Quotes from Lois Fitch’s ‘Ferneyhough’

Recently finished reading Lois Fitch’s recent book Brian Ferneyhough (check it out, it’s hella good). Accompanied by listening and score reading, it’s a pretty fab way to get your head around Ferneyhough’s music. It really helped crystallise a bunch of new thoughts I have been having. I intend to do a write-up of what I have specifically gotten out of this book, and Ferneyhough more generally, but for now, here’s a little reservoir of quotes for my future blog-, paper-, and thesis-writing self. (Note: this is all from the kindle version, hence the Loc. numbers rather than pages… Will have to find page numbers before submitting anything).

Central concerns / Periods / Creative process / General

Ferneyhough’s style cannot be characterized in any single manner: this is the main problem with reductive representations that focus on one dimension largely to the exclusion of others, such as notation, performative virtuosity or the complexity of the rhythmic workings in particular. (loc. 233-235)

Two particular traits might be advanced as agents of consistency throughout his career, offering a framework within which other concerns come and go, or at least rise to particular prominence during certain periods or in certain types of work. 20 The first of these is the parametric approach, the very term that resonates with the mid-twentieth-century musical avant-garde. The second is the relationship that Ferneyhough exploits between a given musical duration (a ‘time-space’, as simple as a single bar) and the material that fills it. This allows him to create different densities of material, which manifest as a ‘too-muchness’, forcing the listener to develop strategies for appraisal based on his or her own organizational preferences and instincts. (Loc. 237-42)

As implied above, different notational ‘periods’ may be distinguished in Ferneyhough’s output. Broadly, it is possible to identify three: the first concludes with La terre est un homme (completed in 1979), the second comprises the works composed between La terre and Shadowtime (begun in 1999), and the third begins with the opera itself. (Loc. 1251-53)

Several typed notes for various works are found in the sketches that take the form of draft programme notes. It is common for Ferneyhough to prepare these long in advance of the work’s completion, not with a view to using them for a performance but in order to help shape his ideas during the composition process itself. (Loc. 4919-22)

But whereas Adorno argues that the composer-subject struggles with, but ultimately dominates, the material, Ferneyhough credits the latter with a greater degree of self-direction. It is as though the work escapes the composer, just as it does the listener: (Loc. 7792-93)

For the most part, Ferneyhough’s borrowed ‘forms’ are perhaps more accurately described as procedures, and have their roots in early repertories up to and including the early Baroque (e.g. isorhythm, hocket, passacaglia, chorale), whereas Berg’s archetypes are typically drawn from the tonal canon from Bach onwards (e.g. Invention, sonata form, rondo) and his use of them tends to privilege their formal properties. (Loc. 7851-54)

Notation / Performance / Performer

the excess of notation, wrongly construed as a blueprint for a totally accurate performance, is precisely where Ferneyhough himself locates musical communication. (Loc. 354-55)

Whereas for Theodor W. Adorno, performance is musical reproduction, for Ferneyhough performance is part of musical production. (Loc. 359-60)

The relationships described here between composer, performer and score are explicitly not based on unidirectional, one-to-one correspondences (‘composer-score-performer-listener’) in which the performer reproduces the authoritative text (the score). There are two ‘performers’ — the rehearsal performer and the concert performer, a distinction that captures the effort and proactivity demanded of the realizer. (Loc. 996-99)

What Ferneyhough describes is neither a performer enslaved by notation, nor ‘planned improvisation’. The opacity of the notation is designed precisely so it is looked at rather than through, (Loc. 1004-6)

The notation is dynamic, a token of the many processes feeding into the act of composition, a filter applied to the labyrinth of possibilities that the composer could have explored. (Loc. 1013-14)

The concert performance, already a token of those months of rehearsal, brings yet another ‘filter’ into play: restrictive time. One of the listener’s tasks is to interpret the material within an entirely different frame to the performer. (1058-59)

The performance is a token of sometimes-extensive preparatory work, and the listener may hear many renditions of a piece that sound very different from one another. (Loc. 1075-77)

In all cases, the composer does not assume absolute control, even though the notation might be highly detailed and accompanied by lengthy prefatory notes. (Loc. 1077-78)

