Ferneyhough and serialism

I’m currently reading Francis Courtot’s book Brian Ferneyhough: Figures et Dialogues, which is very much worth a read (unfortunately you have to be able to read French…).

One thing that Courtot does really well is relate Ferneyhough’s project to that of post-war serialism, proposing a fairly profound difference between the two. Here are some quotes for later use in my thesis (my translations).

Finally, more than pitches, which, for Boulez for example, remain the alpha and omega of musical writing, it is rhythms that represent the fundamental element of Ferneyhough’s music. (p. 29)

I think this is quite important, and perhaps puts Ferneyhough closer to Elliott Carter than to the European serialists.

Courtot then suggests that Ferneyhough shares with the serialists a common concern with structure, but that he could in many ways be qualified as “anti-serial.” For Courtot, there are two ideas of structure at work in Ferneyhough’s thinking:

For Ferneyhough, the term “structure” possesses two dimensions: the first is to gather together forces in an initial foundation of the composition, in order to avoid finding oneself faced with an infinite and amorphous continuum – structure as the first stage of concentration, in all the sense of the word. (p. 29)

The second sense is more complex, and also more original. The idea is to conceive of a structure as a force pushing the composer to react. If the system of structure utilised is “correctly developed,” the way of reacting to the objects that it delimits is that of a great freedom. (p. 29)

I quite like this idea, and have often thought of this approach as a wild kind of gardening. You unleash all these ‘lines of forces’ that, as they grow, interact in sometimes unforeseeable ways, and you have to react to these kinds of growth, pruning some, changing directions of others, forming new relations, adding new linking forces, between different lines in ways not anticipated prior to the moment of writing itself. In this sense, quite like Carter, I feel, Ferneyhough’s music is radically non- or anti-motivic.

One can locate, at first glance, how these ideas are opposed to a possible exhaustive definition of the possibilities of a given material, which are then “classed”, be it even in a very complex manner (serial matrices, trees, short-circuits…). In a way, it is a matter of a second order passage, in which the material is not envisaged under a fixed, architectonic form, but always in movement. In this framework, the composition is not effectuated starting from a material, but, in a more abstract manner, according to an impulsion, a potential movement. (p. 30)

Courtot summarises the Ferneyhough’s difference with the serialism of Structures 1:

The idea that Ferneyhough refutes [in serialism] … is of utilising combinatorial methods in order to generate materials, which are then combined to form the score. (p. 30)

Instead of this combinatorial approach, and instead of a more abstract “grid” approach of what Courtot identifies as a second serialist approach, Ferneyhough’s method is more associated with the idea of a ‘sieve’ or ‘filter’.

In very basic, and perhaps oversimplified, terms, Courtot suggests:

Boulezian serialism installs a poetics that moves from the simple (even if already very organised) to the complex. At this embryonic level of composition, Ferneyhough reverses the principle, and starts with the complex, informed, “volatile,” in order to deduce several simple layers. (p. 31)

Or even more simply:

[In Ferneyhough,] we no longer listen to different realisations of the same idea, but several ideas of one impenetrable vision. In this sense, there can be no development, in the classical sense of the term, in this music, but rather the exploration of diverse regions of space-time opened by the ideal [rêvé] sonic image. (p. 31)

Refusing the idea of ‘exhaustivity’, Courtot notes that Ferneyhough proscribes “any method of generation that produces in extenso a concretely observable ensemble of creative possibilities before the composition properly speaking.” (p. 32)

Courtot also suggests that Ferneyhough’s approach differs from that of the “late Stockhausen, who starts with a ‘formula’ in order to derive each of its parts, somewhat in the manner of fractales” (p. 31). Instead, each of Ferneyhough’s “‘satellites’ possess its own internal life, its own specific telluric forces, always linked by the gravity of the ‘mother-planet'” (p. 31). Ferneyhough also rejects this equation of different strata based on the irreconcilability of different levels of perception.

In this sense composing is conceived of as radically indeterminate, as a filter of filters, as is the performance act, as is the listening act. I will come back to this question of the relationship of Ferneyhough to serialism soon, to look at the concept of ‘parametric thinking’.