Brian Ferneyhough

A mass of miniature miracles: Alba New Music 2016

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A couple of miles out of the centre of Edinburgh, emblazoned in brightly-lit capital letters, is a stark, startling sentence: THERE WILL BE NO MIRACLES HERE. Created by Nathan Coley in 2009, and situated outside the Modern Two gallery, the unequivocal message of this bold piece of art rang entirely false in the wake of last weekend’s inaugural Alba New Music Festival. Located in St Giles’ Cathedral, close to the centre of the city’s bustling Royal Mile, the focus of the festival’s main trio of concerts—a stimulating contrast to the hordes of people streaming around outside—was on works for solo instruments, an intense and intimate prospect.

Diego Castro Magas‘ Friday evening recital expanded the guitar by means of both live and fixed electronics (courtesy of Aaron Cassidy). But not in the world première of Wieland Hoban‘s Knokler, a work for acoustic guitar that the composer put on the shelf back in 2009 before returning to complete it this year. Hoban sets up a soundworld of contrasts, alternating between great delicacy and violence, the former characterised by subtle microtonal similarities, the latter by wild percussive bangs and crashes. There’s something definitely ‘magical’ about it, a sonic entity seemingly from the past and the future, speaking with a distinct authority. To behold a single instrument, often played achingly softly, suddenly making the entire cathedral space resonate was impressive to say the least. Was it perhaps a trifle overlong? Maybe, but it seems churlish to say that in the company of such an enchanted stream of ideas. It was a piece in which, at times, its actions literally spoke louder than its notes, and this would turn out to be almost a secondary theme running through the festival. Nowhere more so than in Aaron Cassidy‘s The Pleats of Matter, where it is the physical actions of the performer that are prescribed in the score, not their specific aural result; so, as Cassidy puts it, “while the physical component of the work is entirely repeatable and vaguely predictable, the sonic and timbral component is open to dramatic and indeterminate variation from performance to performance…”. What shocked me—and it’s the first time this particular kind of musical recollection has happened to me—was that, having seen the piece premièred in 2015, i found myself remembering certain collections of actions, and even aspects of their continuity—yet i would struggle to say to what (if any) extent what i heard on Friday night resembled what i’d heard 18 months ago. i was certainly seeing the same piece, but was i hearing the same piece? Yet again, Cassidy’s work repeatedly pulls the rug out from under our notions of what constitutes musical material. As i’ve opined before, i think it’s an approach potentially with inherent limitations, but all the same, witnessing again Magas’ guitar being transfigured into something that, aurally, defies timbral categorisation, was hugely enjoyable. It sets up a complex dialogue where the visual disconnect between actions and sounds throws emphasis directly onto those sounds, making us wonder entirely what they are, how they were made, where they’re going: in short, forcing us to engage with them on their own terms. Yet everything, on paper, is about action! It’s a tension that never ceases to fascinate. Read more

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New releases: NEOS box sets – Donaueschinger Musiktage 2014, Darmstadt Aural Documents Box 3: Ensembles

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What with the increase in listeners turning away from physical releases in favour of digital downloads, and in light of yet another (admittedly somewhat spurious) article this week offhandedly proclaiming the imminent death of the album, the efforts of German label NEOS to put out large, lavish box sets are both absurd and marvellous in their optimistic enthusiasm. No other label does contemporary music like NEOS; in terms of quality and quantity, they are leaps and bounds ahead of everyone else, with an immense breadth of scope that’s doggedly committed to some of the most risk-taking, experimental music-making going on anywhere.

It’s NEOS who are responsible for issuing annual accounts of the goings-on at the Donaueschinger Musiktage (this year’s begins in a little over a week). The 2014 festival is represented, as usual, with a box set of four discs, though on this occasion the fourth disc is a DVD. The set features twelve large-scale compositions (many of them world premières), running to nearly seven hours of music, affording one the rare opportunity really to immerse oneself in a festival; for once, the cliché that it’s the next best thing to actually being there is entirely true. It would take a dissertation to discuss them all, but there are several that stand out more than the rest, such as Friedrich Cerha‘s Nacht for orchestra, seemingly split down the middle with its first half occupied with complex textures moving from high to low registers. The second half is sparer and more melodic, and has something of the searching freedom that typified the free atonal period; it’s really very lovely, with a later sense of poised tension released in a last-minute burst. For the first 90 seconds of Hanspeter Kyburz‘s Ibant obscuri, barely anything happens; but then, suddenly, it lurches out of the shadows, and the sheer size of his large orchestra makes itself intimidatingly felt in loud shrieks and thrusting accents (i’m not doing justice to it, it sounds literally massive). A bit like Cerha, its latter half has a melodic urge, seeking expression amidst a chaos of wonderfully unpredictable turbulence (including something akin to a wobble-board duet). The final few minutes are thrilling, ending in dazed repetitions of a single low note. Read more

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HCMF 2014: Shorts, Feldman’s Pianos, asamisimasa

