was to carry out the wishes of the composer.

However, even Stravinsky could rely upon what he saw as a continuing tradition of progressive music into the new century, replete with a developing set of performance traditions that more or less vouchsafed a reasonably successful rendering of the work. With the radical fragmentation of anything that could be considered a mainstream developmental thrust of contemporary musical expression that took place during Stravinsky's lifetime, this is no longer a reasonable assumption. Realizing that the performer of contemporary music is, by and large, severed from the kind of traditional support that would serve to inform the performances of compositions 100 years ago, Ferneyhough, in essence, creates a tradition anew with each musical score by providing the information he feels should necessarily (if only ideally) be a priori, in a sense, to the realization of a given work. Given the fact that Ferneyhough does not limit himself to one musical language but continually expands, rethinks, reverts to older forms, and transmutes his own compositional approach, the demand that each score present an individual tradition on which the performer is to build in order to realize this one piece is demanding, to say the least.

On the other hand, Ferneyhough is aware that his notational precision is largely impossible to realize in live performance to any more than a provisional degree of accuracy. Confronted with this plethora of intransigent detail, the performer is asked to surmount it; or better, to transcend it with all of the spiritual import of that verb intact if in a somewhat qualified sense. Much as John Cage demanded of the violinist who was to perform the Freeman Etudes, Ferneyhough requires his performers to repeatedly demonstrate the "practicality of the impossible". But for Ferneyhough, this insistence puts a quasi-theological (theological only in the necessarily compromised sense to which it is relegated for many thinkers such as Ferneyhough today; compromised but no less necessary for its compromised position, perhaps all the more necessary because of that position) demand in place for the performer.

The music as such is not commensurate with an "accurate" realization of the notated score by an executant (pace Stravinsky). Rather the seemingly recalcitrant score places numerous obstacles in the path of the performer, asking the performer to transcend limitations; the score presents an enigma through which, in the words of the composer himself, "a performer may ascend to an adequate performance". In other words, the score does not present a set of rigorous guidelines to which the performer must adhere in order to successfully realize a composition. Rather the score serves as a particularly demanding point of departure that forces the performer to confront the boundaries of the possible so that the performer may then fold the experience of that seemingly shifting limit into the formation of an experience of the composition (as opposed to a doctrinaire "realization" of it).

Critics have sometimes aligned Ferneyhough's music with the supposedly masculinist cultural imperatives of such modernists as Stravinsky and, more to the point, Arnold Schoenberg. On this point of view, Ferneyhough attempts to push the limits of music's complexity in a quixotic attempt to maintain the linear historical arc of teleological progression toward ever more elaborate and purely cerebral musical achievement. It seems to me that such criticism substitutes a term ("new complexity") — created by a musicologist and toward which Ferneyhough is ambivalent at best — for an experience of Ferneyhough's music.

Perhaps even Ferneyhough's supporters make this mistake in their overwhelmingly fetishistic glorification of the composer's notational detail. But if what I have said above is true — that the score does not provide an accurate transcription of the composition but rather creates a series of obstacles that, when confronted, clear the space for one possible manifestation of that composition — then the score is in no way a reliable representation of the composition at all, no more than an atlas is a reliable representation of a trip around the world.

What is at stake here is not an object depicted in great detail on paper (such as the world as object may be depicted in an atlas). Instead the score is a voluble set of instructions that prepares an experience and it is this experience that we should attempt to grasp in all of its immediacy. I am here using immediate in the strict sense, meaning without mediation; that is, without the mediation of a score, no matter how revealing that document may appear to be. Indeed the performer cannot be thought of as a mediator in the same way because in this music the experience is precisely the bringing into being in sound of the composition through a specific performer or set of performers; the individual struggle of the performer is inextricably imbricated with the experience itself and is part of its condition of possibility.

Here again the auratic quality of the theological enters the purview of the critical response and one cannot help but draw a connection to the mid-century thinker who made so much out of the notion of the aesthetic aura and whom Ferneyhough so obviously admires: Walter Benjamin. Indeed Ferneyhough seems to feel some kind of kinship with Benjamin's writings and thought; he wrote Kurze Schatten II for solo guitar based on an essay by Benjamin while his newest stage work Shadowtime revolves around the author's suicide during the Nazi occupation of France (apparently the only narrative moment within the work) and Benjamin's subsequent descent into the afterlife. The latter can only be called an opera in a qualified sense and indeed it is this constant recourse to qualification that compels me to draw the parallel I am here encouraging between Ferneyhough and Benjamin.

