Partial Immersion: Brian Ferneyhough

Monday 28 February 2011

Against our better judgement, several hundred of us went to the Barbican to see the BBC Symphony Orchestra play Brian Ferneyhough, as part of their increasingly-misnamed “Total Immersion” series. (One day! Two concerts! Can you handle it?) Like the late Milton Babbitt, Ferneyhough is one of those composers whose music is overshadowed by his forbidding reputation, and so I’d like to thank Ivan Hewett for writing programme that tried to sell the punters on enjoying the music rather than getting them to figure out what a “claustrophobic and marginally chaotic renegotiation of mutual priorities” might sound like.

It’s rare for Ferneyhough to write for a large orchestra, and even rarer for that music to be played. La terre est un homme, written in the mid 1970s, is the most unrelentingly violent piece I’ve heard by Ferneyhough. It is also the greatest. Its impact on the audience was like that of an explosion, sustained for a quarter-hour. Aesthetically, it could be comprehended only as an overwhelming force of nature, simultaneously filled with terror and beauty, carrying a wealth of intricate detail with unremitting ferocity. Luckily, the performers were able to project and contain the force needed to balance both of these contradictory impulses.

This brilliance in playing was also present in the 1986 piece Carceri d’invenzione III, for winds, brass and percussion. For all the refinement in his musical language, it’s in pieces like this that, for me at least, Ferneyhough threatens to live up to his daunting reputation. As all seven Carceri d’invenzione pieces are based upon the eponymous engravings by Piranesi, it’s unsurprising that the music contained within is often claustrophobically dense and obscure. Compared to his other works, I still admire more than enjoy them.

The early Missa Brevis for unaccompanied choir was a piece I didn’t know existed, and while Ferneyhough displays excellent craftsmanship he was unable to transcend certain avant-garde affectations that were fashionable in the 1960s. Similarly, the BBC Singers showed and excellent technical command of the music, without ever really appearing in full command of what they wanted it to say.

The other highlight of the night was the other orchestral piece and most recent on the programme, Plötzlichkeit (2006). Besides having the coolest brass section, Plötzlichkeit embodied most strongly the wishes that Ferneyhough has often expressed for his music, as to how it might be received by the audience. As most recently expressed on the Today programme:

What I want to do is for them to suspend disbelief for a little bit and therefore enter into a sort of Alice in Wonderland world – through the little hole by drinking the potion – and try to even in the most confusing and seemingly chaotic circumstances to try to hold onto something.

Plötzlichkeit combines the full, distinctive voice of the composer with the fragmentary structure of his Sonatas For String Quartet from 40 years earlier; its discontinuities are reminiscent of Varèse’s approach to composition, allowing distinct blocks of sound to run up against each other in a constant balancing act of contrasts. Instead of overwhelming or exhausting, the music invited a dialogue with the listener, inviting (or taunting) them to perceive fleeting details before they disappeared, and to make their own sense of progress from start to finish.

The performance felt as though it could be a little more focussed, although that may be a problem with either me or the orchestra getting some perspective of a piece which seeks to defy any appreciation of structure.

Total Aversion: Brian Ferneyhough

Saturday 26 February 2011

This evening I’m off to see the BBC Symphony Orchestra play Brian Ferneyhough, including the first British performance of his large work Plötzlichkeit, as part of one the Barbican’s Total Immersion days. Unsurprisingly, the BBC has been cross-promoting it through one of their news and current affairs programmes.

What is a surprise, however, is that the time dedicated to interviewing Ferneyhough and discussing his music on the Today programme yesterday seemed to strongly suggest to listeners that this was a concert they should stay away from. The Rambler has an insightful analysis of what happened on the show (followed by a good debate in the comments).

In summary: Ferneyhough’s music is sinister, pointlessly difficult, causes stress and sounds a bit like farts…. this is not responsible arts journalism at any time of day. It’s deliberately and offensively misrepresentative. It doesn’t promote the music, it doesn’t increase understanding, it doesn’t even offer a moment for people to make up their own minds (three minutes of just the music would have at least done that). It simply builds walls, closes ears and reinforces prejudices.

It’s infuriating, but hardly surprising any more, that mainstream media is so hopelessly crap at arts reporting, even on Radio 4 and other outlets that present themselves as more intellectual. If they can’t frame the story as a controversy or scandal (whether it is or not), the journalists are at a loss as to whether they should approach their subject as a case for uncritical boosterism, adversarial inquisition, or quirky human interest. The last case always involves some degree of condescension, and Today’s treatment of Ferneyhough was no exception.