Ferneyhough’s notational philosophy, 75 which ‘must (should) incorporate […] an implied ideology of its own process of creation.’ (Loc. 1155-56)

Thus Ferneyhough argues that ‘notation […] is nevertheless hardly to be separated, even in principle, from the actual goals which a particular artist has set himself.’ (Loc. 1268-69)

Both Unity Capsule and Sieben Sterne explore the ‘internal polyphony’ of the performer, (Loc. 1225-26)

Parametric composition / Relation to serialism

Yet he is critical of the arbitrary interrelationships forced upon the parameters in some examples of serialism or post-serial composition. Virtually any qualifiable aspect of musical expression can become a parameter in a Ferneyhough piece, be it conventional (pitch or interval series, or durational patterns) or unconventional (texture-type series, as in the Third String Quartet). However, he cultivates their very independence in order to validate relationships obtaining between them on the basis of qualitative experience rather than quantitative predetermination: (Loc. 248-51)

The utilization of so-called ‘parametric composition’ does not lead to a mechanized, stiffly formalized concept of form or process: quite the opposite in fact. The theory of complex states in the natural sciences emphasizes the in principle unpredictable and unstable event-chains which are generated by the intersection and mutual interference of only a very small number of initial variables. (Loc. 4041-43)

A solo is immediately followed by its tutti ‘amplification’, which additionally capitalizes on a formal function that ‘belongs’ to each respective instrument. 69 The viola, fragile though it is, establishes a harmonic space, the ’cello a melodic one. These amplifications, themselves divided into subsections which explore the — by now typical — texture-types (glissandi, grace-note groups and so on), broadly adopt the temperament of the relevant solo. (Loc. 4123-26)

fundamentally the aspiration to render time as a concrete presence arises within a purely musical context, in common with many other composers, in the aftermath of total serialism. (Loc. 7442-43)

No longer does one attempt to create a gesture via the automatic coming together of abstract parametric units or quantities, nor does one try to build a gesture as an affective quality, and place these totalities against one another. One attempts to so construct gestures that the parametric qualities of which they are composed are released into the world of the music, as it were, into the future, the future potential of the music, at the moment in which the gesture presents itself. (Loc. 7507-10)

Whereas early European serialism, as embodied in much of Stockhausen’s early work, allowed the various parameters to operate as independent, ‘statistical’ variables – as independent ‘monads,’ so to speak – in Ferneyhough’s mature work the parameters almost always act and interact as part of an organic unity, with a clear processual intent. (Loc. 7529-31)

‘Parametric polyphony’

Broadly speaking, the works of the 1970s are characterized by intensive parametric polyphony, although this is most readily discernible in the solos. (Loc. 350-51)

Both Unity Capsule and Sieben Sterne explore the ‘internal polyphony’ of the performer, (Loc. 1225-26)

He notes ‘the [flute’s] ability to offer a high density on a certain number of levels simultaneously, while filtering through the highest degree of unity imaginable – that of a single, monodic instrument.’ (Loc. 1651-53)

According to the composer, interference involves ‘facets of a “fictional polyphony”, not by means of literally polyphonic strands of sound, but rather through what are usually considered “secondary” parametric levels of organization.’ (Loc. 1678-80)

The parametric polyphony so evident in solo pieces of the 1970s remains an important generative principle in the 1980s, but its visibility in the score recedes to an extent behind a musical surface in which Ferneyhough explores a concept that has preoccupied him ever since: the gesture. (Loc. 1788-90)

Such interference is more difficult to achieve with a single performer and a single instrument as limiting field. What is more, the phenomenon could quickly be subject to the ‘law of diminishing returns’ in a work for larger forces, if applied to each and every instrument. (Loc. 1675-77)

Dialectics / Complexity / Gesture-Figure

Ferneyhough refers to ‘structural multi-tracking’ as ‘the simultaneous unfolding and transformation of multiple conflictually interactive “time-line vectors” or local histories.’ See Ferneyhough, Collected Writings, 82. (Loc. 453-55)

