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.

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.

Tutti Forgetti

Saturday 29 January 2011

Music For The Bionic Ear premieres in two weeks’ time so I’ve been busy tidying the completed work, after a hectic week correcting an almighty stuff-up. What follows is a blog post I’d forgotten I’d written until I found it this afternoon while looking for something else.

Listened to 1/1 off Brian Eno’s Music For Airports for the first time in years. Much more happening than I remembered.

  1. My ear training has come along.
  2. I’m listening to a different mix that’s been “punched up” for today’s attention-deficit culture.
  3. Small, cheap speakers bring out the synth treatments more.
  4. My old LP pressing was really crap.

Seemed shorter, too (cf. years of listening to La Monte Young, Iced Vo Vos used to be bigger etc.)

Music For Bionic Ears: Progress Report

Wednesday 19 January 2011

This was going to be a standard progress update on the Music For Bionic Ears concert, tickets for which are selling fast. However, there is now a bad twist ending. I’m talking M. Night Shyamalan bad; I’m talking that episode of Roald Dahl’s Tales Of The Unexpected with the bee-baby bad.

Up until 15 minutes ago, things had been going okay, more or less. I’d been immersed in getting the final rendering, editing and mix of my piece, that state of drudge-work which leaves you convinced there is nothing remotely imaginative or interesting in your music. My main points of reflection during this process were:

  • I need the instrument timbres to be clear….
  • but not so clear that it sounds like I’m playing keytar for Howard Jones!
  • These steady rhythms are really pissing me off now.
  • These irregular rhythms sound like slop.
  • Now I’m just aping Morton Feldman.
  • Better than Howard Jones, I guess.
  • I should just use something I’ve already made…
  • except that would show blatant contempt for my intended audience.
  • As soon as this is over, I swear I’m going to read the instructions for this software.
  • Let’s try transposing this passage one octave higher.
  • OH SHIIIIIIIIII

I have just discovered a basic error in my initial calculations for implementing the tuning in this piece. This means that everything I’ve done up to now is useless. Somehow, I had managed to listen to the two differently-tuned ranges of notes without ever hearing them both together. Everything will now have to be done over, from the top.

At least I know what it is I have to do, which is always the trickiest bit.

Bionic Ear Study No. 3

Friday 7 January 2011

Music For Bionic Ears is nearing completion for its premiere concert in February. Here’s a sample of one of the elements going into the final work.

Bionic Ear Study No. 3
(1′23″, 1.7 MB, mp3)

Music For Bionic Ears: A question of taste

Wednesday 5 January 2011

As an artsy-fartsy Modern Composer, one of the challenges of the Music For Bionic Ears project is having to come up with something that people might want to listen to. When the publicity for your upcoming gig promises a concert “designed to be enjoyed by both cochlear implant users and audiences with normal hearing,” you’re suddenly struck by a conundrum. How do you know whether or not the cochlear implant wearers are hearing something enjoyable in your music, when most “normal hearing” people don’t like your music anyway?

My music’s already been written up as using “bizarre scales”, and I have, on at least two occasions, been confronted face-to-face with the question What Is This Shit? So for this piece, should I try to write something (shudder) “accessible”, or carry on doggedly clutching my copy of “Who Cares if You Listen?” At least I can console myself that the tunings I’m using, which may sound off to most people, seem to sound pretty normal to implant users.

This is the quandary I’ve been facing since visiting the Bionic Ear Institute in Melbourne last November. While I was in town I got to see the (fantastic) launch concert for the CD Artefacts of Australian experimental music: volume 2. One of the composers on the CD, Sarah Hopkins, played her music on whirly tubes. As well as her own works, she performed Amazing Grace. Yeah, it’s simple and obvious, but whirly tubes play only notes in the harmonic series. In other words, it’s not in conventional tuning but a “bizarre scale” similar to the scale I’m using in this particular piece.

The scale is also very similar to one used by Ben Johnston, a composer with over 50 years’ experience of writing music in alternative tunings. His best known piece? A set of microtonal variations on Amazing Grace. This string quartet marked a changed in his style, from the more abstracted idioms of the post-war avant-garde, to using familiar harmony and melody as a foundation on which to build sophisticated elaborations on the physics of sound.

Although my music is still very different, I’m using these examples as a reminder of how I would like my music to be heard: I don’t want it to be easy, but I want it to be clear.