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Yesterday was HCMF’s annual day of ‘Shorts’, concerts of between 20 and 40 minutes, affording the opportunity to hear an exceptionally diverse range of music. Taken as a whole, it’s a cross between an Aladdin’s cave and one of those machines with the grappling hook that you find in amusement arcades: you’re not really sure what you’ll get, but every now and again it’s something really special. Among the highlights was guitarist Diego Castra Magaš‘ rendition of Michael Finnissy‘s Nasiye, a passionate work that transmits both dignity and authenticity, the Kurdish folk music that inspired it running like a thread throughout, movingly brought to the surface in its intense closing climax. Double bassist Kathryn Schulmeister gave a stunning account of two pieces by Catalonian composer Joan Arnau Pàmies, the latter of which, [k(d_b)s], set about forging a new musical language from scratch, de-coupling performance parameters and working with them independently; it began sounding like a swarm of bees angrily trying to sting their way out of a jiffy bag, but where it went from there is impossible to describe—suffice to say it was truly remarkable, and the same goes for Schulmeister’s performance, turning an ostensibly ungainly instrument into a writhing white-hot crucible. Read more

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HCMF 2013: Quatuor Diotima

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This morning saw Brian Ferneyhough back at St Paul’s Hall, his music this time being performed by the outstanding Quatuor Diotima, alongside works by Gérard Pesson, Miroslav Smka & György Ligeti.

Ligeti’s 1968 String Quartet No. 2 came last in the concert, but i mention it first because—as Ligeti’s music always tends to do—it forced a complete reappraisal of the three pieces heard before it. One very basic issue it highlighted was of the current predilection for larger-scale forms—or, conversely, composers’ (perhaps passive) reluctance to articulate works through relatively short movements. Sections & episodes don’t count in this respect; they’re an entirely different kind of demarcation & don’t induce the same sort of ‘soft reset’ brought about by the separation of movements. Let me just clarify that i don’t think one approach is better than the other; it’s just interesting to reflect that—with the obvious exception of James Dillon’s New York Triptych—everything i’ve heard both in this concert & the entire previous day consisted of substantial single spans.

Returning to Diotima, they began with the first UK performance of Pesson’s Farrago. Pesson’s lengthy programme note makes the piece sound more complicated than it actually is. Structurally, Farrago is very formalised, episodic & highly rhythmic. Its rhythmic language is the work’s driving force in more than just the obvious way; the material’s underlying regularity goes a long way to reinforcing its dual tone of ephemerality & ethereality. Much of the music is very quiet, & almost all of it is extremely delicate, like suspended pieces of glass turning in the wind, sunlight glinting off their edges. That suggests cool placidity, but it’s not without an order of violence too, although the instruments’ fiercely sharp gestures are checked by soft dynamics & muting articulations (sul tasto; beyond the bridge) that render them more visually than sonically startling, like being flagellated with feathers. Farrago feels long, but the extent of its fantasy is such that it remains an engrossing listen.

Miroslav Smka’s Engrams, also receiving its UK première, didn’t prove anywhere near so convincing. Like Pesson, Smka opted for very quiet dynamics, but his highly gestural material, somewhat inventive but not greatly differentiated, became increasingly frustrating. The glistening surface offered little by way of purchase; ideas were passed around, imitated, collaborated upon, but there was an abiding sense of arbitrariness that wasn’t helped by the lack of anything concrete. At nearly half an hour it was also seriously overlong; being teased & tickled like this quickly becomes annoying.

The oboe’s master of masters Christopher Redgate joined Diotima for the world première of Ferneyhough’s Schatten aus Wasser und Stein (“shadows made of water & stone”—the composer’s preferred translation), turning the group into a very convincing quintet, so well did he match the strings in terms of timbre & register. Both the work itself & wider compositional concerns had been broached in the pre-concert talk, & one detected an implied (Ferneyhough didn’t directly confirm this) ongoing interest in things ephemeral: the blast-wake of destructive energies (in earlier work), the instantaneous sparks of yesterday’s Liber Scintillarum, & now shadows—which Ferneyhough characterised as being both diffuse & sharp-edged. This perhaps goes some way to account for the intensely mercurial nature of Ferneyhough’s music, ever shifting between layers of focus & concomitant material implication. In Redgate & Diotima’s performance, there was an interesting tension between effort—the music is clearly as technically challenging as ever—& relaxation, communicated strongly by the players’ shifting body language. The former of those has been discussed ad nauseam over the years; regarding the latter, the performance was a powerful reminder of how recordings of Ferneyhough’s music never seem adequately to capture the wit so often evident in his material, the exuberance & potency of the instrumental interactions, & the latent lyricism i spoke of yesterday, glimpsed rather than indulged, but rarely absent. This last aspect seems particularly important in Schatten aus Wasser und Stein, melody constantly breaking out, often at some length. In this world première, despite the players still coming to terms with the piece, one glimpsed the beginnings of a very telling addition to Ferneyhough’s output.

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HCMF 2013: Ensemble Linea + Irvine Arditti

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The final concert yesterday took place, once again, in St Paul’s Hall, featuring Ensemble Linea, conducted by Jean-Philippe Wurtz. It featured three new works, by Brian Ferneyhough, Raphaël Cendo & James Clarke.