The notation is dynamic, a token of the many processes feeding into the act of composition, a filter applied to the labyrinth of possibilities that the composer could have explored. (Loc. 1013-14)

Ferneyhough remarks that ‘[t]he surface can remain the same while the techniques used to generate that surface change. In fact, that is one of the tenets on which my work is based; if it were not so, I would not have that possibility of creating polyvalent or multivalent levels of perception of one and the same image.’ (Ferneyhough, Collected Writings, 260). Emphasis added. (Loc. 1584-86)

The parametric polyphony so evident in solo pieces of the 1970s remains an important generative principle in the 1980s, but its visibility in the score recedes to an extent behind a musical surface in which Ferneyhough explores a concept that has preoccupied him ever since: the gesture. (Loc. 1788-90)

Ferneyhough argues that ‘the moment of contact between volition and resistance device throws up two things: one, the energy necessary for expression, in musical terms; two, by being forced through the grid or sieve it becomes split up, differentiated into various types of structural function. In contradistinction to this concept, Boulez’s systems (for instance) strike me as being rather tautological, because they base themselves on the multiplication of a basic number of elements, multiplied in various ways.’ (Ferneyhough, Collected Writings, 228). (Loc. 2306-10)

Ferneyhough hears in Varèse’s octet a ‘single mass instrument’ that offers rich ‘substrata’ of duos, trios, and so on. 5 His perception of an internally differentiated ‘superinstrument’ also applies to aspects of his string quartet output (specifically, the Second), as well as the so-called ‘interference form’ devised for solo instruments, considered in the previous chapter. (Loc. 2519-22)

Each duo, like the violin solo, consists of two interwoven materials, one unpredictable and the other iterative/regular. (Loc. 2567-68)

Ferneyhough often works with abstract, unformed pre-compositional material (whether chains of rhythmic cycles and impulses, pitch reservoirs, or series of texture-types) to which ‘filters’ or ‘sieves’ are applied in order that the material acquires tendencies — a motivation — of its own. (Loc. 3804-6)

The ensemble’s opening pitches are in fact exactly those of the clarinet, but unfold at different rates of change, a process which Ferneyhough uses often (and calls ‘prolational canon’) but usually in a less obvious manner, either recessed in the musical texture or as a generative procedure for rhythmic schemes not detectably presented in the music. (Loc. 2743-45)

The sharp contrast between the material of the two pairs of instruments is a result of complex prolational processes which are very audible, texturally speaking. Overall, the texture resembles that of an isorhythmic motet, with slower moving lower voices moving in longer durational values. (Loc. 3390-92)

Underlying the composition is a pre-composed rhythmic matrix of phenomenal complexity in as many as twenty layers, often involving multiple stacked tuplets far exceeding any such nestings in published works. In Liber Scintillarum, these are generally filtered and presented in a slightly less complex fashion, although there remain many difficult ratio subdivisions for performers to negotiate. Echoing the extraction of biblical proverbs in the Liber Scintillarum, Ferneyhough extracts layers from his matrix to supply material for the small sections of the work, sometimes deploying only a few of the twenty possible layers, and at other times ‘scanning’ or ‘sweeping over’ all of them. (Loc. 3499-3504)

Aside from rhythm, other parameters — in particular, the gestural, articulational and dynamic character of the work — result from Ferneyhough’s moment-to-moment responses to the possibilities suggested by his particular reading of the matrix and materials in the immediate vicinity of the particular juncture in question. (Loc. 3508-10)

There arises as a consequence a significant tension between figurations and processes lasting but a single section, and middleground procedures that adopt a longer-term outlook, but which must fight to establish themselves across sectional boundaries (owing to the often radical characteristic changes between adjacent sections). (Loc. 4263-65)

The utilization of so-called ‘parametric composition’ does not lead to a mechanized, stiffly formalized concept of form or process: quite the opposite in fact. The theory of complex states in the natural sciences emphasizes the in principle unpredictable and unstable event-chains which are generated by the intersection and mutual interference of only a very small number of initial variables. (Loc. 4041-43)

