“It is necessary to insist”

In late March, Klang ist Grammatik had the good fortune to be able to attend a bunch of stuff at Berlin’s Märzmusik festival.

One of the most inspiring events, however, was the pair of remarkable artist talks. The second was with Salvatore Sciarrino (whose German is pretty basic, which was great for me because it meant that I could understand him…) and Beat Furrer (who’s German is understandably a lot better, and he’s a bit of a mumbler, really. He said something about Tristan, and narrative, and  a boat). The first, and by far the most interesting, though, was with Lucia Ronchetti, whose Musiktheater work Der Sonne entgegen was premiered at the festival, and Nicola Sani, an Italian composer and (until very recently) the artistic director of the Teatro dell’Opera di Roma.

Sani described a paradoxical situation in Italy whereby, despite there being a network of 42 major opera houses, one must travel to Berlin, or to Salzburg, Vienna or Paris, in order to hear new opera by important Italian composers such as Ronchetti or Sciarrino. Which means, he suggests, that the system doesn’t work.

Now, in reality, of course things are much more complicated than this. There are a wide range of different considerations and factors at play. But the more one focuses on the myriad complications, and on tweaks to existing systems aimed at mitigating liabilities, the more one is distracted from the fundamental fact that the system doesn’t work. The system of live operatic (and, by extention, musical) dissemination is manifestly unsuited to bringing new work to it’s target audiences.

I found the black-and-whiteness of this view refreshing, and utterly beguiling.

The statement that I was most taken by, however, was Sani’s declaration that “it is necessary to insist”, effectively calling for a restoration of faith by practitioners in the value and validity, indeed the necessity of contemporary art. An end to the almost apologetic stance contemporary art so frequently takes in relation to broader cultural activity. This is an inspirationally positivist call-to-arms that is impossible to resist.

Ideally, these two strands will meet in the middle somewhere. A fully reconsidered system of artistic dissemination that intrinsically values the media it is charged with disseminating and speaks to relevant audiences. It’s possible, even necessary that such changes occur. I insist.

RIP Yvonne Loriod

Yvonne Loriod has died, aged 86.

There is really not much more to say, beyond the fact that the shadow she casts as performer and pedagogue over the second half of the twentieth century is utterly unique, be it in the music of Messiaen (with which she is understandably so intimately connected) or the music of other composers such as Jean Barraqué.


Loriod with Padromos Symeonidis


Awesome Melbourne-based trio Golden Fur are kicking off their European tour in Rotterdam on the 20th, before heading to Madrid, Lisbon, Porto, Amsterdam, Geneva, Berlin and Vienna. Full tour detiails are available on ther MySpace page.

If you can make it to any of these gigs, you must go. The experience of Golden Fur pulping your brain while brutalising you in the ear is a singular one.

ELISION, Ferneyhough, “Terrain”, and the performative tradition of complexity

One of the advantages of having my CD player back is that I can listen, over and over again, to this new release from ELISION ensemble of the music of Brian Ferneyhough on Kairos.

Now, the disclaimer here is that Terrain is pretty much a precision-targeted, Soundisgrammar-seeking love bomb. This is some of my favourite music in the world, performed by some of my favourite performers in the world, and there was pretty much no chance at all that I was going to dislike this disc. But that aside:

It’s amazing.

Apart from being a collection of utterly brilliant, lucid, aggressively argued performances, this disc very much heralds the beginning of a new era in the performance of this music. A coming of age, as it were, of the performance tradition of the new complexity.