Ferneyhough & Clarke appear at first to come from different points of origin; Ferneyhough states that he cannot begin work without a title, whereas Clarke has avoided descriptive or allusory titles for many years in order not to “interfere with or assist” the listener. However, Ferneyhough’s employment of titles is, to some extent at least, a conceit (on his own admission), providing a context of sorts but not really determining what takes place in any kind of meaningful way. Indeed, his work Liber Scintillarum (“book of sparks”), here being given its UK première, continues a strain of compositional thought that Ferneyhough terms ‘involuntary scherzi’, the material deriving from elements of unpredictability & (one assumes) spontaneity, rather than according to an intricate, pre-organised scheme. A connection between that evocative title & the resultant material was, at times, hard to grasp. Composed for six instruments—three strings, three winds—the density of material initially made it difficult to fathom anything with certainty. But gradually (& this may be as much due to ‘listener acclimation’ than development in the music), interconnections became apparent; first, the mere fact that they share a conductor, & a common tempo; next, that their general dynamic levels were more-or-less matched. Eventually, the behaviours of these two groups of three felt stylistically aligned too, & there was a potent sense of mutual cohesion. That’s not to suggest that Ferneyhough’s material miraculously at this point shed its layers of complexity—far from it, & an abrupt switch to strict tempo at one point came as a real shock. For me, what projected most through the tense out-working of the piece was its numerous splashes of lyricism. & splashes they are, never lingering long enough even to be regarded as the makings of a sentiment—they momentarily emote & move on, yet their impact lingers. Despite these soft extrusions, Liber Scintillarum is emphatically a work of absolute music, tough in some ways, but a challenge worth taking on.

James Clarke’s 2013-V, receiving its world première, was almost as long but felt very much shorter. There’s a clarity to Clarke’s writing, a conciseness & economy of material that makes the music very approachable. Irvine Arditti joined Ensemble Linea & proceeded to become their leader, beginning with a bold presentation of his idée fixe, comprising fast downward glissandi & sharp pizzicato notes. i call Arditti the ‘leader’, yet the relationship both between him & the ensemble, & the members of the ensemble among themselves, was nicely ambiguous. Certainly, the brass & woodwind were an incorrigible influence at the back, setting themselves apart through surly growls & thrusting low notes. Sometimes these seemed to extend into lengthy deep basslines, weird fauxbourdons, & at other times the rest of the ensemble assembled on top of these, combining to sound like blurred chorales from the mouth of Hades. The occasions when the ensemble coalesced into a single sonic entity were exhilarating, twice establishing sequences of queasy roiling surges, coming in waves. All told it was a rather delirious experience that in no way suffered for want of a title.

Raphaël Cendo is a composer new to me, but on the strength of Rokh I, also receiving its first UK performance last night, i want to hear a lot more. Proving overwhelmingly how less can be more, Cendo takes the seemingly limited forces of bass flute, violin, cello & prepared piano & enables them to create one of the most extreme, ferocious soundscapes i’ve heard in ages. Cendo deviates from Ferneyhough & Clarke in having a demonstrative poetic inspiration, the title referencing the mythological bird of prey featured in the One Thousand and One Nights. The sense of a vast, feathered form was abundantly apparent in the work’s material, which was genuinely astonishing to witness. In this context, conventions of performance felt like a half-forgotten memory; extended techniques were the norm, with no sense of being avant-garde. On the contrary, Cendo has managed somehow to make his panoply of hectic textures riddled with as many onomatopoetic noises as you can imagine sound both normal & necessary. It’s an achievement as impressive as the incredible skills required of its performers—none more than Anna D’Errico, whose rendition of her gymnastic piano part was nothing short of heroic.

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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, & 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 – Missa Brevis

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From one of Brian Ferneyhough’s less familiar works i’m turning today to one of the best known, the Missa Brevis, composed in 1969. The very fact that Ferneyhough turned to a form & text so embedded in the development & consciousness of western music, so infused with associations, may seem surprising. Yet his is not a straightforward setting; in truth, it is not a “setting” at all—at least, not in any conventional sense of that term. The words are not treated so as to convey their meaning, & the work is not composed to fulfil any implied functional role; put simply, Ferneyhough’s Missa Brevis exists in an interesting friction with its connotations & legacy, as he explained in an interview with Andrew Clements:

[…] it was far from my intention to make the words of the text more audible. On the contrary, for the most part they are submerged irreparably! My choice of text was conditioned by reasons lamentably pagan: I wanted a verbal substructure which was sufficiently strong, certain of its own identity, to act as a firm counter-foil to the distortions & liberties which the exigencies of the purely musical material demanded. I had then, & still have now, a grave, in-bred suspicion of ‘text-setting’. Either a text is sufficient unto itself, or it is not worth using in a new art work anyway! In either case, such conventional notions of the relationship word/music set my teeth immediately on edge. The Missa text I took in its connotation of culture-object, not of meaning-constellation…

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