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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 – Exordium

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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’.

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Ferneyhough Week – La terre est un homme

Posted on by 5:4 in 20th Century, Featured Artists, Thematic series | 4 Comments

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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In Memoriam: Richard Rodney Bennett – Goodbye for Now

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2012 has almost drawn to a close, but not before claiming another prominent musical voice: Richard Rodney Bennett, who passed away on Christmas Eve aged 76. Bennett began his compositional life as something of a modernist, studying with Boulez and showing a distinct interest in serialism. But i suspect it’s for his lighter music, particularly jazz, that Bennett will be most fondly remembered. In the late 1990s i worked for the Cheltenham Music Festival, and on one occasion was charged with being Bennett’s assistant for an evening cabaret at the Town Hall (with, i think, Cleo Laine). Until then, i was generally grumpy in the presence of anything jazz-related, but that night everything changed, and i remember being amazed at the wit and sophistication of Bennett’s performance (and, for what it’s worth, he remains one of the most charming composers i’ve ever met).

Around the same time, BBC Music Magazine gave away a free CD of Bennett’s music, featuring his Four Jazz Songs. On hearing of his death, the last of these songs, ‘Goodbye for Now’, came immediately to mind. Read more

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Magical, jewel-like: Monty Adkins – Four Shibusa

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In my 2011 Best Albums of the Year list, in third place was an album that remains one of the best examples of ambient music i’ve had the pleasure to hear: Monty AdkinsFragile.Flicker.Fragment. Describing it as ‘ambient’ is, in some ways, to do it a disservice, as—unlike most deliberately ambient music—it’s a lot more than just that. i described it then as “ambient by accident”, and the same could be said for Adkins’ latest album, Four Shibusa, released on the excellent label Audiobulb Records earlier this year.

The term ‘shibusa‘ is Japanese, and connotes the qualities of a distinct aesthetic outlook emphasising characteristics that Adkins summarises as “simplicity, implicitness, modesty, tranquillity, naturalness, normalcy and imperfection”. The four works presented here were part of a project in collaboration with artist Pip Dickens, in which she and Adkins created an exhibition of work, Shibusa—Extracting Beauty, reflecting upon and exploring aspects of the other’s art form. In the exhibition’s accompanying book, Adkins outlines “four fundamental models” that formed the basis of their work:

the smudging and blushing of colours and motifs into one another […];
the layering of different patterns on top of one another and allowing certain aspects of one or another layer to come to the fore at determined points;
repetitive patterns that are imperfect and are interrupted […]; the repetition here is not always exact, reflecting the human hand rather than the use of the machine […];
interlocking linear motifs that are clear in their group trajectory but remain independent lines.

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In Memoriam: Jonathan Harvey – Messages (World Première)

Posted on by 5:4 in Commemorations, Premières | 1 Comment

To find myself writing the words “In Memoriam” for the third time in as many months is deeply saddening, all the more so as the loss of Jonathan Harvey, who died two days ago aged 73, is one that feels particularly acute here in the UK. Whether Harvey was our ‘best’ composer is hardly relevant, but he was surely one of our deepest, with a passion and insight into sacred thought and action that made him entirely unique, and not just within the British Isles. In fact, the mystical tension that operated within himself – irresistibly intermingling an urge to the radically new with an instinct for age-old numinosity – is perhaps the most fascinating and engaging aspect of his oeuvre, manifesting itself in practically everything he composed. For a long time i’ve been wanting to devote some serious attention on 5:4 to Harvey’s music, but for now i’ll make do with this, the first performance of one of his more recent large-scale works, Messages. It’s from a concert in March 2008 given by the Berlin Radio Choir and Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Reinbert de Leeuw, which was broadcast a few years ago in BBC Radio 3’s Composer of the Week exploring Harvey’s music. Read more

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Proms 2012: Helen Grime – Night Songs (World Première)

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Partway through last Saturday’s Proms world première of Night Songs, the new work from Helen Grime, conductor Oliver Knussen dropped his glasses. To listen to the performance, one would hardly have noticed; yet, at the end, Knussen announced the mishap to the audience and remarked how he thought it had gone well, “but I’d just like to play it again to make sure”—and thus, Night Songs was immediately given a second world première. Quite apart from the graciousness of that act, it makes one wonder why this sort of thing doesn’t happen more often anyway; on the very rare occasions when i’ve been at a concert where a new work has been played twice (usually in each half of the concert, not immediately afterwards), it has always proved to be an extremely valuable experience, benefiting the piece immeasurably and sometimes drastically altering one’s first impressions. Concert planners: take note. Read more

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