By the conclusion of Carceri III, the impulses are so numerous as to overcome or negate their trigger function. The possibility of entering a ‘grey zone’ looms, since the ensemble risks becoming too differentiated to render an appreciable aural effect: so the pitched instruments recede into silence, and the percussion impulse patterns are divested of their original triggering purpose. In the end they are simply presences, their notated appearance identical with the underlying impulse matrices found in Ferneyhough’s sketches. (Loc. 5339-43)

The sort of structural setup which interests me is the one in which the constellations of detail emerge from the monolithic mass or block of creative drive, not by multiplication but by division, by being channelled forcibly through the precompositional grid […] It’s the instant at which the impacting of our will to order and the instinct to impose the self over all forms of external ordering actually produces some sort of explosively volatile mixture. (Loc. 7318-21)

No longer does one attempt to create a gesture via the automatic coming together of abstract parametric units or quantities, nor does one try to build a gesture as an affective quality, and place these totalities against one another. One attempts to so construct gestures that the parametric qualities of which they are composed are released into the world of the music, as it were, into the future, the future potential of the music, at the moment in which the gesture presents itself. (Loc. 7507-10)

Whereas early European serialism, as embodied in much of Stockhausen’s early work, allowed the various parameters to operate as independent, ‘statistical’ variables – as independent ‘monads,’ so to speak – in Ferneyhough’s mature work the parameters almost always act and interact as part of an organic unity, with a clear processual intent. (Loc. 7529-31)

[i]s not simply the isolated body, but also the deformed body that escapes from itself. What makes deformation a destiny is that the body has a necessary relationship with the natural structure: not only does the material structure curl around it, but the body must return to the material structure and dissipate into it. (Loc. 7536-38)

Ferneyhough concurs when he suggests that ‘a mode of composition which enhances the affective gesture with the energy to productively dissolve itself in a quasi-analytical fashion suggests itself since, by adopting such a standpoint, the gesture is brought to function in several ways simultaneously, thus throwing its shadow beyond the limits set by its physical borders.’ (Loc. 7578-81)

‘in art, and in painting as in music, it is not a matter of reproducing or inventing forms, but of capturing forces.’ (Loc. 7585-86)

It is also imperative that the artwork render those forces perceptible as sensation: despite Ferneyhough’s undoubtedly formidable abstraction and the layers of complex sieves and filters through which material is forced and organized, something of the original composite tactile sensation that prompts him to compose in the first place obtains in the finished work. (Loc. 7587-89)

There is, then, a point at which neither listener nor composer has any more access to the music than to any other living, conscious thing’s interior being. 135 Just because a piece is made to be listened to, it does not follow that its innermost ‘self’ should be perceptible to those exterior to it. (7797-7800)

Polyphony / texture

The instruments each take on a character that differentiates them from the others: each pursues its own processes, which evolve at different rates, and for different durations. Which takes precedence, and which should be curtailed or transformed, is part of the composer’s process of decision-making at the level of local (that is, not pre-compositional) planning. One strategy for listening to the Sixth Quartet is to recognize these characters, and to recognize their moments of prominence as ‘soloists’. (Loc. 4266-69)

The role of gesture in Carceri will be elaborated below, but a particularly notable feature is the use of texture-types within the ensemble, either for individual instruments or for particular (often rather atypical) sub-groups, by which means lines stand out against a background, increasing their ‘presence’ in the manner that most emulates Piranesi’s images. (Loc. 5108-11)

The importance of texture in relation to gesture cannot be overstated: it is the principal means by which the listener gains access to the gestural discourse in Ferneyhough’s music and, consequently, engages with the composer’s style. (Loc. 5112-14)

instead, the composer suggests that the soloist forms a ‘group of one’, equivalent in standing to other sub-groups within the overall ensemble, groups again defined as in Carceri I according to colour and texture-types — ‘physiognomically’ — and their associated strategies of variation and development. (Loc. 5258-60)

Foremost amongst these is Ferneyhough’s attention to orchestral colour, identifying smaller subgroups within the totality of the ensemble on the basis of similar tone qualities or articulational possibilities, leading to the creation of several colour ‘superinstruments’ that are at once timbrally integral but structurally discrete. (Loc. 6510-12)

