Music since 1960: Ferneyhough: Cassandra’s Dream Song

Forty years of modern composition and what this music means to me

Index here.

Brian Ferneyhough. One of those names that strikes fear into performers and audiences alike. Ferneyhough is the senior figure of a group of composers who are sometimes linked together under the name ‘New Complexity’. Other members of the group include Michael Finnissy, Richard Barrett, Chris Dench and James Dillon; it’s a loose group musically, but it is the notational complexity of their scores that has given rise to the name.

Here’s an example of some Ferneyhough (taken from the last page of this Italian article on ‘The Concept of Ornament in Music’). For what it’s worth, he’s probably the toughest of the new complexity group; Time and Motion Study II for solo cello is one of the most notation-heavy scores you’re ever likely to see, with the solo performer having to negotiate several simultaneous staves for cello and the effects pedals and electronics the instrument and the performer’s body are wired up to. I think they’re some of the most beautiful scores written, and although they are not, strictly speaking, graphic scores (everything in them accords exactly to the familiar rules of notation, even if this is pushed to its limit), there’s no doubt that the visual image is a crucial part of the musical effect. His music is, in many ways, about tension. OK, most music is about tension on one level, but Ferneyhough makes the creation and manipulation of extreme levels of tension central to so much of his work. Just think how tense a player must feel trying to navigate this stuff in live performance. It is music truly on the edge. Although his music owes a great deal to the serial procedures of Boulez and Stockhausen, and the 1950s avant garde they spearheaded, a lot of Ferneyhough’s earlier music, like Cassandra, struggled with articulating form in ways that the avant garde had failed to do. Much of this involves a sophisticated approach to time, but what Ferneyhough also brought out of the avant garde was a sense of theatre and musical drama. In turning the new performance challenges of avant garde music to his own ends, he returned the performer-score relationship to centre stage.

As a result, several of Ferneyhough’s earlier scores are for solo performers, and Cassandra belongs to this group. It is for solo flute – a favoured instrument in Ferneyhough’s output. I couldn’t find an image of the score online, but the extract from Unity Capsule linked above (also for flute) gives you an idea.

As with so many composers, I first became fascinated with Ferneyhough when I saw a page from one of his scores. He’s cropped up on a few occasions throughout my work, even though I’ve always been daunted by the note-to-note detail of his music, and the equally tough theoretical position the composer shrouds himself in. Cassandra was a work I analysed as a Masters student – to the initial anxiety of my tutor – but which I think I did OK on. Why did I choose this piece, when several easier examples were suggested to me? Again, because of those intoxicating scores. The draftsmanship is exquisite, and any analysis of Ferneyhough would have to follow suit; I was always a great (if cynical) believer in the value of presentation to the success of any analysis, and the chance to transcribe and pick over a work of Ferneyhough was too much to resist.

The results of that analysis are too meaningless to give any exposure to, but what I love about Ferneyhough is the tightrope he walks between ultra-modern control and postmodern freedom (hence that Steve Reich essay I’ve mentioned before). Large chunks of his music – particularly the solo works – sound like free improv, and yet (and crucially you know this) they’re highly organised, extremely precise and demanding scores. There’s a sense of theatre that Ferneyhough ekes out because the music is so difficult to play – the Time and Motion series of pieces were all about exploring the ‘efficiency’ of music. Is anything to be gained from expending huge amounts of compositional energy on writing this music, then making similarly huge demands on your performers, when the result could, arguably, have come from improvisation? Passionately Ferneyhough would argue yes, and so would I. With improv, you can always doubt the commitment of the players (the best players are deservedly respected, but you know what I mean – how can we be sure they’re not doing this half-arsed); with Ferneyhough, there’s no doubt about commitment. It’s all or nothing. Steven Schick, percussionist for the Bang On A Can Allstars has written of his six month odyssey to learn Ferneyhough’s Bone Alphabet; that’s how much commitment is required. It’s an original and fruitful take on composition, and one that draws so much more into the performance of a work than simple reproduction of a composer’s instructions; it’s hard to imagine future re-re-re-recordings of the same old lazy interpretations of Ferneyhough works, a fate that too much great music is burdened with today.

What of Cassandra’s Dream Song itself? Well, it’s an unusual work for Ferneyhough in that it employs an open, mobile form. The score is on two large sheets, each with a handful of short musical sections. Starting on sheet one, you alternate between the two sheets, a section at a time. The catch is that sheet one is to be played in order, sections 1-6, sheet two in any order. It’s a bit like that disrupted narrative effect that I mentioned with reference to Lutoslawski in an earlier post. Within the extremely tight constrictions of the notation and the density of his musical argument, Ferneyhough thus introduces an element of freedom – both choice for the performer, but also in subverting the musical structure he has set in motion.

All of this aside, what I enjoy most about Cassandra are the surprises it deals out. In the opening section, a sphincter-tight study on the note A suddenly and briefly transforms into an F major arpeggio. For a second, it almost sounds like Jesus Christ Superstar, albeit played on ‘quasi-pizzicato’ percussive tongue clicks. Then there are the moments of pure lyricism – as the piece progresses, the melodic space opens, and flirts with not-quite tonality, but at least a pitch-centred organisation. By the time we reach section 5, the grace note runs and flurries are almost Debussy-like.

Ferneyhough is a greatly misunderstood, often feared, composer. I think he’d be horrified were he to gain any widespread acceptance, but that’s not really the point of this post. The point is to suggest that once we make the leap past the superficially daunting aspects of contemporary music, there is simple, sensuous, human pleasure to be found on the other side. Cassandra’s Dream Song is, in spite of its robust compositional method, music of fragile beauty. This relationship between strength and fragility goes to the heart of the work and is what makes it so successful.

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2 comments

  1. Hi!

    I am a flutist, and I am now working on Cassandra. I really enjoy the piece, and I would be very happy if you would send me some of the stuff you found out in your analysis.

    Kind regards
    Marianne Hafsaas

  2. I have to thank you for the efforts you have put in penning
    this website. I am hoping to see the same high-grade
    blog posts by you later on as well. In fact, your creative writing abilities
    has motivated me to get my own, personal site now ;)


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