Brian Ferneyhough: String Quartet no. 2

performed by the Arditti Quartet

Brian Ferneyhough may well be one of the most important composers to emerge from the latter half of this century. Simultaneously famous and infamous, he is a controversial figure of world renown, bent on making the most out of music.

Ross Alan Feller
“Multicursal Labyrinths in the Work of Brian Ferneyhough”

Brian John Peter Ferneyhough was born on 16 January 1943 in Coventry. He studied at the Birmingham School of Music and at the Royal Academy of music under Lennox Berkeley. He was awarded the Mendelssohn Scholarship in 1968, something that may seem shocking if you’ve ever listened to his music, and this led to his being able to study in Amsterdam and Basel. He taught at the Hochschule für Musik Freiburg, as well as U.C. San Diego, and later at Stanford. He also lectured at Darmstadt.

I want to talk very briefly about the kinds of things that interest me in music. I’ve mentioned it before, recently in an article about a Robert Simpson piece, and elsewhere for sure. Be it Beethoven, Mahler, Shostakovich, Webern, Babbitt, Boulez, Chopin, Ravel, whoever. Something I love in music is structure, a logic, something that gives the piece meaning and organization. Liszt’s famous piano sonata, Webern’s symphony, Babbitt’s second string quartet, or Schoenberg’s first, Mahler’s eighth, Boulez’s Le Marteau. All of these works, no matter how they may sound at first, have some kind of underlying structure, no matter how simple or complicated, based on whatever approach to tonality, and are a critically important part of the work and how it unfolds. I love that.

Not only does it show a deep sense of organization, planning, and purpose, but it creates a wealth of information for the listener to discover, and the result is generally that it offers a deeper understanding of the work that engenders a greater appreciation for it.

Even music that may seem at first like chaos, like the Boulez or Webern or Babbitt pieces listed above, have their underlying purpose, organization, agenda, whatever, and that thrills me. Before I begin talking about Ferneyhough’s music, though, I’d like to share some interviews with him about his music, because listening to him talk about it (and not listening to the music itself) makes me think positively about and want to appreciate his work:

Well, I don’t think that’s the one I watched years ago, but at least he speaks briefly about his thoughts on the idea of an ‘impossible score’ and claims that he doesn’t write impossible music.

Ferneyhough is perhaps the foremost proponent of what came in the 1980s to be known as the “New Complexity” movement, what Christopher Fox says is a “complex, multi-layered interplay of evolutionary processes occurring simultaneously within every dimension of the musical material.” Well, that still sounds a little bit highbrow, so at the risk of sounding like a (New) oversimplification, the New Complexity, or more specifically Ferneyhough’s music, flirts with what happens when you push things to extremes. His discussion in the above interview of what’s impossible, to me at least, shows at least some fascination with that idea, and in some other video somewhere he says in so many words that that’s kind of where the magic happens, pushing performers to their limits, kind of a pioneer of that new territory, what’s possible, what can be created, and how at that apex of technical or musical complexity, each performance is bound to be different to a degree far greater than the individual differences in performance of, say, Mozart, Schoenberg, or Tchaikovsky.

Okay, that’s kind of cool and all, but if you haven’t yet, listen to the piece we’re discussing today.

Tom Service has a wonderful article introducing Ferneyhough and his work. I would suggest going to read it, and I will try to quote from it as little as possible, but I (or anyone) could scarcely write any better about it. Regarding discussions of Ferneyhough’s music in YouTube comments, he mentions “a typical new-music polemic, of “It sounds like a monkey throwing itself on the keyboard” versus “If you don’t get this, you’re a philistine”,” but also acknowledges “If you’re new to this music, though, you may need some help in decoding the score.” He’s speaking of a specific piece, but the same is true of Ferneyhough’s music overall. In fact, simply put, Service pinpoints what this complexity, ‘impossible’ music and its challenges mean for interpretation:

In fact, as hundreds of composers have discovered in the past, the more information you give for your performers to interpret, the more open-ended rather than fixed the work becomes, as every expressive mark becomes something that’s played and interpreted differently by each different performer.

