Ferneyhough gets the Today treatment

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:

  1. Fetishise the difficulty and impenetrability of the score of La terre est un homme.
  2. Use Psycho-like strings to underscore words like ‘daunting’, ‘struggle’ and ‘very demanding’. On the words ‘highly stressful’ cue big, swelling dissonance.
  3. 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’.
  4. 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:


41 thoughts on “Ferneyhough gets the Today treatment

  1. Actually those were some very enjoyable extracts and I might well “listen to it in my car”.

    I think Tim that you are mistaking the BBC in general and Radio 4 in particular for an intellectual high brow organisation, it isn’t really, it’s just a slightly left-wing middle aged X Factor with a tie on for the most part, IMHO. I remember the one and only review of new music on Newsnight Review, which was Birtwistle’s Minotaur and they did a similar kind of sneering hatchet-job.

    The problem is deeper though: for most people – i.e. those who don’t know anything about new music and expect all music to be a form of light entertainment – Ferneyhough sounds like a load of nutters playing random notes on their instruments. In the same way as for someone who doesn’t read books, Ulysses looks like a load of random words.

    It’s ironic that they are currently running an ad with the strapline to “Free your imagination”, i.e. read bestselling books, and it features such literary greats as Dan Brown. That isn’t freeing your imagination by any stretch, it’s like “freeing your palate” by eating a Big Mac.

    Compare and contrast this with the BBC’s breathless coverage of Anna Nicole, which I think went down better partly because the music isn’t of the “STFU and listen” variety of Ferneyhough and it’s got some nice easy listening influences, but mainly because it has a pair of giant tits and that’s bound to make the middle aged farts at the BBC pay attention!

    P.S. that viola player made me laugh – “the time signature changes on every beat!” – viola players, eh

    P.P.S I do think that there is a problem with extremely precise notation though, I mean it literally is impossible to play 27:29 or whatever, and players really resent being told that after decades of learning that they must play this in order to get an effect of complexity. We tried some Tenney in Radius and abandoned it for similar reasons as these musicians are complaining – you just can’t play with tuning written in cents and it soon feels pointless and not fun, even if the end effect is some kind of spiritual enlightenment for the listener. However this Ferneyhough does sound an awful lot more fun to play than the Tenney we tried was.

  2. I disagree – that episode of Newsnight Review, for example, also featured Mark Kermode talking about whatever the big film was that week: a critic who really knows his stuff (both in terms of cinematic technique and film history), has strong opinions and has the chops to present all of that in a way that isn’t terrifying to the average viewer but also doesn’t talk down to anyone. The BBC is obviously very prepared to take film criticism seriously. Why not contemporary music? (Or modern art for that matter.)

    Maybe my expectations for the BBC are too high, but journalistic integrity IS important to the organisation (at least outwardly so). I expect at least that basic level to be upheld.

    1. What a great blog this is. I’m so glad I discovered it.

      TimRJ, re Kermode: I agree, HE is excellent, but have you seen the cringefest which is the Friday review of films he does with Gavin Esler for the BBC News channel? He of course, is superb – informed, insightful, entertaining – but it’s Esler, as the voice of the corporate BBC, that is the source of the kkringe. Here you see him making excuses for Kermode, for his choices, his opinions, his expertise, embarrassed at his away-from-the-mainstream views (how sad that being informed is away from the mainstream!). This, to me, informs more about the BBC.

      1. Hi John – glad you found it!

        I haven’t seen Kermode and Esler, I’ll admit. But I’ve been listening on and off to Kermode and Simon Mayo on Radio5 for years and he gets much more freedom there.

  3. You have a point of course – the BBC takes every form of “high” art seriously, it seems (books, film, etc) but when it comes to music, they focus on rock music. I have seen quite a few rock albums reviewed on Newsnight Review, e.g. that GnR one that came out last year, I forget what it was called.

    This I think is because they want to focus on what’s popular, and new music just isn’t, nor is it in fact meant to be – it isn’t populIST in that sense, whereas a new book/film/album is always populist to an extent because it’s success depends on how many units are sold. These kind of serious reviewers like Kermode are just doing consumer stuff really, I bet (but I don’t know) that there are all kinds of very interesting artistic projects in the film world for example that aren’t mentioned by the BBC’s arts programmes because they aren’t packaged for consumers.

