The conceptual complexity of Brian Ferneyhough
Over the past two or three decades, Brian Ferneyhough’s (1943) music has taken on an almost fetishistic quality. Although he isn’t one of the most represented living composers in the world (although the darkness of his music can be overstated), he is still one of the most frequently cited references among contemporary composers, both for having been the creator of a style and an aesthetic that has impressed many younger composers or as an anachronistic adherent to old modernism school. Ferneyhough’s status also arises in large part because his style. Like other icons before him, such as Cage, Ligeti or Reich, it can be condensed into a single, usually useless word. Cage is “possibility”, or perhaps “silence”, for Ligeti, it’s “atmospheres”, for Reich, it’s “minimalism” or “process”.Without a doubt, the word for Ferneyhough is “complexity”. Although Ferneyhough had composed works that could have been described in this way for two decades, the term firmly attached itself to his music in 1988 with the publication of the article “Four Facets of the New Complexity” by Australian musicologist Richard Toop. focus of Toop’s article was not so much Ferneyhough, but the quartet composed by the composers Finnissy, Barrett, Chris Dench and James Dillon, but the influence of Ferneyhough hovered over the whole writing. The term “complexity” as a description, as a characterization not only of a musical style, but also in more general terms it has been so much contaminated by stereotypes and disinformation over time that it is almost impossible to explore in an emotionally neutral field.
“Complexity” should not be reduced, however, to “difficulty” or “complication”. Checkers game can be difficult or complicated to play, but chess and Go are more complex games. Ferneyhough’s music is, without a doubt, difficult to play. However, the complexity in this context, as well as in chess and Go, refers more to the construction of a music through, sometimes conflicting, multiple layers of information, its versatility and its structured chaos. This is not simply a matter of information density, although this is also a characteristic of his music, but of the multiple lines of force that must be negotiated and balanced at any given moment. In his excellent book “Music after the Fall” the musicologist Tim Rutherford-Johnson rightly points out that even Paganini’s music is difficult to perform because it adds a dense figuration and ornaments to a single musical trajectory (a melody or a harmonic progression), using many notes per measure. Ferneyhough’s music, on the other hand, is complex because it describes and uses multiple frameworks that intersect and conflict with each other simultaneously, in the same environment. Ferneyhough’s complexity is a matter of form. Tim Rutherford-Johnson rightly underlines how Ferneyhough’s music starts from the premise that a certain piece of material, a block of musical construction, carries with it a series of logical and functional implications. It suggests some ways in which it would like to be unfold, for example through certain narrative arcs. It also contains a certain density of information, which suggests a further ideal time span in which it could be presented to a listener and be understood. By accepting this, Ferneyhough’s aesthetic derives from contrasting or challenging these implications, creating situations in which the material is forced to overcome its implicit limits. One of the aspects that most fascinates me is his conception and management of the imperfect capacity of memory: the way we understand a piece of music, what a certain melody or sound means, how we perceive the structure of the works, how we perceive how far we are or near the end at a certain point: all of this is determined by our short-term listening memory. In a song, for example, we recognize a chorus for the first time by how it relates to the verse we have just heard and for the second time by the fact that it was repeated. Both thoughts depend on our memory’s ability to keep pieces of music in mind and make quick comparisons between them.
Ferneyhough’s music interrupts these paths of memory, overloading them, contrasting them or redirecting them. All this can be easily traced and included in this excellent CD, produced in 2010 by the independent record company Kairos Music Production, an excellent collection of pieces composed by Ferneyhough and performed by the Australian ELISION Ensemble, a record that must not be missing in the discoteque of a fan of contemporary guitar music. The memory is activated here, and then cleaned up by force. This principle is particularly evident in the two tracks where the guitar is present: “no time (at all)” and “Les froissements d’ailes de Gabriel”.
“No time (at all)” is the shortest piece of the entire cd. This is a set of five short tracks composed by Ferneyhough for two guitars (one tuned a quarter of a tone below the other), but the title has wider implications. This passage reflects Ferneyhough’s interest in the meaning of “musical time”, an interest which has become significant in the course of his work “Shadowtime”, from which this passage is derived. More specifically, his materials are largely those of the two guitar parts in “Les Froissements d’Ailes de Gabriel”, the last work on this record, although presented in a completely different sequence. The five pieces constitute a sort of arched shape, with the ingenious creeping glissandi of the third movement which provides an enigmatic “soft center”. The first and last movements have the same rigorously delineated temporal structure, but are characterized by quite different contents. On the contrary, the second and fourth movements have exactly the same material, but the two guitar parts are exchanged, so that whatever was previously performed “a quarter of a tone above” is now found to be a quarter of a tone below: a simple but disconcerting change of perspective.
Also taken from Ferneyhough’s “Shadowtime” (1999-2004), composed around the life and thought of Walter Benjamin, Les froissements is an evocation of the rustling wings of the Angel Gabriel, resonating through compressed music, the fluttering plots. More deeply, however, is a Benjaminian meditation on the nature of time. Angels are not supposed to be able to perceive time in any human sense, and the way Ferneyhough deliberately superimposes his music with information, starting and restarting it every few seconds to create a perceptual overload, hinders memory capacity to create a meaningful structure. Each event is too dense to be completely absorbed in the given time, so when the next one arrives we are already running just to keep up. (In this way, Angel Gabriel of Ferneyhough remembers the Benjamin’s Angel of History, whose wings are continuously crushed by the debris of history that accumulates before it.)
Processes such as those described above, as well as the use of non-metric rhythms and fleeting relationships, are designed to violate and disturb conventional patterns and expectations and therefore inevitably attract a lot of resistance from the public and critics. The word “complexity” itself seems to have become a derogatory term. However, what Ferneyhough created is not limited to the realms of abstract philosophy. Indeed, the disorienting, destabilizing and different processes of his music share a lot with the daily aspects of our XXIst century lives. Through this innate musical complexity, Ferneyhough’s music crosses a threshold in a more metaphysical realm. Just as the shape of the sonata says something about the eighteenth century, so the complexity of Ferneyhough refers to the reality of the twenty-first century. Tim Rutherford-Johnson points out that his representation of reality takes place in an exclusively musical space, but is formally similar to modern financial models, public transport payment systems and media storage facilities, where daily transactions do not they take place more between people and objects but in a remote and fragile-digital space of databases and cloud computing. This empathy with the times we live in (if not necessarily with the immediate desires of his potential audience) has made Ferneyhough’s music a powerful attraction.