That may strike some as an absolutely fascinating idea, even if it is more so in theory rather than practice, but Service makes a good point about the composer’s purpose. If Ferneyhough were so obsessive about detail and accuracy as some people seem to think, he would have turned to electronic music, an absolute surgical-precision type accuracy, which Babbitt experimented with in his career. Instead, though, Ferneyhough seems inspired by this idea of execution and interpretation. So does that help us appreciate his music any more? I don’t know.

The second quartet, from 1980, is one of the shorter works for quartet. His first, Sonatas for String Quartet, has a movement, however brief, for each letter of the Greek alphabet and comes to more than 40 minutes in performance time. The remaining four (no.s 3-6) range between 15 and 20 minutes, and Service calls his quartet cycle “one of the most important canons of string quartets in the entire literature.”

Let me be completely honest. When do I put this music on? Well, I’ve only really ever listened to the second quartet, that I can recalland it’s almost always been when I don’t want to listen to whatever else is going on around me, but am not in the mood or space to focus on enjoying something. Noise-cancellation, unfortunately.

However, there has been, I’ll say, an unexpected side effect of this, and it’s that I have absolutely zero expectations for the music. I’m not looking to enjoy it or seek some meaning from it. In my estimation, there is overall something kind of grotesque about the music: it shakes and contorts and writhes here and there, convulsing to life before slowing to a halt, only to awaken again. Blegh.

However, the more you listen, the more you hear interesting gestures, phrases, a certain lyrical gesture, a rhythm, that makes you say “Ooh, what’s that?” It’s like walking through a thrift store you might not even want to be in anyway and finding a few little gems, something weird like a miniature glass elephant or a letter opener in the shape of Medusa, or whatever, something that catches your eye, gets your attention, and that you’ll inevitably look for and recognize faster the next time you listen.

The score is available in the YouTube video, yes, but I haven’t followed it. I can’t, really. I’d like to believe that there’s some kind of development here, an exploration of a singular idea, be it a rhythmic figure, a notation, a musical motif, whatever, but I don’t know, and that’s why I haven’t really been motivated at all to listen to his other string quartets, but that’s also what I need to do.

The string quartet is such a fundamental part of the classical music literature. We know what a string quartet sounds like. Symphonies have different palettes of instruments and color and how they’re used, but at least the string quartet is always four instruments, those four instruments, so we know what we’re working with. Unfortunately for me, however, this quartet is what all of Ferneyhough’s music sounds like because I don’t know enough about it to differentiate. And that’s my fault, so maybe what I need to do is not listen to this work more, but listen to the others. That should provide more insight into what is unique about this piece among the others in his output.

Also, I may have discovered another reason I love music so much. With people, they say, familiarity breeds… contempt. But I’d say the opposite is true in music. With this piece, apophenia or not, another few dozen listens and I will likely find its quirks and clicks and chirps and squeals downright charming.

Service ends his article on Ferneyhough’s work with a statement about music in general.

One last thing: just what is it that Ferneyhough’s music has to tell us about the entire literature of western classical music? Well: that it’s all essentially unknowable – it is as difficult to answer the question of what Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony really is as what Lemma-Icon-Epigram might be, if you think about it for a second – and essentially experiential, revealed in all of its elusive but definitive power through the evanescent illumination of performance. In that fundamental sense, Ferneyhough’s music is no more and no less complex than any other classical music.

I may not necessarily agree with that (yet), but it’s certainly a wonderful sentiment, one that balances perceptions inclined to dismiss this New Complexity.

But that’s all there is to say about that, for now, sort of. Tomorrow’s work is a far more recent contribution to the string quartet literature, and finally the last piece in this long, very full series on English composers and their works, so please stay tuned. Thank you.

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