In my review of the Barbican’s Total Immersion day on Brian Ferneyhough I mentioned that “few composers impose themselves on my mind or day-to-day perception to quite such an extent”. Which is to say that I know of few composers whose music I find superficially inexplicable but which nevertheless impresses itself so firmly on my consciousness. That’s an intoxicating and intriguing paradox. Major new Ferneyhough experiences quite often leave me in a distracted and slightly troubled state of mind for several days afterwards, particularly as I try to assimilate what I’ve heard through repeated listenings.
That was the case when I reviewed ELISION’s Ferneyhough portrait CD last year – iTunes reports that I listened to each piece more than a dozen times and I have pages of notes for at least one (now abandoned) article on the nature of musical complexity that I wrote at the same time as a way of trying to organise my responses. The review itself is only a passing glimpse of all of that.
This has also been the case since Saturday. I’ve not been compelled to revisit that complexity article, but I have been mentally worrying at the threads of Plötzlichkeit and La terre est un homme rugs to see what will unravel.
One thing does become apparent after listening a few times to La terre est un homme and allowing the dust to settle: this is an excellent performance by the BBC SO. Establishing ‘accuracy’ in a piece like this is hardly the point, but some things are clearly audible and all of it is essential to the work’s effectiveness. There are plenty of occasions, for example, when the texture thins from the available 101 voices to just a couple of dozen. At one point a sparkle of flutes springs out of the mass. Every note of that sounds absolutely deliberate, none of it faked or fluffed. And there is a perceptible continuity of commitment and intention between these passages and the unparsable wall-of-sound bits. Everything matters. The general and the particular. The earth, a man. In one of the most beautiful lines to come out of the press criticism of the day, Guy Dammann described “a seething macrocosm of souls struggling against the odds to grace mere survival with meaning,” and that image is unmistakably there in this performance.
I may have done the BBC SO a disservice when I suggested in Plötzlichkeit that “the greater colour palette afforded by the orchestra in fact just gave rise to heaviness and immobility.” Their playing, listening back, is not as heavy as it felt at the time, and seems pretty damn light in some places (especially at the end). I’m still not convinced the piece works, but I’m growing to like more and more patches of it as I go along. And there may be connections back to works like Sonatas, but this does sound like a very different brand of Ferneyhough from the more well-known one. There are passages of straight-up repetition, for example, solo/accompaniment writing in the brass insert, a deep attention to colour, a concern for orchestration (as opposed to part-writing), and so on.
Another of Ferneyhough’s works in which the musical continuum is sliced into many highly differentiated fragments is Les froissements d’ailes de Gabriel, featured on that ELISION disc. In that work the object, broadly speaking, is to create a musical thread that is impossible to assimilate, such that barely grasped recollections and images pile up in the memory, like the detritus of history, to be sorted through on some as-yet-undetermined future occasion. As I have listened over and over to Plötzlichkeit it has become clear that the time slices in this piece are comparatively much more expansive. They don’t all rush past before they can be recognised. They have a greater presence, they make a deeper imprint. This goes back, perhaps, to my initial reaction of heaviness and immobility, but it seems now like part of the essential character of the piece: Ferneyhough often talks in terms of material having a particular temporal space in which it is most comfortable and here he seems to increase that level of comfort in comparison to that in Les froissements.
The next question is, of course: now that the orchestra has gone to so much trouble to get these two works under their fingers, can we expect an official recording any time soon?
Image – Swallow Dive by pic fix, on Flickr