The Ferneyhough Complex
The composer Brian Ferneyhough's music is famously complicated, but Time Out finds him refreshingly straightforward
Strap yourself in, Brian Ferneyhough is in town. The British composer, a reluctant founder member of the school of 'new complexity', is celebrated exclusively in one of the BBC Symphony Orchestra's excellent Total Immersion days.
In 1988, the then 45-year-old Ferneyhough was named along with composers Chris Dench, James Dillon and Richard Barrett in a magazine article entitled 'Four Facets of New Complexity'. It is
a title that he is unhappy with, probably as it implies that his dense scores and the difficulty performing his work is an artistic gesture rather than a consequence of the intricate and visceral sound he is looking for.
Now a respected professor of composition at Stanford University, he has written in many genres, from solo pieces to opera, his influences ranging from philosophy, literature and painting to sci-fi and mysticism.
Given the, dare one say, complexity of his work, this weekend at the Barbican may well be a rare opportunity to hear his orchestral works, especially 'La terre est un homme', played well. Martyn Brabbins, for instance, admits that it is, without doubt, the most difficult thing he has ever had to conduct - he certainly has his work cut out given that it may well be the largest physical score ever published (special manuscript paper had to be made large enough for the 80-odd lines with all the detail).
Where does your music come from?
'I started composing in the mid- '50s and my early development as an autodidact revolved around trying to weave together elements of all sorts of things, from early Webern and Schoenberg through Varèse up to the archetypal post-war serial masterpieces such as Stockhausen's “Gruppen”. It's true that I had an abiding scepticism for all those varieties of improvisational or aleatoric tendency which emerged directly after the serial period, because I thought they displayed a fundamental misprision as to what that music was about. On the other hand, I had great respect for Cage.'
What do you think of the term 'new complexity'?
'It's a pretty typical attempt to get journalistic fingers around something inherently slippery. The last 30 years have seen enormous individual stylistic divergence among composers initially clobbered with the term. I don't take kindly to being hit with the label since I had been composing in the same manner for 15 years before it surfaced.'
What would you prefer to call it?
'Perhaps “it” is as good a name as any other! Seriously, though, assigning any sort of label assumes that there is actually a “something” to which it is attached. In this case I am happy to challenge that assumption.'
Is the complexity meant to be achieved accurately?
'This entire business of precision only arose with Milton Babbitt's precisely quantified serial arrays. For them, precision is interpretation. I like to replace the concept of exactitude with that of fidelity.
My notational conventions are an attempt to suggest what interpretational fidelity might be in practice.'
Is the viscerality and strain (both physical and mental) of attempting to play such complex scores in some way part of the music itself, or do you look forward to a generation of musicians who take this entirely in their stride?
'Looking back to the '70s it is quite amazing how young musicians have grown into the challenges my scores provide. I'm now quite used to turning up for a rehearsal with, say, a flautist and being able to sign off on the interpretation with only a few general comments. It shows that there is now a strong performance tradition stretching over several generations. The music is still difficult, of course, but that is not its essence.'
Which younger composers have taken up this mantle? Will there be a school of 'post new complexity'?
'Since there have been around five generations of composers labouring under the “complexity” yoke, surely we must be there already?'
What is your opinion on simple or completely tonal music such as minimalism?
'It's probably a matter of the speed at which one's inner ear wants to move. I find it difficult to settle down to a hearing of very lengthy pieces focused on minimal change in material. Just a personal thing.'
To listeners who are steeped in baroque and classical music, how would you advise they approach and appreciate your work?
'I actually listen to a great deal of late Renaissance and early baroque music. I love any form of expression that dynamically straddles divides of style. I wouldn't expect a listener knowledgeable in Monteverdi, for example, to approach my music in a fundamentally different way. As for the classical period, I'm not in my element there, but I do find different formulations of “late style” quite fascinating.'
Total Immersion: Brian Ferneyhough (a day of talks, films and concerts) takes place at the Barbican Centre on Sat Feb 26, 2011.