Music For Bionic Ears: Media update and the romance of composition

Tuesday 21 December 2010

The Melbourne Age has published an article today about Music for Bionic Ears:

In February, the audience will get to hear the culmination of his experimental musical dialogue when [Robin] Fox and five other composers perform a selection of works at the Arts Centre created especially for the 1000 or so Victorian Cochlear implant recipients.

It will be a concert like no other; the deaf as well as those with normal hearing will be gathered together listening to the same music. While it is difficult to know how it is going to be interpreted by those wearing the device, Fox said: ”Hopefully, it will be a shared musical experience. Those with normal hearing will be able to discuss it together afterwards with those that are hearing-impaired.”

In the meantime, I’m getting stuck into making the finished piece for the February concert:

As you can see, the creative process is a thrilling mix of heady inspiration and unbridled fun.

Acoustic beats electronic, every time.

Wednesday 15 December 2010

Underneath all the music I make, there’s a problem nagging away at me. Whatever I do will always be second-rate because of one fatal mistake: I’m working with electronics instead of acoustic instruments.

Have you had this experience? You’re at a gig, someone with a laptop or decks, hi-tech or low-tech gizmos, and you’re into it, thinking to yourself that it all sounds damn good. Then for the next act some old bloke comes on with a penny whistle or ukelele or whatever and blows the room away.

It’s not just that we’re impressed by the visible effort – the ‘work’ – going into the music that is usually less evident in electronic music: the whole experience is tangibly different, more engaging, more exciting. I can’t explain in any satisfactory way why it always has to be like this.

Coincidentally, while procrastinating from writing this I just read a quote from Jeff Harrington:

I find that electronic music has a real problem to it, because, at this point, there is no good way to get across the kind of energy and vitality that the performer brings to acoustic music.

I don’t think that really gets to the heart of this problem, without understanding exactly what is meant when we talk about energy and vitality in music.

And I don’t think it’s all down to the performer either. There’s something in the natures of the two media that will always put acoustic music at an advantage, at least in a live setting. (I suspect I’d rather listen to recordings of boring acoustic music than of boring electronic music, but I’m reluctant to test this theory.)

One time I was playing a gig with live analogue electronics, spontaneously generated, no samples, nothing canned or taped. The air was alive with fresh, new, exciting sounds. As I wound up the piece with a flourish and the last sound ebbed away, a loose cymbal on another act’s percussion rig behind me slid to the floor with a resonant crash, capping off my whole set. The punters laughed and cheered. Acoustic beats electronic, every time.

Music For Bionic Ears: Concert Dates!

Saturday 11 December 2010

The Music For Bionic Ears project now has a confirmed concert date and venue:

Interior Design: Music for the Bionic Ear
George Fairfax Theatre, The Arts Centre, Melbourne
13 February 2011, 5.30pm or 8pm (the concert is repeated)
Tickets: $25 (Concession $15).
There will also be a 7pm lecture for ticket holders.

The premiere of six new musical works written specifically for reception through the cochlear implant:
Robin Fox
Natasha Anderson
Rohan Drape
Eugene Eugetti
Ben Harper
James Rushford

Blurb follows:

Six of Australia’s foremost experimental music composers have been commissioned to research and test new sounds and musical forms both in the lab and with cochlear implant users themselves.

These tests have resulted in unique new approaches to the composition and diffusion of musical ideas and sensations. The concert is designed to be enjoyed by both cochlear implant users and audiences with normal hearing.

There are over 1000 Bionic Ear users in Victoria today. For these people the Bionic Ear brings sound into a previously silent world, and for the most part allows them to converse with friends and family. However, listening to live music can be a difficult, or even annoying experience!

INTERIOR DESIGN: Music for the Bionic Ear aims to start addressing that problem. Prepare to be challenged by what you hear and be careful not to make assumptions about what others might experience!

Music For Bionic Ears: A Moment of Truth

Wednesday 17 November 2010

It’s a strange experience, having to play your music to an audience of one and waiting to find out their response, face to face. Even stranger, when they know nothing about your music; stranger still when you know they’re not hearing what you’re hearing.

On Monday I got to meet four cochlear implant wearers at the Bionic Ear Institute, as part of the Music For Bionic Ears project. They had differing levels of ability in perceiving music, and of experience in hearing and playing music. I played each of them my Study No. 2 and finally got some feedback on whether or not my experiments would have any positive effect.