  4. I agree with you Tim. This sort of thing is pretty exasperating. They chose some less-than-ideal soundbites from Ferneyhough because their minds are made up that this stuff is ugly bullshit and they want to ridicule it. Poor old Brian – he must be sick of this kind of nonsense by now.

  5. In what sense is it ‘literally impossible’ to play 27:29, etc.? I can’t agree at all. BF’s point on the issue of playing something ‘perfectly’ was the most interesting part of the Today clip – the idea of there being some quasi-Platonic ideal of the work, which is ‘right’, independently of any particular realisation in performance, is based upon a very narrow notion of the role of notation in this type of music (or many other types as well).

    1. Yes and amen. Can we please remove the idea of ‘perfect’ performance from the world? It denies and encourages the repression of the humanity of all involved. I think we would have a lot more happy and fulfilled listeners, performers, and composers if we started to look at things this way.

  6. Furthermore, I don’t believe that such indications are employed simply ‘in order to get an effect of complexity’; rather they are a strategy for channeling rhythms away from more familiar metrical patterns.

    1. I agree that this is a strategy for “channeling rhythms away from more familiar metrical patterns”, but there are a number of alternative strategies with less dense notations available for achieving the same field of results. Is there a good argument for this strategy in particular?

      1. My sense – and this is speaking purely as a listener – is that it not only channels away from, but also into something specific. Being able to tell that there is intention behind the results (not just in a global sense, but also in terms of the relative energies/trajectories etc of that particular moment) is important. Or it seems so to me at least.

  7. Ian – I was talking along these lines with someone yesterday: it would be great to hear more from performers who play music like this and who – rather than see it as a stressful chore – relish the challenge its restrictions present to their own expressive capabilities. (The viola player in this clip may even have said as much herself in an unused part of the interview.) After all, performers perform in order to express, just as composers compose.

    (Completely agree with your second comment, by the way.)

  8. Hello Ian!

    Well you are a genius player, I’ve had the pleasure of hearing you, so maybe you are someone who could play 27:29 but … I don’t know. Playing it very slowly might be harder than playing it very fast. And doing it on your own with a piano might be easier than doing it in an orchestra, doing 27 on your flute while the trombonist behind you is playing 29…! In any case I would bet that it wouldn’t be particularly accurate any more than a violinist trying to play precisely 51 cents sharp would be accurate (as was the case in the Tenney I referred to earlier).

    So therefore if you can accept that, then what’s the point other than for what I call “the effect of complexity” and you call “a strategy for channeling rhythms away from more familiar metrical patterns”?

    1. @Tim Benjamin

      I’m speaking for myself here, but I think it is important to note the relationship between the ways the Ferneyhough composes, (i.e., setting up a obstacles or, I believe he calls them ,”stumbling blocks” in the material in which he has to “bang his head against” or make certain compromises within) and the sort of performance practice that some of his work requires.

      It seems like the last thing that Ferneyhough is interested in doing is using the performer as a means to “recite” the score; but instead he is interested in complexities of learning, especially in learning something with such a high degree of information. In Unity Capsule, for example, the density of information is so rich that the performer is probably, at times, required to create a self-hierarchization of the parameters and to be aware of the consequences of these decisions (or maybe compromises) have on the rest of the piece. The strategy then seems to reflect the entire idea of interpretation. Really, it’s a quite beautiful idea.

      There are two great articles written on this very subject one being Frank Cox’s “Notes Toward a Performance Practice for Complex Music” and the other about the piece linked above being Steven Schick’s “Developing an Interpretive Context: Learning Brian Ferneyhough’s Bone Alphabet.”

      1. Hi Alex,

        I was a bit troubled by your reply so I have tried to do a bit of research. Not having access to the academic resources (I guess) other posters here will have, I’ve still managed to read a few interviews with Ferneyhough and find a score of Unity Capsule.

        From the interviews I have read, the point of this extreme “precision” of notation is to get the performer to not make assumptions based on their individual musical training / tradition / background, and to ensure that the score is performed precisely as the composer intended. See for example the interview extract here. He seems to say that in a lot of new music, the performer “is all too often reduced to putting the right notes in the right place with little sense of the larger perspective which would make it all make sense to him”. He then seems to say that his extreme amount of definition could “come to replace” traditional interpretation.

