Still reading through Courtot’s book on Ferneyhough, which is a little slower going for me since it’s in French, but it nonetheless has a lot of interesting thoughts.
I came across this statement by Courtot the other day:
In Ferneyhough’s polyphonies, no impersonal fusion into a large whole is observable, no more than the inverse, the egocentric desire of the domination of the ego [moi]. For him, in brief, the degree of autonomy of each voice is more important than in Stockhausen: each participant contributes in equal part, and its own part is as refined as the others, up to the point of frenzy. (p. 101)
What is immediately evident is that this continues the long tradition of seeing counterpoint (or polyphony) in terms of a relation between part and whole in which neither is dominant over the other. As I have written numerous times on this blog, to me, this remains the basic ‘idea’ of counterpoint, which must be renewed in different times in different ways. I’m not entirely convinced that, on an aural level, Ferneyhough actually manages to achieve this balance very often, since the complex gestures that he creates in each part tend to fuse on a moment to moment level into gestalt (‘frenzied’) units (albeit internally nuanced). But it is nonetheless true that his constructive process, at least on an abstract level, does give each part its own specificity, while retaining a sense of how they fit together vertically in the texture.
With regard to the vertical dimension of Ferneyhough’s polyphony, Courtot makes an interesting suggestion that texture classes – a set of common parametric characteristics across the ensemble (for instance a particular playing technique) – correspond in a way to harmony in tonal counterpoint:
a class of textures could represent, in a synchronic fashion … different compatible superpositions of gestures inside a polyphony (polysemy). The class of textures corresponds then to a sort of morphological harmony, a vertical constraint applied to gestural, rather than ‘horizontal’, entities. (p. 99)
I think this is an important point. It is definitely true that this approach is a vertical operator which acts as a unifying element between lines, and brings their identities closer together. Yet it is not exactly the same as a harmony, since the tension between the syntax of the total harmonic units and the individual lines is one of the driving forces of the common practice contrapuntal universe. There is no corresponding tension in this idea of ‘morphological harmony’ between the syntax of the part and that of the whole, since there is no perceptible ‘morphological’ syntax in, say, the degree of presence of glissandi.
For me, instead, we should see these texture types in terms of ‘imitation’ rather than in terms of harmony.
In my next pieces Mirror Motets, I am deploying ‘imitation’ in a couple different ways.
In its most essential, imitation is the sharing of parametric structures between voices in a texture. I currently can think of three basic types of imitation: 1) Two or more lines are pre-compositionally assigned to particular vertical structures (presence of particular techniques, common gestural elements, common pitch or interval field), this corresponds roughly to the ‘texture types’ idea in Ferneyhough; 2) ‘Points of imitation’ where, at a moment during the discourse, a process of imitation in one or more parameters begins, starting from one voice to another (e.g. a canon); 3) ‘Hocket’ of whatever parameters, i.e. a single abstract line realised in two alternating voices in the texture.
Each of these are ways of bringing about and controlling the identity relations between the various voices in a texture.
What is missing in all this is the aspect of ‘tension’ between syntaxes. I don’t believe that it is possible, or desirable, to simply replace the old tonal harmonic syntactic system with a new one. Nor is such a pervasive dissonantial system necessary for counterpoint: I don’t feel that counterpoint without a pervasive vertical syntax is somehow less ‘counterpoint’. Instead, what I think should be done, what I am testing out in place in my new pieces, is the entrance of dissonantial relations on rhythmic, harmonic, or other levels, at various points in the work. Rather than a dissonantial system being prevalent the entire time, I would rather see these relations emerge and disappear throughout the work, fluctuate on the edge of presence for a time, and so on. Thus this ‘treatment of the dissonance’ on a broad scale is then but one operator in the overall contrapuntal approach. I’ll come back to this in a future post.