The new tuning system seemed to work surprisingly well. The types of chords, and the processed organ sound I had used, weren’t as cluttered and muddy as I feared they might be. All four reported that they could hear chords and harmonies clearly, and that the sounds were, for the most part, pleasant to hear. (By pleasant, I mean that too much muddled sonic information tends to sound like white noise to implant wearers.)

It seemed almost too good to be true when a couple of listeners responded that they could identify the organ sound, hear distinct chords and harmonies, and moreover enjoy them. Previously, they had not found these types of sounds pleasant. This was a much better reaction than I had hoped. It seems that using a just intonation scale instead of standard equal temperament has a big effect on how implant wearers hear music. This could be a useful path of inquiry to follow, examining whether equal temperament is an obstacle to music perception and which tuning systems are clearest.

All listeners could identify the organ sound, although some also heard other instruments in the mix. This may have been due to the synthesised nature of the sound, and the other electronic treatments I had made. There are other aesthetic and philosophical implications to whether or not timbral recognition will be an issue in the finished piece, which I should follow up in a separate post shortly.

The piece I played was not focussed too much on melody, relying instead on presenting a succession of distinct sounds with varied loudness, duration, and harmonic complexity. Implant wearers often have a problem in detecting the small steps between notes that usually make up a melody, so it will be interesting to see if a different tuning has any effect. Alternatively, my piece may continue to work in a way that is less reliant on melody.

The Hearing Organised Sound blog has more information about the meeting, with further details about what the other composers in the project are up to. Their approaches are all quite different and are finding out other details I am now trying to take on board.

Music For Bionic Ears: One Sight, Two Sounds

Wednesday 3 November 2010

There was a little segment about the Music For Bionic Ears project on Australian TV recently, which can be watched online. (I can see it in the UK, so I guess everyone can.)

I’ve uploaded two of the studies I’ve made for the project for you to listen to, working with the 16-tone tuning system.
Bionic Ear Study No. 1
Bionic Ear Study No. 2

Study No. 1 was made by filtering white noise into the 22 frequency bands used in the design of a cochlear implant. This was done using a filtered granular synthesis contraption in AudioMulch. The filtered sounds produced were mimicked by a (virtual) piano, retuned to the 16-tone scale. The sounds you can hear in the study are a mix of the white noise, the piano, and either or both sounds reproduced through the cochlear implant simulator devised by Robin Fox.

Study No. 2 examines the various harmonies that can be produced with the scale. Using only one instrument (electric organ), a sequence of chords and single tones are played in a variable rhythm. Certain pitches, with frequencies that straddled a pair of electrodes, were shifted up or down an octave. This sequence was fed back into the same AudioMulch filter used in Study No. 1, which plays back differing amounts of the original and filtered organ.

What next? Study No. 1 is very rudimentary and serves as a preliminary map of the type of soundworld I am dealing with. Study No. 2 was a demonstration of harmonic combinations that are possible. In the latter piece, I suspect that the combination of chords used and the organ sound will come across as too cluttered in the more rigidly-defined sound structure of the implants. The piece I am working on now uses the following principles:

  • Implant wearers report being able to understand speech very well. I’m using a speaking voice as a sort of key, or guide, to the music. This includes filtering and processing the voice in different ways, and deriving melody and rhythm from speech patterns.
  • Using lighter instrumental timbres with simpler sounds.
  • Building textures that sound active, without becoming dense.

Bits I can remember from Saturday’s talk by Helmut Lachenmann

Thursday 28 October 2010

Composition is largely an act of constructing an instrument.

 

Emotion arises in the conflict between the structure of the music and the structure of the listener.

 

Growing up during The War, you would turn on the radio and hear an announcer valorising the dead of Stalingrad for their sacrifice in defense of the Fatherland, followed by Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. When the death of the Führer was announced it was followed by the Siegfrieds Tod. Music was used as a tool to remove thought. This was the millieu of the post-war avant-garde.

 

Favourite title is Morton Feldman’s The Viola in My Life.

 

“There are no electronics in my life.”

 

The piano doesn’t play the melody, the melody plays the piano.

 

Study with Nono was impossible. Everything was an imperialist relic of capitalist oppression. One note followed by another note was a melody, which was bourgeois. How could he work himself free from these strictures? [cf. Feldman telling his students he wanted to make composition impossible for them.]

 

Teaching about beauty in art to class of schoolchildren, he brought in a photograph of Gina Lollobrigida and a print of Albrecht Dürer’s mother and asked which was more beautiful. The class hesitated, unsure of what answer he wanted to hear. One girl whispered to her friend, “The ugly one’s more beautiful.”