Update, 2 March: It was unplanned, but late February/early March became Ferneyhough fortnight on The Rambler, mostly thanks to the Barbican’s Total Immersion event on 26 February and ELISION’s concert of solo works on 7 March at Kings Place. This is the first post of several, including a review and after-review of Total Immersion itself.
I was surprised to hear that Brian Ferneyhough had been featured on this morning’s Today programme. I was less surprised when I listened myself on iPlayer at what a condescending three minutes of radio it was.
Here’s a recording of the relevant section:
You might say that some Ferneyhough over people’s breakfasts, no matter how you present it, is better than none. But I disagree, and here’s why.
The interview begins with the composer – who to my ears sounds like he’s losing patience with a tiresome line of questioning – advocating very simply and with complete honesty for what the presenter, Rebecca Jones, describes as his ‘dense, difficult and very demanding’ music:
BF: I don’t think I’m asking too much of people. It costs me a lot to write music too. Why shouldn’t I ask them to not just put their bums on a chair but to use what God gave them in their heads? After all, why is it me or people like me who always have to apologise and say oh well, it isn’t as complex you think it is it’s really actually much more popular and we’ll all sit down over a drink and I’ll explain it to you. No, it’s not like that at all.
RJ: Do you want to confuse your audiences?
BF: No. 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.
This was good stuff, a promising beginning. Let’s assume – since he’s the expert, the BBC has a commitment to broadening access to high culture, and this is supposed to be a plug for Saturday’s concerts anyway – that Ferneyhough isn’t brazenly lying here. That maybe there is something in wanting audiences to put some effort in (or at least let’s acknowledge that that’s a respectable stance for an artist to take), that perhaps listening to Ferneyhough might be like trying to hold onto a single thread in a chaotic world, that maybe suspending disbelief and taking a leap and finding something and holding it and treasuring it for your own is possibly an admirable – even thrilling – way to engage with a musical work. Let’s imagine how good that broadcast might have been.
And then let’s look at the trajectory of what actually happened:
- Fetishise the difficulty and impenetrability of the score of La terre est un homme.
- Use Psycho-like strings to underscore words like ‘daunting’, ‘struggle’ and ‘very demanding’. On the words ‘highly stressful’ cue big, swelling dissonance.
- Voice a rumour that the performers of the BBC SO were finding rehearsals very stressful, then pull an uncontextualised quote from Ferneyhough saying that no performance is perfect and why would we want that – ‘we could all go and shoot ourselves’.
- End with an audio snippet recorded in a practice room, and make it sound as amateurish and raspberry-like as possible.
In summary: Ferneyhough’s music is sinister, pointlessly difficult, causes stress and sounds a bit like farts. But at least it doesn’t give you cancer.
Look, I know this is a three-minute slot on a morning news programme, not half an hour on BBC4 late at night, but 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. Ironically, in the one passage in which Ferneyhough was allowed to speak for himself, he said this was exactly what he was reacting against and set out a clear description of how his music was a pathway to that intellectual freedom. A shame that Today’s producers didn’t think their listeners would be interested in taking that path.
In case you are, here’s a nice video of Ross Karre playing Bone Alphabet: