A principal thread running through much of Brian Ferneyhough’s music is one that plays with notions of linear narrative. It has been present as far back as the Sonatas for String Quartet, composed in 1967, which intercuts two entirely separate materials, one strictly serial, the other intuitive. Incipits (1996)—drawing inspiration from Italo Calvino’s book ‘If on a winter’s night a Traveller’—sidestepped narrative completely through an examination of ways a composition can be started, & we’ve already seen how Exordium employs a radically abstracted example of this, providing an anthology of fragments from which the listener is left to derive their own kind of narrative.
Ferneyhough’s second orchestral piece, Plötzlichkeit, completed in 2006, is also concerned with linear disruption, comprising 111 sections, some as short as a single bar, which constitute the building blocks of the work. Together with the title—”suddenness” or “abruptness”—the suggestion at the outset is of another fundamentally disjunct work, once again posing the problem of whether to seek strategies to bridge the gaps, or to engage with the fragmentation as an end in itself. Yet Plötzlichkeit isn’t like that at all; it’s very far from disjunct, & the work’s progression through its often minute sections is almost never fragmentary. Ferneyhough has placed them together in such a way that sometimes they overlap, they tessellate, they echo or indeed foreshadow their neighbours. Of course, there are plenty of times when a section begins abruptly, without warning, but in the context Ferneyhough has established—within sections themselves such moments occur—this does not fracture the onward momentum (which is considerable). Regular lengthy pauses appear over barlines at the end of some sections (ranging from two to nine seconds), but these are the only occasions when Plötzlichkeit exhibits any overt sense of disruption, & at no point does it seem as though the work has actually stalled.
On the contrary, i wonder whether the “suddenness” is less to do with simple fragmentation than with the ramifications of constructing a perceived narrative where none has been intentionally established, manifested in the realisation that occurs partway through—& which, in my experience, was indeed sudden—that Plötzlichkeit, despite appearances, ultimately has no demonstrative sense of direction. Put another way, the work’s smooth construction enables one to piece together a moment-by-moment ‘narrative’ that feels broadly credible, & yet as more time passes this becomes strained to the point of implausibility. Plötzlichkeit could, in theory, carry on like this forever, & while that’s a subjective realisation, that makes it no less of a crisis point. Suddenly, one is forced to confront afresh, in an unexpected way, the ideas of listening & of narrative, & how one leads to the other, if at all. This is a challenging question, one that doesn’t lose its potency on repeat listenings; in fact, it’s interesting to note how what i’ve called the ‘crisis point’ moves, or even occurs more than once. It probes into the very heart of how we make ‘sense’ of music.
i appreciate i’ve said nothing yet about the actual nature of the materials Ferneyhough has composed for the piece. They are extraordinary, demonstrating an amazing ear for the juxtaposition of sound & timbre. The orchestra is large but not excessively so, yet the brass section stands out both in terms of its make up—incorporating two soprano trombones, & a cimbasso (a type of valved contrabass trombone)—as well as its deployment. It should be remembered that Ferneyhough began life as a very accomplished brass player, & his use of brass throughout Plötzlichkeit is highly imaginative & often very striking indeed. Taken as a whole, compared to La terre est un homme—in fact, compared to many of his other works—the instrumental writing is simpler in terms of both complexity & density; the various sections of the orchestra are essentially used as sections, homogeneous units that only occasionally break out into individualistic flights of fancy. If anything, this conventionality only strengthens the self-conviction of the narrative(s) one creates while listening—& the subsequent inevitable suddenness when its foundations fail. For Plötzlichkeit is an edifice quite deliberately built on sand, yet the deep questioning ends it works towards are rock solid.
Once again, this performance of the UK première comes from the Barbican’s 2011 Total Immersion day. The task of conducting Plötzlichkeit—in which all 111 sections feature a shift in tempo—seems beyond formidable, but Martyn Brabbins navigates through it seemingly with ease, enabling the BBC Symphony Orchestra to sound magnificent.