        OK so this extreme definition could result in two practical outcomes, as far as I can tell. The performer is presented with a formidable technical challenge, and either:
        1) fails to do as the composer instructed (as I am sure will always be the case, looking at Unity Capsule) or
        2) performs exactly, like a robot, what the composer intended.

        The interesting thing is whether (1) is secretly what the composer wanted in the first place. If he wanted (2) he might as well use a computer, as it would be an insult to any professional musician to expect an exact performance (and anyway, what is “pppp” at the beginning supposed to mean? a bit quieter than “ppp”? it’s quite imprecise…). If he secretly wants (1) but claims to insist on (2) then this seems almost pointless to me. Here we have the BBC Symphony Orchestra labouring for endless expensive publically-funded hours to reproduce the fine detail on this A1-sized score, with not even the performers enjoying the process because they aren’t allowed to bring any of their interpretive experience to bear and their hard-won technical skills always come up short against the impossible demands of the compser. But it was just a trick! A way to get the stupid performers to break out of their traditional mould!

        It is a shame if so, because the music itself sounds full of excitement and energy. I found the Bone Alphabet above mesmerising and intriguing, full of seemingly just-below-the-surface-but-impossible-to-see structure and meaning – in a good way, like a Mona Lisa smile. Whether the deliberately over-complicated notation is the cause of this, or whether it’s actually the interpretive background and experience of the performer that delivers, I don’t know. Good jazz also has this “Mona Lisa” effect and you couldn’t get more simple than some of the charts you get given in big bands sometimes – it’s ALL interpretation. If you tried to write it down you might end up with something like a Ferneyhough score, but you certainly couldn’t then restore the original performance from that score by playing off it. Try to write down a swing rhythm, or just write two quavers and “swung” above it, and see which works best with a clued-up player.

        I too would be interested to hear some more opinions of people who have to (as part of their job, rather than particularly choose to) play this “new complexity”. I am occasionally paid to play professionally – though mostly in big band jazz and as a paid extra in good amateur orchestras – and we do try our best to deliver what the composer wants when we are faced with a new piece. Most players aren’t Philistines (though they exist) and do want to give new music a fair chance. But to feel “tricked” by the composer in the way described above… that would really piss people off, I think.

        Perhaps someone can, if they have time, post some more on this subject, or at least post some links to scholarly articles that the man on the street can access?

  9. I think there’s a wider issue of general journalistic culture here. How many journos do any of us know who are well enough informed about this music to write about it authoritatively, or even sensibly? You’ll find the same attitude to other off-the-beaten-track issues in other fields. Ho-ho-ho plinky-plonk modern music. Ha-ha-ha Hugo Chavez. Tee-hee-hee Abstract Expressionism. Science reporting? Let’s not EVEN GO THERE. Journalists are by definition not experts (although many of them like to think they are – how does “Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent” sound?). Perhaps they come below teachers on the “Those that can” scale…

    Sadly they also have a Massive Amount of Clout, being able to reach minds and influence thinking more than most anyone else. In this sense a lot of this bad reporting is just plain irresponsible.

  10. The new documentary on the 6th Quartet deals with the necessary rationalization of the notation-it’s the first stage of the rehearsal process and enables the work to be coordinated. It was interesting to see the kind of things which BF emphasized when working with the players.

  11. It was shown as part of the Ferneyhough symposium but I hope it has a life beyond that!
    There’s a brand new documentary on the no less complicated music of Milton Babbitt,which can be seen on Youtube. Once again,valuable footage of the composer in rehearsal and performance challenges are touched upon.

  12. It’s interesting to see the far greater patience (bordering occasionally on reverence) that has been accorded Radiohead’s new album, which has also been described as “difficult”. With Radiohead, “difficulty” is taken as a signal that it is worth patient exploration. With Ferneyhough, the difficulty seems to be sensationalised, with the image of the lone wild-haired boffin hovering over the conversation.

  13. Hmm… listening to the item again just makes me angry.

    Your dissection of what’s going on is pretty spot on, Tim, thanks for it.

    I think there is a broader problem even in the ‘high[er]-brow’ parts of the BBC and equivalent cultural arbiters such as newspaper reviews, namely that ‘difficult’ is used in an off-hand way that is probably shorthand for dry, boring, possibly academic [another meaningless shorthand] and, in the final balance, bad — or is certainly often read that way. What is probably the case is that the work requires active audience engagement — what Ferneyhough describes as the need for the audience ‘to use what God gave them in their heads’. This kind of engagement is also systematically absent from many critics’ and journalists’ writing, as their turnaround times are so often woefully brief. (Or is that to excuse them too easily?)

