This week sees the 70th birthday of one of the UK’s most significant composers, Brian Ferneyhough. For nearly fifty years, his music has been thrilling & discombobulating audiences in not entirely equal measure, pursuing his compositional goals with ruthless, painstaking rigour. As has long been the case with its most interesting & challenging composers, Ferneyhough’s music has never been strongly welcomed or well-received in the UK, & even the Barbican’s Total Immersion day devoted to him in 2011 essentially only comprised two concerts—to be admired of course, but not exactly an immersion, suggesting little has changed in terms of home-grown appreciation.
His music is to some extent a progression from the integral serialism arrived at by Stockhausen & Boulez in the 1950s, but only in terms of organisational precision; his work is not concerned with—indeed, is often wildly opposed to—the kind of balance that serialism seeks to explore. Multiple layers & an element of refraction—aspects of something heard in different ways from different angles, only slowly grasped, if at all—dominate the way his music presents itself. That makes it something of a formidable force from a listening perspective, & Ferneyhough himself has on numerous occasions spoken of the way he seeks to position the music always a bit ‘beyond’ the listener, inviting what he calls a kind of “meta-listening” (a term that raises more questions than it answers). Whether his music is any more ‘beyond’ an audience than many other composers’ work is debatable & in any case subjective, but regardless, one can never fail to be aware that there is very much more transpiring in a work by Ferneyhough than is immediately obvious.
The swiftest of glances at any of his scores underlines that fact; his use of notation is uniquely dense & florid, comprising the most intricately complex filigree. This aspect of his work has long proved to be the most controversial, provoking a rather tiring series of diatribes & apologias—almost always closed arguments, reinforcing existing prejudices—for the convolutions of Ferneyhough’s notational demeanour. This historically lopsided focus on the appearance of Ferneyhough’s music has no doubt been exacerbated by the lack of both available recordings & regular concert performances (my own first contact, in the mid-1990s, was almost entirely via his scores, for this very reason), a situation that has not drastically improved over the years. So as the composer approaches his 70th year, much still needs to be done. Whether 2013 will bring any efforts towards a more enlightened appraisal, or even an in-depth retrospective, remains to be seen. One can at least hope; & to that end this week on 5:4 is a celebration of Brian Ferneyhough’s music.
His first orchestral piece, La terre est un homme, completed in 1979, is perhaps the work that has suffered most from being looked at without being heard. It has never been recorded, & quite apart from that, the score is a four-foot high marvel to behold, & while every page is caked in the most incredible testament to Ferneyhough’s invention run riot, it’s just as much an apogee of penmanship—bear in mind this is a work for 101 players, many of which have their own individual stave, & all many years before computer typesetting would become a practical reality (the entire full score can be viewed online; link below).
The inspiration for La terre est un homme began in a dream that would be brought to mind when Ferneyhough saw a painting by the Chilean artist Roberto Matta (see right), from which the work’s title is taken:
I dreamt of a strange & alien planet traversed by a pitilessly hot sun. It was basically a desert landscape. The remarkable thing was, I seemed to be seeing every single grain of sand separately, not only in its spatial dimensions but also – somehow – sensed its individual weight. All was in slow, ineluctable motion. Between sharply contoured rocks scuttled tiny, scorpion-like creatures. One senses the extreme complexity but inevitability of this strange combination of leaden, slowly-moving sand & sudden flashes of intensely coloured movement.
When I then discovered the Matta I immediately recollected the dream; a very short while later I had created the basic outline & world of sensible values for the orchestral work which then arose.
What did arise is fifteen minutes of music that seems at first glance to be a blistering, tortuous texture work; the huge number of players is abundantly clear throughout, such is the density of Ferneyhough’s writing. It is intensely organic, the instruments combining to form what the composer has called “life forms in permanent movement & realignment”, characterised by techniques & behaviours that are often unique to that entity. Trying to glimpse the details of these forms within such a seething sonic behemoth may seem futile, particularly as the orchestra feels so entirely integrated, inextricably linked & united towards a common action. But while La terre est un homme is certainly monolithic, it is no monolith. Simply to glaze one’s ears & follow the generalised contours of its surface would be to miss the astonishing wealth of detail in the deeper musical fabric, of which one becomes increasingly aware both as the piece progresses as well as in further listenings (which are unquestionably needed). Deep inside the roiling, erupting, angry block of sound—indeed, the very elements that form it—are a network of intricate lines of tracery, many if not most of which are emphatically melodic. They’re often obscured by the sheer mass of the whole, but when Ferneyhough opens up the texture it’s like zooming into the details of a molecule, discovering that a seemingly solid object is actually composed of a lot more space & microscopic detail than could have been imagined. It’s impossible to ignore the immense, unstoppable force of La terre est un homme, but the real magic emerges when one looks beyond the apparent tutti (meta-listening?) to the plethora of sound entities moving within.
This rare performance, broadcast in February 2011, was given by the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Martyn Brabbins, as part of the Barbican’s Total Immersion day.