Ferneyhough’s large-scale works are conceived as ‘chamber music writ large’ — this is no less true of Plötzlichkeit than of the earlier group, 5 to be discussed below — and it is the treatment of colour that permits him to [o]bviate the abstract nature of […] hierarchical ordering [of the different instrumental sections of the orchestra] (Loc. 6513-16)

As a piece progresses, these groupings can expand to adopt ‘foreign’ materials, or ‘infect’ other groups: the piano in La terre is cited as an example of an instrument that begins with a distinctive allegiance to the double bass, before merging with other keyboard instruments (shared instrument ‘type’), then pitched percussion (shared ‘attack’) and finally with several other groups including strings (shared process). (Loc. 6522-25)

There have been well-meaning performances of [La terre], particularly with less-adept orchestras, where the conductor has attempted to conjure up some monolithic, overall sound, to make the work somehow more than the sum of its parts. What happens on such occasions is that the individual life-processes are blotted out and degraded to the status of undifferentiated particles in some mistaken statistical process. The best performances have always been those paying undivided attention to the coherence of linear energy flow and transparency sufficient to permit the individuality of the layers to assert themselves. (Loc. 6528-32)

La terre itself is, he suggests, several compositions coexisting simultaneously; (Loc. 6543-44)

A basic premise is the accretion of simultaneous variation phases whose overlapping generates an increasingly complex ‘superpolyphony’ in which instrumental groups, pursuing particular rhythmic, articulational and pitch patterns, act as ‘überparameters’. Instrumental layering (principally wind and strings) is clearly distinguishable to begin with but less so in the middle of the piece (around page 24 of the score), before moving apart again into highly colouristic groups for the final part. (Loc. 6776-79)

Society / Social relationships / Politics

Like many composers, Ferneyhough emphasizes the quartet’s unique qualities, reflecting on its effectiveness as a ‘subtle medium for the expression of social relationships […] the old image of four civilized people talking to each other in terms that would not have been unfamiliar to philosophers of the Enlightenment.’ (Loc. 3685-87)

Using the example of Charles Ives’ Second Quartet, Ferneyhough acknowledges that the view of the quartet as a model of civilized behaviour in contemporary life is ‘somewhat absurd’; yet he maintains that it ‘is inherently imbricated with what we understand human relationships to be on a highly evolved level.’ (Loc. 3691-93)

Ferneyhough has said that ‘I’m a very apolitical man. That’s a bit scandalous, but my art has always kept me busy. […] But when we conceive of politics in general as dealing with other people in a limited space, then works of art as such can play a sizeable role, whether in changing the awareness of particular people, or in keeping options open that can be made fruitful on a larger scale when the times are ripe.’ Ferneyhough as quoted in Meyer, “Ein Gespräch mit Brian Ferneyhough,” 62. (Loc. 4915-18)

Whilst no devotee of the belief systems themselves — the composer characterizes himself as a ‘mystique sceptique’ [skeptic mystic] — he is principally attracted to these ideas on account of their pertinence and conducibility to music-immanent innovations. (Loc. 7302-4)

Content / Ideas

This insight is invaluable. Much as he may refer to his alchemical studies of the 1970s, 7 and however obvious it might be that he has absorbed Benjamin’s ideas to a considerable degree, he places the utility of concepts for the concrete generation of musical ideas ahead of abstract philosophical principles, suggesting that his responses to texts and art forms are personal, appropriating as necessary ideas that enhance his notion of musical meaning: (Loc. 7282-85)

He is aware that conceptual transferability from one form of discourse to another is often problematic, but avoids becoming locked into the extensive philosophical debates to have arisen on this point. If anything, he sees the relationships between language, painting, philosophy and music that his work variously investigates as another form of ‘energy transfer’. (Loc. 7287-89)

For me, music is nothing if not a kernel, a nucleus, around which cultural fragments capable of mutual relativization can gather, in order that a higher (although more heterogeneous) entity may be constructed.’ (Loc. 7290-91)

Ferneyhough’s music draws on images (and permits them to arise) principally by engaging with the formal energies inherent in specific images, such as the confusing perspectival lines of Piranesi’s Carceri d’Invenzione. (Loc. 7481-82)

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