Three releases from Huddersfield Contemporary Records

Founded in 2009, Huddersfield Contemporary Records (HCR) continues to go from strength to strength. Not only as a showcase for what is surely now the powerhouse for new music in UK academe, but as a record label in its own right.

Ending today (30 September), NMC is offering 20% off all HCR releases. Get yours now.

To help you on your way, here are reviews of the three most recent releases.

Diego Castro Magas: Shrouded Mirrors (HCR10 CD)


The Chilean guitarist Diego Castro Magas is a PhD candidate in performance at Huddersfield. A former student of Oscar Ohlsen, Ricardo Gallén and Fernando Rodríguez, he has in the last decade or so become a specialist in contemporary repertoire (his first release, in 2009, featured the first recording of Ferneyhough’s guitar duet no time (at all), with his Chilean colleague José Antonio Escobar).

A performer clearly keen to push his instrument’s repertory to its limit (witness his remarkable realisation of a kind of nostalgia, written for him by the composer Michael Baldwin), on Shrouded Mirrors he takes on more conventional challenges – in whatever sense music by James Dillon, Brian Ferneyhough, Michael Finnissy and some of their younger admirers, Bryn Harrison, Wieland Hoban and Matthew Sergeant, might be considered ‘conventional’.

Hoban’s Knokler I (2009) takes perhaps the most radical approach, using a multi-stave tablature notation and a very low scordatura to distort the sound and physical familiarity of the guitar as much as possible. Based on a poem by the Norwegian poet Tor Ulven, it emphasises the physicality of the guitar (knokler meaning bones in Norwegian), as well as the poem’s collage of images. But whereas many composers working in this fashion (including some of those on this CD) produce music of sharp prickles and vertiginous drops, Hoban writes a queasy, unpredictable melting that is distinctive and strangely attractive.

Sergeant’s bet maryam (2011) is a characteristic blend of the headlong and the eldritch, and (like other works by Sergeant) takes its title from an Ethiopian church – this one a small, rock-hewn building on the Labilela World Heritage site. A feature of the church is a pillar that is reputedly inscribed with the Ten Commandments, the story of the excavation of Labilela, and the story of the beginning and end of the world. Deemed too dangerous for mortal eyes, however, the pillar has been veiled since the 16th century, which Sargeant’s piece expresses through the use of a melodic cycle within the piece that is variously exposed or veiled.

Also notable is Bryn Harrison’s M.C.E. (2010), which is quite the loveliest Harrison piece I have heard in some time. Perhaps a source of its particular expressive clarity is that it is named after M.C. Escher, an artist whose work shares much with Harrison’s own.

Of the pieces by the three ‘senior’ composers, Ferneyhough’s Kurze Schatten II has been recorded several times. I know two versions by Geoffrey Morris, released in 1998 (on Etcetera with ELISION) and by the Australian Broadcasting Company in 2000. Castro Magas’s version is the slowest of all three (a relative term), and as a result contains more space; but it also features sharper angles between the music’s intersecting planes (most clearly heard in the third movement’s tapestry of knocks and stabs). The result is more fragmentary, an emphasis found more explicitly in Ferneyhough’s later music, and a thrilling take on a familiar work. Finnissy’s Nasiye (1982, rev. 2002) dates from the period when the composer was writing many solo works based on folk musics from around the world. Nasiye is based on a Kurdish folkdance, which gradually emerges, movingly and with great dignity, from the deeply personalised context Finnissy has given it. The album’s title piece was composed in 1987 by James Dillon, and is a proper slice of old-school complexity, given eloquent justification by Castro Magas’s playing.

Philip Thomas: Beat Generation Ballads (HCR11 CD)


At Huddersfield, Castro Magas’s supervisor is Philip Thomas – a pianist currently on a remarkably prolific recording streak. His own release for HCR concentrates on two major works by Michael Finnissy: First Political Agenda (1989–2006), and Beat Generation Ballads (2014), the latter of which Thomas premiered at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival in 2014.