Benjamin was loosely associated with the so-called Frankfurt School of Marxist philosophy typified by such figures as Max Horkheimer and Benjamin's friend Theodor W. Adorno. However, Adorno repeatedly accused Benjamin of not being a sufficiently dialectic thinker while other critics found cause for alarm in Benjamin's tendency to retain a theological underpinning to his understanding of a materialist account of history. If he was to be considered a modernist in the Frankfurt School vein, then he was an odd fit, to be sure. In contradistinction to the late-modernist historical consciousness of Adorno, Benjamin postulated a non-linear understanding of history, a grappling with an experience of history in which each moment presents a Now that is merely a doorway that opens onto numerous possibilities. Benjamin replaces Adorno's historical consciousness with a historical conscience. Here Benjamin presages the postmodernist suspicion of "master narratives" without crossing the line into the total relativity that vitiates moral commitment.

Ferneyhough also posits the mutability and multi-directionality of time through his adoption of various stylistic voices as in Shadowtime, which moves from a piece inspired by the Medieval motet to a vocal passage modeled on Beethoven's Grosse Fuge for string quartet. And yet such a polystylistic approach to composition seems to have little to do with what we might term the lesser postmodernist impulse to try on the styles of the past in the way a child tries on her mother's clothes. The adoption of past styles in Ferneyhough is not the negation of presence through the abstention of personal involvement but rather the transmutation of the past through the very palpable presence of the individual of the present moment. If Ferneyhough is a modernist, as some of his critics maintain, then he is an odd fit, to be sure.

In the opening of his "Theses on the Philosophy of History", Benjamin presents the image of an automaton constructed to play the perfect game of chess. Although the automaton seems to play on its own volition, a hunchbacked old man hiding beneath the table controls its every move. The automaton represents historical materialism while the man represents theology, which "is wizened and has to keep out of sight". This is the mitigated (but nonetheless indispensable) sense in which theology appears in the works of both Benjamin and Ferneyhough, a theology stripped bare of its sacral voluptuousness and reduced to an eviscerated, furtive shadow of its former preeminence that remains behind the scenes; a necessary wager that outstrips Pascal's gamble on the existence of God to embrace the much more tenuous hope for some underlying force (no matter how wizened) that will vouchsafe meaning and ethics.

Throughout his life, Benjamin was always centrally concerned with the humanity that lay behind systematic philosophy (and more importantly, he sought to account for the things that more systematic thought left untouched): hence, the theological impulse. Ferneyhough, it seems to me, is perhaps our most ethical composer owing to a similar impulse. Often considered a post-serialist, Ferneyhough rejects any such rigorous systematization of his compositional process. Instead, despite the obvious complexity of the notational apparatus, his pieces often move toward a progressive assimilation of the "expression" of the composition with the "expression" of the performer; that is to say, as the piece progresses, the technical demands of the music increasingly reveal the presence of the performer (whereas most pieces of music attempt to sublimate the presence of the human performer into the pure and rarefied sublimity of the music itself).

An example would seem to be in order. Let us take Cassandra's Dream Song of 1970 for solo flute. In some ways, this work typifies Ferneyhough's approach to composition. It is endlessly virtuosic, centered on the capabilities of a specific instrument, and (even though written for an instrument that can only play one note at a time) formed out of multiple layers that often refuse to coalesce into one homogenous whole. Cassandra's Dream Song consistently pushes the boundaries of technique. The performer keeps peeking through the texture. By emphasizing various "tricks" on the flute, such as overblowing (which obscures the pitch but makes the listener hopelessly aware of the living quality that stands behind the edifice of the piece itself), Ferneyhough slowly pulls back the curtain, the façade of the artwork, to reveal the labor (the humanity, if you will) that lies beneath it and props it up. The artifice of the work and the presence of the human performer presenting that artifice become commensurate. This process of realization (a first step, perhaps, toward the redemption that Benjamin sought throughout his life for humanity by thinking beyond systems) is the ideal resolution of the performer's confrontation with the almost overly articulate (and for that reason rather intractable) score.

I am, of course, reminded at this point of my friend's taunt. Have I understood Ferneyhough's music? Perhaps not. Instead, I have learned that this music eludes attempts at constrictive understanding and demands something far more difficult. Ultimately, I believe that I have discovered that understanding was the wrong faculty to which to appeal.

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