Many moons ago, I wrote a blog entry about Brian Ferneyhough. At that point, I had not met him. My thoughts came from various quotations from a rather old article/interview with Ferneyhough.
A few weeks ago, I got to meet Brian Ferneyhough. My first impression actually came through talking to a few of his students in attendance. We traded stories over some fabulous Korean food. Getting the "inside scoop" from his students was nice--I got to hear the good and the bad. And from two different types of students: one an ardent supporter; the other more disillusioned. Both agreed, however, that whether or not you buy into Ferneyhough's aesthetics or theories, that there's no denying he's brilliant.
I went into the masterclass a bit worried. What would I show him? I was assured that Ferneyhough actually didn't push his aesthetics onto composers, and worked from within the pieces. So, I thought I'd bring a piece that's a couple years old, but one dear to me that I honestly think is a pretty good piece--Dance of Disillusionment and Despair. Dance is a piece I've always enjoyed, and many others seemed to as well. However, I haven't been able to get it a life outside the 2 performances in 2011. I've been showing it in masterclasses, hoping to figure out what I can do to bring it along. John Corigliano really hated it.
Ferneyhough, however, didn't hate it. He did, however, dislike the contraints I put on the music. By choosing (arbitrarily) to make each movement 1 minute, he felt like I shortchanged the material. Almost every movement he would say: I like where this is going, you're starting to make something, then it ends.
At first he wasn't sure about the construction, with some movements having dense material, other movements being incredibly sparse (especially pitch-wise). When I told him the decision came from mapping measures in the first movement through the whole piece, he flipped through the whole piece, skipped to the beginning a few times, and said (paraphrased, of course. as was the earlier): Ah, ok. Fair enough. It appears you stuck pretty well to that. Sometimes, I don't like what happens, but it's a clear reason and you stick to it. Fair enough.
Finally, he came to the main points. And they were quite poignant. I had written a 17 minute piece...that was meant to be 35-45 minutes. I shortchanged my material in every movement. And, the endings...By making so many endings, I played out the possibilities.
Food for thought from Brian Ferneyhough: There are a million ways to begin a piece, but only a dozen or so ways to end one.
And when you have 13 endings, you're bound to have repeats.
What struck me about Ferneyhough was how romantically he talks about music. He quickly fell into the world of Dance, which is fairly Romantic. And then, during his talk, he referred to his own music in much the same way. Systems be damned, it was supposed to be musical, even Romantic. Ferneyhough seemed to use the different systems and construction methods just as a structuring device, a way to limit his own thought moving through his pieces.
When you look at a Ferneyhough score, "Romantic" isn't the first word that pops into your brain. When you hear some recordings, "mechanical" seems more like what should be heard.
I got to hear five pieces by Ferneyhough during June in Buffalo: Incipits, Exordium, Terrain, Mnemosyne, and Intermedio alla Ciaccona. This festival was the first time I've ever gotten to hear any of Ferneyhough's music live. And it was a treat. I'll even forgive JACK Quartet for changing their program and playing Exordium instead of String Quartet No. 2, even though SQ No. 2 is one of my favourite pieces of all time.
It's a great mix. Terrain and Intermedio had Irvine Arditti as the soloist, Terrain with Ensemble Signal. Terrain was handled masterfully by Talea Ensemble, JACK took on Exordium, and Mnemosyne was performed by Keiko Murakami (I believe) of Ensemble Linea (I can't find my program, but she's listed as the regularly flutist with Ensemble Linea).
Everyone played passionately. This doesn't mean they missed notes--they were all inscrutably perfect. But there was music in every note. Every awkward leap, every crunchy harmony, all the subdivisions within subdivisions moving at different time ratios, every nuance had meaning. Watching Arditti play Terrain and Intermedio was astounding. There was no break, no phrase that wasn't carefully attended to. JACK playing Exordium was masterful, with Arditti watching from the audience (and clapping quite enthusiastically when I stole a look in his direction).
This all leads me to one major thought: Ferneyhough, while writing in a method that some would call "dense," is still trying to reach people. He still wants an audience to get a reaction from the piece, to be drawn into that world. In the masterclass, the way he talked about my piece was more about how I failed to do exactly that. And hearing his music live, I was drawn into the music, the drama, the entire experience. During his pieces, I found myself moving closer to the edge of my seat, listening with full attention. If I didn't have full attention, I'd miss a single detail, and the following sequence may be rendered meaningless.
Ferneyhough creates experiences. Let go of the preconception, of the "i don't understand." Stop trying to understand and just listen, be a part of the music. Maybe, eventually, you can listen and "understand" but that's not really the point. He's giving you all the information, and, just like in a certain author's books, you don't have to READ the whole page, just relax, and skim, and the information will "magically" come to the surface. Ferneyhough is like that.
And what I learned from him is I'm not there yet.