Like its predecessor, and topical relation, English Country-Tunes, First Political Agenda begins with thunderous sweeps across the keyboard. What grows out of their dying echoes, however, is somewhat different: not the ironically distorted pastoralism (those never-quite restful open spaces) of English Country-Tunes, but a darker, rougher manipulation of raw materials. Its second movement draws on the Benedictus from Beethoven’s Missa solemnis, while the third – ‘You know what kind of sense Mrs. Thatcher made’ – performs a Chris Newman-esque détournement on Hubert Parry’s theme for William Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’, flipping the ultimate musical signifier of England on its end, flattening it and rendering it distressingly mute: a ghastly, heart-stoppingly empty reflection on the ‘sense’ of Britain’s most divisive Prime Minister.

Beat Generation Ballads contains further references to Beethoven (and, in its 30-minute final movement, Finnissy’s first extended use of a variation form), as well as Allen Ginsberg, Irish Republican protest songs, Bill Evans, the bassist Scott LeFaro, and the poet Harry Gilonis. In its short first movement, ‘Lost But Not Lost’, it also features music written when the composer was only 16, a typical gesture of Finnissian self-archaeology.

There’s far too much to consider here in what is supposed to be a short review, but works are major statements, not (I think?) previously recorded, and are done justice by Thomas’s intelligent and critically reflective performance.

Heather Roche: Ptelea (HCR09 CD)


This is the oldest of these three releases; that is, it is the one that has been sitting on my desk the longest. Another Thomas student (she completed her PhD at Huddersfield in 2012), the Canadian-born clarinettist Heather Roche needs little introduction among followers of new music in the UK or Germany, where she now lives. One of the most energetic younger players on the scene, she is a founder member of hand werk, has hosted her own competition for young composers, and writes a widely-read (and actually useful!) new music blog.

Ptelea features works by six composers with whom Roche has formed important artistic relationships: Aaron Einbond, Chikako Morishita, Martin Iddon, Martin Rane Bauck, Pedro Alvarez and Max Murray. As first recital discs go, it’s an unusual one: several of the works are hushed affairs, for deep, close listening. No overt virtuosity here – Morishita’s Lizard (shadow) the closest thing to a ‘typical’ recital piece, albeit a contemporary one – although there is clearly much going on just out of earshot.

The repeated, breathy multiphonics of Bauck’s kopenhagener stille (2013), for example, will appeal to fans of Wandelweiser; Murray’s Ad Marginem des Versuchs (2015) to admirers of Lucier and Sachiko M. Einbond’s Resistance (2012) opens the disc with barely more than the noise of air passing through the bass clarinet’s deep tube, and even this is only gradually augmented with the sounds of keys and, eventually, tones. Yet the work is also infused with the sounds of political protest – marches recorded in New York in 2011–12. Played through a speaker in the clarinet’s bell, these slowly emerge in their own right, a weird progeny of the instrument itself.

Iddon’s Ptelea is yet another a quiet affair. Using Josquin’s Nymphes des bois as a framework, Iddon constructs a slippery polyphony out of an impossible monody – a single instrumental line grouped in such a way that not everything can played at once. Difficult to describe in brief (here’s Iddon’s score), but like much of Iddon’s music a surprisingly simple idea brought to its full fruition.

For me, Iddon’s piece is the stand-out track (I really must get round to writing up his CD on another timbre from a couple of years ago), although Pedro Alvarez’s Instead (2013) comes close for creating something distinctly different from a typical solo clarinet work – odd blocks that nod towards minimalism and Zorn, if anything, although that isn’t giving much away. A strange disc, then, with some strange composers – but all the better for it.



CD Review: Håkon Stene: Etude Begone Badum


Håkon Stene: Etude Begone Badum | Hákon Stene, percussion | Ahornfelder AH25

I now own at least three recordings of Silver Street Car for the Orchestra, which is surely enough.

My latest copy of Alvin Lucier’s famous solo for triangle, on this fine recital disc by Håkon Stene, is the shortest of the three and, being recorded in a very resonant acoustic – the glorious Tomba Emmanuelle in Oslo – is very different from the other two. (The others are by Brian Johnson on the Ever Present disc, and Ross Parfitt, recorded at Tate Modern.) Do I like it? It’s certainly more immediately attractive than the other, drier, versions; there’s more to listen to, in a straightforward sense, as the overtones swing round the room’s 20-second reverberation. The sound blooms extravagantly (it roars). I wasn’t sure at first so had to ask – Stene assures me it is just him, the triangle and the room, although all four corners of the space were miked so as to make the most of the ambience. It must have been quite something to hear in person.

