La terre est un homme is an unusual work in Brian Ferneyhough’s output, inasmuch as he has only written for orchestra on two occasions (his other orchestral work will be featured later this week). The string quartet, on the other hand, is a medium to which he has turned on no fewer than eight occasions. In 2008, Ferneyhough composed a short work for string quartet to mark Elliott Carter’s 100th birthday. Lasting around nine minutes, Exordium—subtitled (rather pretentiously) ‘Elliotti Carteri in honorem centenarii’—is a more extreme rendition of the kind of disjunct presentation heard in his 1996 work Incipits (featured on 5:4 back in 2008). The programme note provides some unexpected context:
In common with many medieval grimoires and books of spells, Exordium elevates the non-sequitur to a formal principle. Consisting of more than forty independant fragments, the work might thus be seen as a special case of ‘sympathetic magic’.
It makes for a bizarre and rather unsettling experience, akin to an unending series of false starts. The exhaustive nature of the material—it’s almost like a catalogue of sound swatches for demonstration purposes—in addition to the stop/start structure makes it harder to connect the piece into a large-scale form. That’s deliberate, of course, yet while the emphasis here seems to be on allowing the listener to make their own connections, a recurring idea (which can’t be unique to this piece, but i don’t recall seeing it anywhere else) is found in passages where Ferneyhough writes for the quartet on a single stave, all four players striving to play the material in unison, producing a marvellously precarious kind of melody.
Curiously, there’s been almost no discussion of Exordium anywhere and Peters Edition (Ferneyhough’s publisher) doesn’t even acknowledge the work’s existence. Proving that it does, though, this performance was given by the Arditti Quartet at the 2012 Canterbury Sounds New Festival.