Why does arts reporting so often fall into this charade? The immediate impression is the same one given by politicians and certain business leaders, that they need to be seen as “one of the people,” and in doing so find themselves pandering to a lowest common denominator, becoming a patronising charicature of their supposed inferiors. On further thought, the position of a broadcaster like Radio 4 is closer to that of Hollywood film studio execs and millionaire movie stars, who regularly turn out “heartwarming” films about smalltown folks who come to the Big City to find success and fame, before learning the truth that the true happiness they seek can only be found back home living an ordinary life, free of glamour or wealth. You do not want this, they say. Do not pursue the dreams we have achieved. You’re better off the way you are now.

I doubt the people who make the Today programme live glamourous, millionaire lifestyles, or even that they like Ferneyhough; but I bet they go to the theatre, museums, concerts and art galleries. You won’t see news reports on whatever latest production of Swan Lake, Mozart recital or gallery opening might be. Instead, when the arts are reported at all, it’s a scandal or a freakshow. This is culture. You do not want this. Best to leave it alone.

Music For The Bionic Ear: What Happened

Tuesday 22 February 2011

I can’t very well write an objective review of Interior Design: Music For The Bionic Ear, but here’s an overview of what happened on the night.

For those of you coming in late, Music for the Bionic Ear was an evening of new musical works written specifically for listeners with cochlear implants. Miraculous as they are, cochlear implants have a long way to go if they are ever to an accurate representation of sound. In music, it can be difficult to comprehend pitch, timbres, harmonies, even rhythm in some circumstances. Music for the Bionic Ear is a part of the research into how to develop music perception and appreciation for implant wearers.

Six pieces were presented at the concerts, each taking a different approach to making music that may be particularly suited to the Bionic Ear. All audience members, regardless of whether or not they used implants, were asked to fill out a short survey included with their programmes. Furthermore, after each piece listeners were asked to grade their reactions to the music, based on a set list of questions.

The six pieces were:

Rohan Drape, Another In Another Dark. This piece for clarinet, viola, cello and piano had a very late-Morton Feldman feel to it; not so surprising when the composer refers to Feldman’s Palais de Mari in his programme notes. The instruments play subtly shifting textures in extended, suspended harmonies.

Natasha Anderson, Study for the Bionic Ear #1. For the first half, two percussionists iterate a cycling rhythmic pattern on tuned drums and shaker, before a sampled piano and electronic noises intrude. The second half focuses on constant sounds from a vibraphone, rolled and bowed, mixed with sampled cello drones and electronic tones.

I’ve already described my own piece in some detail on my website, and plan to go into more excruciating detail later.

James Rushford, Tussilage. This piece for viola, cello and tape (playback and electronic sounds) kept steadfastly to the “difficult” language of the avant-garde, with extended playing techniques and a mixture of pitched sounds and noises of varying complexity. The use of these sounds of these sounds was based upon earlier tests and auditions with implant wearers.

Robin Fox, 3 Studies for the Bionic Ear. Electronic sounds were simultaneously played through the surround speaker system and represented graphically on the screen, either as colour bands of pitch frequencies or as waveforms. The sounds alternated between steady drones of electronic tones that accumulated overtones in different patterns, affecting harmony and timbre, and differing articulations of sharply rhythmic, ascending scales.

Eugene Ughetti, Syncretism A. Three percussionists produce an array of timbral and textural effects, largely with untuned instruments, also using amplification and other electronic treatment, as well as speaking voices in one section.

The survey sheets used by the audience concentrated on questions of aesthetic pleasure to be found, or not, in each piece. The results are now being collated and analysed. Audience members were also invited to attend discussion groups immediately after each concert, to give their thoughts and reactions.

Please Mister Please CXIII

Sunday 20 February 2011

Betty Everett, “1900 Yesterday” (1969).
(2’30″, 3.4 MB, mp3)

After Music For The Bionic Ear

Sunday 20 February 2011

Hello! Yes. Interior Design: Music For The Bionic Ear went very well. Both concerts pulled a great crowd, and most people there seemed to enjoy it. If they didn’t, they were charmingly polite.

We actually asked the punters to fill out a little questionnaire after each piece, to try to get some quantitative feedback for further research on what works (and doesn’t work) for cochlear implant wearers. Hopefully we can use the feedback and experience from these concerts as a starting point for further work on advancing music perception for implant users. Will post a more detailed description of what happened at the gig tomorrow.

Music For The Bionic Ear: One week to go! Sort of.

Friday 4 February 2011

With Interior Design: Music For The Bionic Ear premiering Sunday week, 13 February, I’m putting the finishing touches* to my piece, now titled This Is All I Need. The concert venue has a multi-channel speaker system, so I’m taking advantage of the setup and working on a mix to present my piece in glorious 8-channel surround sound. Or maybe only 4-channel. I haven’t quite decided yet.

The Music For The Bionic Ear page has now been updated, with a brief history of the project and my contribution to it, including three mp3s showing how my ideas have developed while making the piece.

If you want, you can Download a flyer for the event(PDF).

*And not, I repeat not, deciding that some part or other could be better and re-doing the entire thing. That is not going to happen. No way.