I’ve alluded before on these pages to the excitement of being at the coalface of developing performance practices for new music, and Ferneyhough himself has spoken often and eloquently on the subject of interpretation and performance practice in his own music. Here is a lengthy, but representative, example from an interview with James Boros:

In previous ages it was never performances which survived, but scores, notated music. If all the information necessary to a correct interpretation is not contained in a score, it is practically impossible to reconstruct original intentions with any degree of certainty. Only tradition can provide some sort of tenuous continuity in this respect. If you play a Beethoven sonata, you’re not interpreting the notes on the page, you’re interpreting many generations of interpretation, an entire corpus of slowly evolving conventions. Contemporary music has little of this sense of self-reflexive tradition, partly for the obvious reason of being new, but also because of the extreme fragmentation of stylistic continuity so characteristic of the present day. This results in a sort of institutionalized deracination where 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. If one considers interpretation as the art of meaningful deviation from the text, one will be saddened to hear music played (and – mutatis mutandis – composed and listened to) in this reductive manner. In terms of my own work, I employ what some consider to be over-definition of the musical image as a path to suggesting what might come to replace this interpretive overview. Composers who tend to restrict their notational specifications to a bare minimum end up getting one-dimensional representations of a possible sound-world rather than entering into that world’s inner workings.

What I find particularly compelling about this statement generally, and in connection with this recent release in particular, is the subjective, qualitative difference in performance practice Ferneyhough draws between musics with lengthy traditions and those without (in this case, essentially ‘old’ vs ‘new’ musics). But what are the implications of the presence (or absence) or such performative tradition?

The first is the degree to which what is on the page is able to be regarded as intrinsically valid as a prescription of performative or sonic action. The complexity of Ferneyhough’s notation has been the source of much verbiage in journals, interviews (there’s scarcely an interview with BF that doesn’t at some point include a question to the effect of “So… your notation is super tricky. What’s that all about?”), programme notes, liner notes, etc. I think it’s fair to say that Ferneyhough’s notational practices have taken on an almost mythical aura of complexity, a sort of in-built notational polemicism that, for my money, has very little to do with the musical content of his scores.

Related to this is the perception of virtuosity. Now, I don’t believe anyone would go so far as to suggest that the music of Brian Ferneyhough is anything but virtuosic, but once again, the discourse on this music is dominated by this almost polemical aura of virtuosity. One has the sense that for nearly fifty years, now, the battle in performing this music has been solely one of mustering the necessary technique to jump the performative hurdles that Ferneyhough has laid down.

The absence of tradition in both of these instances results in an unnecessary and undesirable foregrounding of these superficial extramusical qualities. The constellation of sundry issues relating to the music’s presentation, appearance, and learning is forced into a position of prominence that effectively obscures the underlying musical and expressive elements. The presence of a tradition, on the other hand, results in the progressive perspectivisation of these sundry elements in relation to the music. By interpreting an existing tradition, the notes on the page are imbued with a de facto underlying validity, empowering performers  to ‘speak’ from the base of, interpret and amplify (for example) a highly charged rhythmic scheme, rather than fight their way through a tangled and impenetrable rhythmic web.

Graeme Jennings, apparently not breaking a sweat...

This is not to say that we’ve made a simple step from an absence of tradition to that tradition’s presence. Rather, tradition is a constantly evolving body of communal knowledge, propagated and augmented by the act of performance, an act which unavoidably takes place in dialogue with tradition, however limited that tradition may be. The present recording is a watershed in the discography not because it heralds the sudden arrival of a meaningful tradition, but rather because it presents us with by far the most cohesive document yet of that tradition’s evolution. Obviously, this is very difficult music, but ELISION’s players chew this up seemingly without breaking a sweat (or, at least, they’re sweating Good Sweat). These revelatory performances amplify the tensions and lines of force embedded in the score without undue focus on the perceived ‘difficulty’ of this music.

It may seem that, due to the nature of the praise I’m heaping on this disc, that I am, by default, rubbishing every previous recording of Ferneyhough. I’m not. Indeed, there are parts of the Ferneyhough discography which have been almost life-altering in their significance for me. But this really is a blindingly amazing CD, and is without a doubt the finest set of performance of Ferneyhough’s music available by quite a large margin. I’ll go out on a limb and say that it’s one of the finest discs of new music around.