I’m in two minds about how faithful it is to what I take to be Lucier’s concept though – the minute, phasing variations you get from a typical performance of SSC are both blown up and swamped by the acoustic. The scale on which things take place is completely altered. That said, a lot of the original nuance doesn’t transmit well to recording anyway. At the very least Stene should be credited for experimenting with a solution, and the results are pretty stunning.

Stene also uses the Tomba Emmanuelle for his recording of Michael Pisaro’s ricefall (1). Even more than the Lucier, the acoustic distorts (saying that as neutrally as possible) one’s expectation of what a Michael Pisaro piece is going to sound like. Here there is a little more mediation involved. Each separate part of Pisaro’s score (which involves dropping rice onto different surfaces) was recorded separately, then played back in separate channels into the room. I think the tracks themselves were also recorded in the Tomba, so you have reverb on reverb. It gets a lot louder than any Pisaro piece I know, a consequence of the sheer volume of rice Stene appears to be using. Bits remind me of some of those early Xenakis tape pieces – Concret PH or Bohor come to mind.

I’m only recently getting acquainted with Marko Ciciliani‘s music and I’m still searching for a frame within which to get to grips with it. I’ll confess that Black Horizons has me baffled. It is written for two table-top guitars (Stene is supported here by Ciciliani himself), which rarely play settled pitches, almost always drifting queasily up or down after each attack. There’s a steady, pulsing strum throughout most of the piece, over which are laid sharper attacks, slowly drifting glissandi, and, going beyond the guitars themselves, short spoken word samples and other noise sources. There’s certainly something improvisatory – at least in feel – here, although I miss a sense of inter-performer focus. I guess it’s a little, well, rambling, and I haven’t yet made out a formal design, or a binding concept. Which isn’t to say there isn’t one or the other; just that it remains opaque to me.

But the key to this record are the Studies in Self-Imposed Tristesse by Lars Petter Hagen, three of which are distributed throughout the album. The ‘study’ of the title may refer to some sort of conceptual restriction, but these are also studies in a musical sense, in the varying qualities of attack and sustain of different sound sources, whether bells, sine tones, radio static, bowed vibes and so on. All of those are sounds that bring them into contact with the other three tracks on the disc. (Indeed it’s easy to miss the cuts between the Ciciliani piece and the studies before and after it.) The studies are based on preparatory fragments of a larger work for strings by the mid-century nationalist composer Geir Tveitt (1908–81), part of the small amount of work recovered from a house fire in 1970 that destroyed nearly all of his music. Know that about their history, and suddenly this album’s emotional and symbolic terrain draws together.


Also out now is a CD single (Ahornfelder AH26) that pairs Stene’s thumping reading of Ferneyhough’s Bone Alphabet with a remix by Sir Duperman (Jørgen Træen). Opting not to force Ferneyhough’s rhythms into a beats-heavy IDM straitjacket, Træen goes for something more freeform, making the most of Ferneyhough’s rigidly stratified percussion timbres to squeeze his material into a mix of dubby squelches and pops-and-sine tone Stockhausen. By about midway, the source sounds have passed from recognition, returning only towards the end.

I reviewed Stene live, back in 2008, playing the Ferneyhough and Hagan pieces as one half of the asamisamasa duo. See bottom half of the page here.

Review: Noise and Complexity at LCMF


And so to Peckham for the second weekend of the London Contemporary Music Festival. Because of holidays booked with the kids (middle-age problems) this was the only night I could really make. But the gods of calendars did well for me.

The night was billed as ‘New Complexity and Noise’, and the promo materials referred to ‘two radically different schools [that in the 1970s began to push contemporary music to the outer limits of density and possibility’. It’s a false dichotomy, of course, as shown in the forthcoming book Noise in and as Music from University of Huddersfield Press, co-edited, incidentally, by one of tonight’s composers. ‘Noise’ and ‘complexity’ are more like different paths from the same place.

And not always so different, as the concert itself made clear. Letting ‘these two worlds collide’ was the marketing hook, but the evening’s real success was to highlight similarities and connections. So Aaron Cassidy‘s ‘decoupled’ instrumental techniques matched Steve Noble‘s virtuoso snare-and-cymbals improvisation; Anthony Pateras‘s modular synth playing echoed the whirlwind note generation and fractured registers of Michael Finnissy’s English Country-Tunes.

A great piece of curating, in fact. Peckham car park is obviously a difficult space in which to put on music, with little seating, poor sightlines and abundant noise from the West Croydon line just outside. Everything has to be amplified to be heard. But it was interesting to note the relative robustness of the pieces to their surroundings. The Finnissy (played with characteristic verve by Mark Knoop) was especially able to cope with whatever sonic interruptions there were, even trains passing in its long, sparse passages. Cassandra’s Dream Song proved too fragile, however, although no fault of the flautist, Sara Minelli. (One wondered whether Unity Capsule, although far more demanding on the performer, would have worked better.)

Cassidy’s trumpet solo What renders these forces visible is a strange smile also coped well, and was given a refreshing performance by Peter Yarde Martin (see picture). Not as balls to the wall as Tristram Williams’ version, but it sounded to me like it was stretched over a wider dynamic and timbral palette, and to great effect. Unfortunately I was stood too far back to get much from Cassidy’s quietest piece, songs only as sad as their listener, played by trombonist David Roode. A rush of people for the upstairs bar arriving at the same time didn’t help, a rare organisational misstep.

Dropped between each composed piece were duo and solo improvisations by Noble (percussion) and Pateras (piano/prepared piano/modular synth). Both musicians were extraordinary – raw power channelled through seemingly limitless energy and invention – but the best of the five short sets were those with Pateras at the keyboard, in a percussion and prepared piano duo and an astonishing piano solo that exceeded the Finnissy for virtuosity and density of notes.

Russell Haswell’s noise set that closed the concert was an impressive onslaught, punctuated by booming snares and an eerily de-rhythmicised acid hi-hat, but in truth I’d had sufficient music for one night by then, so it felt more like a coda/curtain call than it probably deserved.

(Photo by Aaron Holloway-Nahum, used with permission. See his full set from this concert on Flickr.)

Live review: ELISION play Ferneyhough

Brian Ferneyhough: Intermedio alla ciaconna, Time and Motion Study I, Unsichtbare Farben, Time and Motion Study II

Newton Armstrong – electronics
Séverine Ballon – cello
Graeme Jennings – violin
Carl Rosman – bass clarinet

Kings Place, London, 7 March 2011

As an unofficial coda to the Barbican’s Ferneyhough festivities of the week before, ELISION brought five of the composer’s solo pieces to Kings Place for their first visit of  2011. I often don’t get on with solo instrumental pieces, finding that they often lack the necessary drama, conflict, whatever you want to call it, to propel things along, give the piece a purpose. Solo Ferneyhough, however, is something quite different: the best pieces are hugely purposeful, almost defiantly so.

ELISION have been masters of this repertoire since at least their 1998, when they released a CD of solo Ferneyhough on Etcetera that included the world premiere recordings of three pieces (Bone Alphabet, Unity Capsule and Time and Motion Study II) that have now become almost standard rep – at least among the select number of players who take the time to learn them. That CD also included Carl Rosman playing Time and Motion Study I for bass clarinet, and it was he who introduced this work tonight.

I say introduced, because Rosman – never one to leave a loose thread unworried – prefaced his performance with a brief but pertinent lecture on Ferneyhough’s first (rejected) version of the piece, illustrating this with examples played from those early sketches. Besides the bonus of being able to listen to previously unheard Ferneyhough, and the interest of hearing something of how the early version (for ‘normal’ B flat clarinet, rather than bass) morphed into the final piece, it was a rare pleasure to hear Ferneyhough’s music broken down into bite-sized chunks like this. If the actual performance had a faint air of listening to Wagner with a leitmotif catalogue in hand the pay-off was a much clearer navigational route through the music, and some sense of the relative hierachy between certain passages.

Graeme Jennings played Intermedio alla ciaccona here last year, but this time – probably as much to with mood as anything else – I was much more gripped by the music, even if Jennings attacked the piece both times with equal gusto. His high, rapid passage work on this occasion was absolutely electrifying – the most obviously brilliant playing of the evening, for my money. Unsichtbare Farben is much more expansive – by Ferneyhough’s standards it’s almost lyrical – so there isn’t the opportunity to surf the virtuosity; the energy has to come from elsewhere. Jennings succeeded on that score at least, destroying his bow’s hair for the second time of the evening, but this is simply a more problematic piece.

The second half of this short concert comprised Time and Motion Study II, the legendary ‘electric chair music’ for solo speaking cellist and live electronics. It was certainly welcome to have the opportunity to experience this piece live, something the Barbican’s Total Immersion didn’t manage despite devoting a whole morning to it. There the performer (on film) was Neil Heyde, who gave an aggressive, quite masculine rendition in which cello, voice and electronics harmonised in the service of singular narrative line. In contrast Séverine Ballon’s performance was fragile, fragmented – and dramatically much richer. A quirk of the piece is that the tape loops employed are set to clock time (9 and 14 seconds), independent of the tempo of the individual player. So the point at which a piece of looped material comes back can be dramatically different between performances, in turn affecting the response of the player as they struggle to progress through their own part (Ballon said afterwards that it is often hard to hear what you’re playing at all such is the level of contradictory musical information coming over the speakers). The times at which material was bouncing back in Ballon’s performance seemed to be as unsettling as possible. Whereas Heyde’s performance bound and sustained a core identity, Ballon, as clouds of rosin rose into the spotlights, seemed to disintegrate before us.

The first essential new music CD of 2011?

Domink Karski: Streamforms
Brian Ferneyhough: Unity Capsule
Evan Johnson: L’art de toucher le clavecin, 2*
Malin Bång: Alpha Waves
Salvatore Sciarrino: Venere che le grazie la fioriscono
John Croft: … ne l’aura che trema
Richard Barrett: Inward**

Richard Craig, flute
Karin Hellqvist, violin*
Pontus Langendorf, percussion**

Métier MSV28517

There may have been a time, in the late 70s/early 80s, when Ferneyhough’s Unity Capsule sounded like an unrepeatable new benchmark for modern flute writing. Yet programmed among works by Dominik Karski, Evan Johnson, Malin Bång, John Croft and Richard Barrett, even this radical classic seems to breathe the air of an older planet. Another modern standard, Sciarrino’s Venere che le Grazie la fioriscono, written 13 years later, paradoxically seems even more remote.

If Richard Craig has recorded some of Unity Capsule‘s descendants on this quite brilliant CD the resemblances are rarely straightforward. The thing about children is that you don’t get to choose which bits of genetic code get passed on. Stockhausen would advise his students ‘If you want to become famous just take a magnifying glass and put it to one of my scores, and what you see there, just multiply that for five years’, and if Unity Capsule has an inheritance it appears on this evidence to have taken this sort of select and zoom form.

The pieces by Karski and Bång are the closest sonically (apart from the Sciarrino they are also the only other pieces for unadorned solo flute); Johnson further problematises the role of notational (and musical) redundancy; Croft vastly expands the world within and without the instrument; and Barrett is, supposedly, one of Ferneyhough’s most direct descendants.

But one shouldn’t assume those sorts of contacts. Barrett’s piece Inward (along with the pieces by Johnson and Croft one of three heart-achingly beautiful tracks here) surrounds the flute in a fragile halo of percussion, a hint of the wider halo that the piece possesses in its other incarnations as the core of Schneebett, itself the third movement of the cycle Opening of the Mouth. The image is one of withdrawal or enshrouding, an almost spiritual internalisation, that is ultimately undone by a series of six monstrous percussion strikes. Something I’ve long admired about Inward, and this section of Opening of the Mouth, is how it employs East Asian sonic signifiers – flute, bell trees, bamboo sticks, Thai gong, temple block – but negotiates its way around a plastic, Orientalist presentation. The fact that Barrett invites such comparisons and then responds to them as part of his music’s expressive argument is the sort of thing that sets him far apart from the more aesthetically-minded Ferneyhough.

Karski’s Streamforms is the most melodic of all the pieces here, in the sense that it is concerned with exploring variations of a single parameter within otherwise stable fields over relatively sustained periods of time, which in a roundabout way will bring you a tune. I’m not sure that’s precisely the composer’s intention, but it is the effect of his piece, which in spite of its incursions and disruptions deals largely in extended lines and arcs. Malin Bång is a completely new name to me; her Alpha Waves borrows the metaphor of sleep cycles and switches sharply between a variety of events ranging from the calm to the violent (including some extraordinary growling sounds).

Richard Craig giving the premiere of Streamforms, live performance, Stockholm, 2009

The two best new works, however, are those by Johnson and Croft. Coming after the Sciarrino, which ends with a flat, focussed stream of tongue slaps and breath noises, Croft’s fantasia for alto flute and electronics is like stepping onto another world. The title alludes to ‘the air that trembles’ that Dante encounters in the first circle of hell, inhabited the ancient poets and philosophers, before crossing into the second circle, the realm of the excessively passionate and, rather like the Barrett, there is a sense of both withdrawing and projecting, an almost erotic play with a threshold. In its own way, Johnson’s L’art de toucher le clavecin for piccolo and violin similarly toys with boundaries. But here the path is more tentatively trodden; at times even the border itself seems to evaporate. The dialogue – hence the reference to Couperin’s instructional pamphlet – is between ground and ornament, but everything is ultra-cautiously proposed, bundled under fantastic layers of contingencies and securities. It sounds like the recipe for a health and safety nightmare, but Johnson’s skill is for extracting something rare and precious from out of such pressure.

And what of those two classics? Craig’s Sciarrino is much more reserved and less overtly dramatised than some others, such as Alter Ego’s 1999 recording. (The CDs title – Inward – seems more and more apt.) It’s less instantly captivating as a result, but I think gains a Pan-like mystery in return. His Unity Capsule is a full five minutes (nearly a third) shorter than Paula Rae’s premiere recording with ELISION from 1998 (which is too languid for my taste) and still four minutes shorter than Kolbeinn Bjarnason’s much tighter performance of 2002. The details fly by at a hell of lick, in fact but, crucially and miraculously, not at the expense of precision. This is a performance that is dense – high resolution – but not hurried. Craig instills the piece – so often caricatured as a Sisyphean struggle against an unyielding notation – with fearsome confidence, swagger even. Thirty-five years on its challenges may have been parried, absorbed, reflected and dispersed anew, but it speaks now with a commanding and often beautiful authority.

Update, 9 Sept 2011: This disc is now available on Spotify. If you have Spotify, you should listen to it.

(A shorter review of this CD, by Peter Grahame Woolf, is at Musical Pointers.)

Ferneyhough – re-immersion

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.

Swallow Dive

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

Total Immersion? Brian Ferneyhough

Roberto Matta: La terre est un homme

Brian Ferneyhough – Total Immersion

String Quartet no.2; Sonatas for String Quartet
Quatuor Diotima

Plötzlichkeit (ukp); Carceri d’invenzione III; Missa brevis; La terre est un homme
BBC Symphony Orchestra
BBC Singers
Martyn Brabbins, conductor
James Morgan, conductor

The Barbican, London, 26 February 2011

In the end, it was all about La terre est un homme. Ferneyhough’s notorious first orchestral score of 1979 – not heard on these shores in 32 years – had attracted all the pre-show attention and more than deserved it on the night. But it was only the final 15 minutes of a very full Saturday – what about the rest?

Frankly, the rest of this ‘Total Immersion’ looked and felt as though it had been organised around this single performance. Four other events preceded the evening concert: a talk and video screening on the subject of Time and Motion Study II (including a filmed performance by Neil Heyde); a concert by the Quatuor Diotima; a ‘meet the composer’ conversation between Ferneyhough and Tom Service, which included a performance (by Matthew Featherstone) of Cassandra’s Dream Song for flute (1970); and a short concert of works by Guildhall composers that also included Richard Uttley playing Ferneyhough’s Lemma-Icon-Epigram (1981). No other piece – apart from the UK premiere of Ferneyhough’s only other work for orchestra, 2006’s Plötzlichkeit – carried the same programming weight as La terre. Even the Diotima’s concert, which should on paper have provided a chamber counter-balance to the heavy orchestral and vocal programme of the evening concert, included just two works, the Second String Quartet (1980) and Sonatas for String Quartet (1967), the latter practically a student work.

