On Ferneyhough’s article ‘Il Tempo’

“[T]here has been no major innovation [in Modern music] since the development of computer sound synthesis, noise composition, new complexity, spectralism, and minimalism in the 1970s” (Paul Griffiths, New Music and After, 3rd Ed, Kindle Book location 7974).

I’ll return to this.

Meanwhile I want to jot down a few points based on reading Ferneyhough’s article from the 80s (first translated into English in 1993) ‘Il Tempo della Figura’.

I think it is important, given that I have suggested that the ‘new complexity’ moment remains one of the conditions under which modern composition – and modern polyphony – is working today (whether conscious or not, whether negatively or positively). The main aspect of new complexity that I suggested was pertinent to my exploration of counterpoint today was the break-down of the single line. Now obviously the single line had been brought into question in Webern’s music and the post-war pointillist constructions (as well as Varèse and many others).

The difference to pointillism, I feel, is that the single line is both preserved and negated. Many of Ferneyhough’s works, particularly from his earlier period, are for solo instrument, and from his later period there is often a concertante situation with a soloist supported by ensemble. The lines are often long and continuous, not broken down into tiny little fragments and distributed across the ensemble (for instance the brilliant Terrain), yet at the same time the single line is no longer a clear unity, it is internally divided.

How so? Firstly I want to just point to a quote to back up the assertion that Ferneyhough’s music is an attempt to dereify the single line. Ferneyhough is speaking here of the ‘figure’ and not necessarily the single line as such, but I think in the context of his output – as well as his use of the word ‘vocable’ implies an individual ‘voice’ (or part) – we can see this statement as primarily referring to single lines.

[T]he figure is proposed as an element of musical signification composed entirely of details defined by their contextual disposition rather than their innate, stylistically defined referential capacity. The synchronic is replaced by diachronic successivity as the central mode of “reading” musical states, for the reason that a progressive, accretional definition of musical vocables is indispensable if a counterweight to the suffocating presence of historically concrete stylistic triggers is to be created. (p. 12)

In another moment he speaks of the musical figure as ‘a unique balance of tensions’ (p. 13) – a classic dialectical materialist concept (any object as a ‘dynamic equilibrium’). And just another quote for good measure:

To some extent, the affective content of the gesture is only loosely related to its apperceptible surface; the figural activity thus consists, in part, of devising means of ensuring that the latent volatility of the gesture burst through this contingent carapace in order to liberate that surplus of discursivity hitherto locked into the interstices of the sonic object. (p. 13)

Liberating the dynamics of the object from its ‘contingent carapace’, drawing out its ‘discursivity’ – this is nothing other than the dereification of the musical object, and, as I said, for Ferneyhough, this is primarily related to the single line.

An important part of this is Ferneyhough’s recognition of a breakdown of any universally meaning-giving context or space in which musical figures are formed. This is not far from Adorno’s assertion about the breakdown of harmonic space leading to the necessity of works to create space out of themselves.

In Ferneyhough’s words: “Thus it is that we sense a disturbing and fundamental fracture between the concrete presence of the sound object and any credible context-bound validation in terms of functional (figural) projection.” (p. 14)

This is to do with the process of musical autonomy. The progressive liberation from socially derived functional form.

Adorno’s claim is that, after the collapse of the universal space of tonality, “emphatic” or “autonomous” music must create its space out of itself. Ferneyhough says exactly this:

The figure delivers momentary perceptual frames – stage sets – capable of projecting particular hypothetical evaluational categories into the still-to-be perceived future of the discourse. (p. 14)

Thus the concept of musical prose – the liberation from reified musical experience – is bound up, for Ferneyhough (I haven’t found this explicitly in Adorno yet), with the heterogeneity of musical perspective.

To some extent, we recognise and locate the nature of such a frame while still physically living through the decay and dissipation of one or more anterior frames, whereby the partial superincumbence or “cross-fading” of an indeterminate series of prior states comes to provide a significant, albeit necessary fluid and evolutionary perspectival orientation. (p. 14)

This means that 1) there is a relative autonomy between the figure and the context it implies, and 2) that a work will be (should be) discontinuous as to the space it sits in, that the listener has to both comprehend each gesture as a particular and also as the universal it implies, no universal framework will be given in advance.

This is all quite brilliant. But how does Ferneyhough propose to carry this out on a compositional level?

I can’t and won’t go into the specific example he gives: that of a rhythmic process where in a 2-note object the first value progressively shortens and the second one progressively lengthens. This is the starting point for the construction of a figure. What he does is give a couple examples of this initial processes layered over by one or two more processes that lead in different directions and mediate the expression of the initial tendency in the resulting gestural construction. These might be: changing meters, changing subdivisions, imposing a pattern of subdivisions. He also goes on to say that with other processes going on in other parameters (“such as instrumentation, register, pitch, secondary articulation, etc” p. 18) a truly complex synthesis of different lines of force is possible – “multiple stratification of formally significant linear, figurally fuelled impetus” (p. 18).

Essentially the figure is a layering of different ‘lines of force’ or musical processes. The gesture is the summation and physical realisation of these tendencies, it is the dynamic equilibrium. I would call it the ‘constructivist gestalt’. One could question whether such an abstract approach to deriving gesture in fact accords to the idea of a “tendency inherent in the material” a la Adorno’s musique informelle – is that not a question of drawing lines of force out from and destroying historically sedimented gestures? Does it not rely more on the category of intuition? (Perhaps Adorno’s article on Berg resolves this somewhat – for a future blog post).

However, Ferneyhough mentions again that there exists today no “communality of language and intent” in terms of the figure (p. 18). Thus our situation is one where there is no pregiven context in which the non-neutrality of materials is ensured – where the lines of force of an idea are not just readily available. Hence the need to construct the non-neutrality of materials from somewhat more abstract procedures.

Anyway, what does the basic idea of the article mean for counterpoint today?

There is both a tendency away from and towards counterpoint here. Multiple instrumental lines pursuing equally dense criss-crosses of force within themselves would tend towards a whole so complex that it would be perceived (even by the best listener) as a single vertically unified entity. Lines internally fragmented lend themselves more readily to synthesis than lines that express a clear identity. On the other hand, an internally divided line (as in Bach) is itself a vehicle of counterpoint, and really the entire article of Ferneyhough’s is a rewriting of Adorno’s article on ‘The Function of Counterpoint’ in an age of athematism and for the context of the single line.

The lesson that I intuitively take here though is that for a single line to have life today it has to be itself figural in the sense that Ferneyhough describes – it has to be the site of an intersection of a number of musical processes. So composing a counterpoint of lines each of them really only one simple process will sound dull and dead. SO! Whether we like it or not, our counterpoint has to be a counterpoint of counterpoints. If multiple lines (in the sense of ‘voices’) are layered, they must already have layers within them. This makes the job of counterpoint much more difficult, but also more interesting.

There’s a lot more that could be said here, but I’ll leave it there and go compose!