  14. Was it just me or did that snippet at the end sound ok? I have no expectations from the middlebrow pap Radio 4 trade in.

    But at least it sounds like the most promising edition of ‘Hear and Now’ in an age.

    Kermode has displayed much of the same anti-contemporary prejudices, btw – when ‘Zidane’ was screened he was bothered by the concept behind it in the first place with seemingly no reasoning, instead preferring to state a prejudice against the use of video art in cinema. Can’t say I trust the guy.

  15. I heard it too. The audio snippet at the end was very annoying – a bit like The Today Programme itself. How can I put it? It likes to present itself a talk-radio equivalent of a broadsheet but, when it gets down to it, the results are, more often than not, tabloid.

  16. Even I, a member of the benighted BBC4 proletariat, found the interview pretty condescending, particularly the “interview” with the viola player.

    I rely on Tim’s blog to point me gently to new, new music. I go willingly, if timidly, into the unknown country. I’d rather not be ambushed by Radio 4, over a bowl of slightly left-wing middle aged X Factor style shredded wheat.

    To those of us unschooled in new music it is pretty dense and impenetrable. So a three minute slot edited to marshal performer, conductor and composer to reinforce the density and impenetrability does little to encourage exploration. Poor show BBC.

  17. Yesterday, Radiohead of all people got the same treatment. Was their new album any good? A short burst of the new album, followed by interviews: the interviewee against the album was Andy Kershaw. The interviewer began (words to the effect that) “Now Andy, I understand you’ve not actually listened to the album, but…” Kershaw then spent a couple of minutes slagging off the album.

  18. The current reporting of the nuclear situation in Japan probably bears even less scrutiny than Today’s inane feauture on Ferneyhough.
    Alas,that is the nature of these things-it’s rarely that topics are covered which we have an expertise/intense passion for.

  19. If certain critics were as clear-sighted as they are malignant, how great would be the benefit to be derived from their writings! SHELLEY (1817)

  20. Ferneyhough’s music and actions have never gotten the type of probing reviews that they should actually have received.

    Instead he’s received praise and recognition from modernist minority performers; giving him a false sense of security.

    Personally I dislike his pretentious unfounded alien-styled unhumane chaotic pseudo-random material, which exists only for it’s own sake and creates sensory responses that are not of the composer’s intention, but just happen to occur.
    Make no mistake: Ferneyhough is no real composer; and the fact that this has never been accordingly stated or criticised shows the times in which we live: Feed the people any rubbish, with just a hint of added intellectual superiority and they’ll believe it and worship you ‘message’.

  21. slight correction…
    “Feed the people any rubbish, with just a hint of added intellectual/spiritual or other implication… and they’ll believe it and worship your ‘message’.”

  22. That should set the cat among the pigeons 🙂

    I wouldn’t personally go so far as to call him “no real composer”, there are surely hordes of people who would deserve that insult – whatever it is supposed to mean – before Ferneyhough.

    I respect the man’s work for at the very least it’s sheer bloody-mindedness, but as I think I said above somewhere, what comes out of the performance is often some good music that I like to listen to – by accident or design I don’t know, however. But considering a composer as an “instigator”, Ferneyhough surely a “real” one, and a pretty good one at that.

    On the other hand, just because someone is published by X, has tenure at University Y, and once received a grant from Z certainly doesn’t make them a good composer, it just makes them a tool of the establishment. Not that I necessarily accuse BF of this.

  23. I don’t know what the funniest part of this is, but it might be the thing about all the instruments PLAYING AT THE SAME TIME!

    I can just imagine Brian’s face.

    1. I guess another funny thing is the comment above by the guy who (a) says Brian isn’t a composer, and (b) misspells “its.”

  24. Personally I dislike his pretentious unfounded alien-styled inhumane chaotic pseudo-random material, which exists only for it’s own sake and creates sensory responses that are not of the composer’s intention, but just happen to occur.
    Make no mistake: Ferneyhough is no real composer; and the fact that this has never been accordingly stated or criticized shows the times in which we live: Feed the people any rubbish, with just a hint of added intellectual superiority and they’ll believe it and worship you ‘message’.

    … Ferneyhough… the charlatan king of pretentious wishful implication

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