Back when the Southbank Centre used to hold full composer weekends, it was possible to provide a pretty decent retrospective of a composer’s work over the course of two days. In the one day of a Barbican Total Immersion that isn’t possible and other curatorial angles must be sought. This day clearly wasn’t meant to cover Ferneyhough’s total career – Plötzlichkeit was the only programmed work that was less than 25 years old. (In fact many of the works were older than many of the audience, an ironic spin on the aging of the new music.*) The absence of any of the recent string quartets, a medium into which Ferneyhough is belatedly growing comfortable, was a particular disappointment.

If there was a focus, it was on the archetypically complex Ferneyhough of the 1970s and early 1980s: indeed in beginning with Time and Motion Study II and ending with La terre, the day was bookended with perhaps the composer’s two supreme statements in this form. Certainly we were encouraged to think of them in that way.

This is probably the most controversial period in the composer’s music and certainly that upon which much of his later, latterly stereotyped, reputation is built. The difficulty for the Barbican and BBC SO was to find a way around this reputation in order to present the music as something far more emotionally and intellectually engaging – which it is – than a mere torture device for performers.

Part of the problem is that the music’s difficulties mean that the performance landscape, at least 20 or 30 years ago, was dominated by a very small group of players who inevitably established a certain performance practice – glacial, brittle, nervous, dry – around the works that they played. Any modern performer of the string quartets, for example, not only has to confront Ferneyhough’s notation but also the Arditti Quartet’s imprint on it.** The Quatuor Diotima navigate these waters well, on the whole, seeking an almost lyrical approach that emphasises line and overarching form without sacrificing articulative precision. There is some flattening of dynamics compared to the Ardittis, and certainly less air between the notes: the texture is more liquid, less perforated. This was a mixed blessing in the Second String Quartet, which was almost too obliging, but in Sonatas it gave rise to easily the most beautiful performance of the day.

This is a flawed piece: Ferneyhough is attempting to sustain a Webernian intensity for 45 minutes, but in spite of an almost limitless gestural inventiveness the conceit inevitably sags. However, its great redeeming feature comes in its final third as the unending sequence of aphorisms begin to congeal around the cello. The instrument takes two solos, and from then on clearly becomes the lead instrument. At the very end, as the texture dissolves down to the same repeated harmonics that opened the piece, it becomes apparent that this centre was in fact always there. The way in which the Diotimas brought out this shape was quite breathtaking.

Another early piece, the Missa brevis of 1969, was not served as well. Although they know the piece well enough to have recorded it, the BBC Singers looked cowed – perhaps they’ve bought into the reputation that this really is impossible music and that they shouldn’t risk finding their own voice within the composer’s instructions. There were some good moments – the literal high points of the sopranos’ top Es and E flats – but the rest lacked punch, contour or drama.

And so to the BBC Symphony Orchestra. There isn’t the same performance history context for Ferneyhough’s orchestral or large ensemble music as there is for his chamber and solo works, and the listener’s primary response is gratitude that the music is being performed at all. Even so, the BBC SO demonstrated serious commitment – in particular in Carceri d’invenzione III (1986), the centrepiece of the Carceri d’invenzione cycle that occupied Ferneyhough through much of the 1980s. One did wonder, however, that if a day like this wasn’t the occasion to stage the revival that the full cycle urgently needs, when would be?

Plötzlichkeit is built around a typical recent Ferneyhough conceit, which is of dozens of disconnected fragments or miniature movements, out of which the listener may construct a temporal continuity of their own. A similar idea lies behind Les froissements d’Aile Gabriel, for example, in which this fragmented form creates a music that deliberately overwhelms and disorientates, and it is a concept that interestingly reaches back nearly 40 years to the Sonatas for String Quartet. I confess that I find Ferneyhough’s music generally something that needs to be lived with over time and many listenings before it can be properly assimilated into my regular experience – few composers impose themselves on my mind or day-to-day perception to quite such an extent – so it is difficult to make a firm judgment on Plötzlichkeit on just this one hearing. My impression was in fact that all that change added up to something rather monotonous, as though the greater colour palette afforded by the orchestra in fact just gave rise to heaviness and immobility. The particular trajectories and energies of each of those micro-movements were subsumed by the orchestral mass. My favourite parts (or perhaps they were simply the most approachable) were in fact when the piece sounded least like itself – around the ‘insert’ for brass only and the harp and percussion passages that lead in and out of this. Nevertheless, with the disclaimer above in mind, I fully expect this view to be revised dramatically over time.

