Monday 21 February 2011

Barrett on Ferneyhough

Ferneyhough, Cage and, someone else (from the Virtual Museum).

Recently picked up the 1992 edition of Contemporary Composers at my local Oxfam bookshop and I must say it is rather good. This entry on Ferneyhough by Richard Barrett is the best summary I can remember reading on the great man (Barrett isn't just a good composer so it seems).

Thought it worth sharing here. Also it's Ferneyhough's turn to be Totally Immersed at London's Barbican on Saturday, also broadcast on the BBC.


It often seems that either Brian Ferneyhough's music is talked about more than listened to or performed, or that his name embodies some kind of numinous idea with scant reference to the compositions with which is it presumably connected. To his critics he often represents all that is most esoteric and pointless in the compositional ivory tower; to many of his supporters he appears as the torch carrier for centuries-old mainstream of "progress" in musical thought.

Ferneyhough has no doubt inadvertently supplied support for both arguments in the often impenetrable verbal apparatus with which he surrounds the music. To dispose of this aspect first, closer examination of almost any of his published statements reveals a coherence, and indeed reasonableness, of which the more woolly-minded among composers would do well to take notice. For performers and listeners alike, the "difficulties" presented by Ferneyhough's music are mainly to do with depth and span of attention. The music resists casual listening as surely as it does sight-reading, but there is a great difference between this and, on the one hand, lack of interest in the sound itself, or on the other hand lack of sensitivity to performing resources (Ferneyhough is assiduous in researching instrumental possibilities, as many players eventually agree).

Ferneyhough's music certainly has its roots in the tradition of serial thinking, or, to be more general, "parametric" thinking, where the different (and differently defined) aspects or dimensions of a sound or complex of sounds may be not only organised, but organised independently. The density of sound and notation in most of his music is a result of applying such principles to many more and much subtler "parameters" than he had previously. An instrumental line will hardly ever be free of layer upon layer of superimposed articulations, ornamentations and so on, which almost function as "counterpoints" to each other and to the pitch-contour itself (if indeed the latter remains discernible).

The finished score is the "sounding trace" of a vast and contradictory network of processes and permutations, a network constructed to draw together and solidify what Ferneyhough has called an "unformed mass of creative volition". The title of his seven-part cycle Carceri d'invenzione ("prisons of invention") not only recalls Piranesi's etchings of imaginary dungeons, but also the process by which the composer might set up more or less systematic restrictions in order to channel initially inchoate compulsion or desire. Nevertheless, however abstractly formulated these restrictions, Ferneyhough's music processes abundant stylistic "signatures". It would be over-simplifying to talk of a "Ferneyhough sound" when one of the music's most obvious features is a refusal to arrive at a point of unequivocal statement, but on a "microscopic" level there are any number of characteristic gestures which occasionally emerge from his typically hyperactive polyphony.

Ferneyhough's earliest mature works date from the mid-1960s, when in the Sonatas For String Quartet, for example, disparate compositional means (serial and non-serial) coexist without fusing. The work is also typical in its fragmentary overall form; nearly all of Ferneyhough's longer compositions are either made up of separate, shortish movements, or divided into at least notionally discrete sections (24 in the Sonatas). The following works brought about increasingly complex relationships between deterministic and empirical composition, which are paralleled in the diverse degree of notational exactitude in Transit. At the same time, tendencies towards "parametric polyphony" in writing for solo instruments reached their apogee in Unity Capsule, where the superimposed layers of notation for parameters such as embouchure position and vocal activity threaten to marginalise the (traditionally paramount) pitch structures.

The most recent works, while retaining and even building upon these characteristics, also embody a new openness to formal clarity (relatively speaking), exemplified in the gradual disintegration of a sharply-defined initial situation in La Chute d'Icare, the starkly juxtaposed textures towards the end of the Third String Quartet or the series of etude-like miniatures which constitutes Kurze Schatten II. In these pieces, a more important structural role is played by contrasts in overall texture, although an essential ambiguity is retained, that sense of an endless recursion of qualifications around every statement, which is at the same time one of the most frustrating and one of the most rewarding features of Ferneyhough's work.

Richard Barrett. Contemporary Composers, Morton & Collins, St James Press 1992.

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