Thematic series

Ferneyhough Week – Plötzlichkeit (UK Première)

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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, and 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. Read more

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Ferneyhough Week – Prometheus

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Today i’m going to focus on a relatively early work of Ferneyhough’s, Prometheus for wind sextet, composed in 1967. It’s not a piece that’s performed terribly often, nor is there much information about it, i suspect in part due to how early it was composed (when Ferneyhough was just 24 years old, the same year he graduated from the Royal Academy of Music). The piece seems to have been created via a decision-making process with deliberately limited options; the number of alternatives available at any given point would vary, Ferneyhough selecting from them intuitively. Prometheus is therefore a work that could have turned out entirely differently, as the composer explained in an interview with Philippe Albèra:

The score as it now exists is thus one expression of a field which could, theoretically, have produced quite a different set of results entirely. The title of the piece reflects this openness, the protean quality of my frame of reference.

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Ferneyhough Week – La terre est un homme

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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 and 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 and challenging composers, Ferneyhough’s music has never been strongly welcomed or well-received in the UK, and 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 and 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 and 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, and 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 and 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 and 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 and 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 and 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; and to that end this week on 5:4 is a celebration of Brian Ferneyhough’s music. Read more

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Contemporary Epics: V/Vm – The Death of Rave

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In the last few days i’ve highlighted some impressive examples of music composed on an ‘epic’ scale. i’ve saved the biggest until last, but even by saying that, i’ve touched on an inherent danger lurking in a discussion of this kind. When any musical parameter is taken to a compositional extreme, the mere act of doing that starts to rupture a work’s integrity, as much æsthetically as practically. Let’s put it another way; what interests me so much in a work like Robert Rich’s Somnium is both what he’s striving to do and the way in which he’s trying to do it. It’s a piece that requires its duration to be extreme, but it’s not a piece about duration; the danger is to put undue—or, worse, all—emphasis on that one aspect, and thereby fracture one’s holistic appreciation of the piece. One might argue, reasonably, that it’s difficult to ignore the durational aspect of a work lasting seven hours; but that’s not, hopefully, what one’s thinking about as each minute passes in Somnium—or, indeed, in the Trilogy in Three Parts, Blemished Breasts, or July 17, 2010. When setting out to explore these five ‘contemporary epics’, extended duration was my common thread, but i hope it’s been clear that that aspect is ultimately an integral component in a much larger and richer whole; in a nutshell, what these pieces share is that their extensive durations fully support and are at the service of the music. Read more

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Contemporary Epics: Robert Rich – Somnium

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In the previous few articles, it may seem as though i’ve been avoiding the very obvious elephant in the room. So let’s confront it now: large-scale musical ‘epics’ of the kind i’ve been exploring present formidable problems to the listener. Assuming one can find the time to devote to it, there’s the issue of focus, of trying to maintain some semblance of concentration for a very much longer-than-usual period of time; furthermore, attempting to hear each passing event within the wider context of the whole (rather than just listening superficially) becomes a strenuous and potentially unwieldy activity. i accept that these are very real challenges with such music, and while i can speak from experience and state that it’s something that becomes much less of a problem the more one becomes acquainted with large-scale music, the fourth ‘contemporary epic’ i’d like to examine is a work that could be said to tackle the reality of this situation head-on—or, at least, take a fundamentally different approach to it.

The composer Robert Rich established his reputation in the early 1980s, as a composer whose live performances took place through the night. In part they were concerts, yet more importantly to Rich they were experiments, investigating the ways in which sound can stimulate periods of REM sleep. At these events, the audience would take its place on the floor, actively encouraged—and this may sound paradoxical—to interact with Rich’s performance through the act of sleep, engaging with the music through the gauze of a semi-conscious mind. These “sleep concerts” directly influenced the albums Rich released around this time; his debut album Sunyata (1982) pared down its content to a minimum—echoing the title, which is a Buddhist concept approximating to ’emptiness’ or ‘void’—while at the same time greatly expanding its duration to better facilitate a meditative listening state (originally released on cassette, the album was unusual at lasting almost 86 minutes). The titles of his next two albums, Trances and Drones (both 1983), made explicit the kind of deeply subliminal interrelationship Rich wanted his music to have with its audience, whether experienced live or at home.

The most telling example of this is his magnum opus Somnium, released in 2001. Having alluded to the nature of the “sleep concerts” through a prolific series of albums, on Somnium Rich sought to return to the source and directly replicate that experience. The only way to do that faithfully was for the music to be heard right through the night; hence the reason for Somnium‘s massive duration, lasting a little over seven hours. So Somnium presents the listener with the ultimate challenge, a work of unprecedented length, but it also presents its own solution, stated clearly in the title, inviting its audience to experience it through sleep. In the accompanying notes, Rich helpfully elucidates on the nature of that interaction:

The term “Sleep Concert” can be a bit misleading, as it implies that this music is intended to help you sleep deeply. On the contrary, when you play Somnium at night, you may find that you sleep less deeply, and wake up more often. The idea is to let the music incorporate itself into your perceptual framework during the night, to create a sonic surround, an environment for unique states of consciousness. The music is aimed at the nebulous territory that exists in your mind when you are hovering between awake and asleep, when you are still aware of your environment, yet detached, when your half-sleeping mind wanders into the realm of hypnogogic images and dreamlike non-linearity. You might find that this music can act as a trigger for these flowing thoughts, and the activation of the environment around you can help you to skate around the edges of sleep, with one foot in the dream world and one foot in the room where you are sleeping. Read more

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Contemporary Epics: The Hafler Trio – Trilogy in Three Parts

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It’s impossible to speak of ‘contemporary epics’ without given especial mention to The Hafler Trio (the nom de guerre of Andrew McKenzie). While Kenneth Kirschner and Pat Maherr, discussed previously, usually restrict themselves to relatively modest durations, it’s rare for music by The Hafler Trio not to exceed an hour or more. This characteristic dates back as far as 1991, with the release of Kill the King, its single span lasting 73 minutes; the companion albums Mastery of Money (1992) and How to Reform Mankind (1994), ran to 75 and 78 minutes respectively. Those three albums form a trilogy, and large-scale trilogies have continued to be a feature of the Hafler Trio œuvre. Exactly As I Say (2004), Exactly As I Am (2005) and Exactly As I Do (2005), each double albums, together form a trilogy lasting almost 5½ hours. How to Slice a Loaf of Bread (2003) and sister work How to Slice a Loaf of Bread (Lengthwise) (2004) are each trilogies in their own right; together they too last nearly 5½ hours. Most recently, McKenzie’s occasional collaboration with Autechre has finally become a trilogy with the release in August of ae3o3 (which on its own has a duration of 3¾ hours); together with æ³o and h³æ (2003) and æo³ and ³hæ (2005), this trilogy is now the longest of all, stretching to a massive 5¾ hours. Even the albums not part of trilogies occupy long durations: Hljóðmynd (2000; 1 hour), Normally (2003; 2 hours), Where Are You? (2004; 1 hour) and Scissors Cut Arrow (2004; 1¾ hours). On all of these albums, individual tracks occupy a complete CD; faced with music on such a scale, it’s understandable why, quite apart from the multitudinous disjecta membra that red herringly encompass each release—not to mention the eternally bellicose attitude of McKenzie himself—The Hafler Trio can seem off-putting, unapproachable and daunting. Read more

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Contemporary Epics: Indignant Senility – Blemished Breasts

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What makes Kenneth Kirschner’s “July 17, 2010” so significant—and, in my view, qualifies it as an ‘epic’—is the fact that its 2-hour duration is not subdivided into sections, or even particularly episodic (although its timbral qualities could be said to have a periodicity of roughly 20 minutes, but that’s just the way i hear it). This is what separates it from the plethora of large-scale albums that have been around for over 60 years, since the double album first came into existence. The prospect of an album lasting two hours or more is less problematic when its duration is broken down into individual songs of no more than a few minutes apiece; it’s still a lot to listen to, granted, but the time is compartmentalised, which does at least make things psychologically simpler. Of course, there will always be the concept album that seeks to be homogeneous, its constituent parts seamlessly working towards the creation of a larger whole, but the qualitative shifts en route—the movement from track to track, with their own internal structures—inevitably mean that the overarching narrative is partitioned, if not entirely broken. At the end of last year, in my summary of the best albums of 2010, one of the key things that impressed me about the winner—Chubby Wolf’s Ornitheology—was its large-scale epic structure; despite being merely a double album (and as such, shorter than many other such albums), it articulated itself in just two 40-minute tracks. The second ‘contemporary epic’ i’d like to highlight is very similar to this, and arguably more impressive. Read more

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