And La terre est un homme? As if to make a mockery of both my slow assimilation approach to Ferneyhough’s music, and the view that compositional complexity is inversely proportional to emotional effect, this was a quite staggering kick in the guts. I have no idea how the performance measured up to those two from 1979 but frankly it didn’t matter – most of us were left speechless. The organisers and participants in this Total Immersion day had done their best to cut through the huff and bluster that surrounds Ferneyhough and his music, but they struggled. In the end it came down to this one piece.

And one particular moment. You see, there is a dark secret to La terre: a hushed string chord of incredible luminosity that suddenly leaps out of the pages of phenomenally dense writing. As a moment of recontextualisation I know nothing else quite like it; it was so unlike anything I had been prepared to expect that I was almost knocked out of my seat. You had to be there. In the end, nothing spoke so eloquently or gripped so powerfully as Ferneyhough’s music itself.

A version of this review is also available at Musical Pointers.

You can listen to the orchestral concert, as well as the Quatuor Diotima’s performance of the Second String Quartet via the BBC iPlayer until midnight, Sunday 6 March.

* In a Q and A session with the composer, someone voiced their concern about the aging audience for contemporary music. An utterly stupid question that wasn’t borne out by a quick glance around the room, which was a pretty even spread from early 20s to 70s. As Judith Bingham has pointed out, however, that same glance will have noted almost no women, and even fewer non-white faces. Perhaps we need to stop gazing at our white, male navels quite so much.

** I recommend you also read Rob Dahm’s excellent post on the Ferneyhough/performance tradition nexus.

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:

Live review – ELISION at Kings Place

My review of ELISION’s concert at Kings Place last week is now online at Musical Pointers:

When your repertory is so full of solo works, as ELISION’s undoubtedly is, there is a tricky programming balance to strike between these and any ensemble pieces. But, at the same time, many of the composers who ELISION play explore our understanding of ‘solo’ and ‘ensemble’, and in this concert both Barrett and Karski made a virtue of this juxtaposition.

Continue reading here.

ELISION: CODEX at King’s Place

I wish I had time to post more today about this concert. Unfortunately I don’t, but that’s no reflection on how much you want to be there:

The blisteringly virtuosic skills of Australian violinist Graeme Jennings meets the challenge of Brian Ferneyhough’s Intermedio alla ciaccona. Links between improvisation and notated aesthetics are explored in a new version of Codex IX, a major electro-acoustic piece of Richard Barrett realised with the participation of the Spatial Information Architecture Laboratory of RMIT, Melbourne.  The incessant and inexorable energies of Anthony Braxton/Timothy O’Dwyer and Dominik Karski sit alongside a continuing emphasis upon James Dillon. ELISION is Australia’s premier new music ensemble. The group has established a reputation for delivering authoritative and virtuosic interpretations of complex, unusual and challenging aesthetics, often developed in close collaboration with the composer.  ELISION is proud and pleased to be Artists -in-residence with CeReNeM, University of Huddersfield (2009-10).


Anthony Braxton-Timothy O’Dwyer   For alto
transcription/arrangement for solo violin

Dominik Karski  Overflow (2006)
For oboe, trumpet/piccolo trumpet, trombone, percussion

James Dillon Diffraction (1984)
for solo piccolo

James Dillon Todesengel (1996)
for solo vibraphone and clarinet

Brian Ferneyhough Intermedio all ciaccona (1986)
for solo violin

Aaron Cassidy memento/memorial (2010)
solo oboe

Richard Barrett Codex IX (2008)
Flute/s, recorder/s , clarinet, trumpet, trombone, electric guitar, percussion, violin, live electronics

Date: 8PM Monday 7th June, 2010
Venue: Hall Two, Kings Place, 90 York Way, London
Price: £9.50
Booking ONLINE: