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.


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  1. Kudos to Elision for this – onya guys.

    However, I’ve found something strange with this notion of Ferneyhough.

    The idea seems rather nutty that new music has no tradition to inform its performance. How does Mr Ferneyhough think hip-hop, folktronica, metal, jazz etc etc etc musicians know how to avoid “one-dimensional” performances? We’re not so fragmented as that – it’s possible to be new within a tradition (as a hell of a lot of music is). He’s talking about a very small world in describing performers needing to be commanded in such detail about how to play.

    Still, he’s an interesting musician. To me, he just says things that seem unattached to the great majority of what goes on in contemporary music.

    • SoundisGrammar

       /  May 16, 2010

      Hi Rob

      Interesting thought, although I’m not sure that you’re not actually arguing at cross-purposes here. Of course, the example Ferneyhough cites is Beethoven, but it seems to me that the performative traditions you mention in the context of hip-hop, folktronica, etc, etc, are precisely the sorts of performative traditions that BF is talking about the lack of in the context of his own music.

      It’s worth pointing out, as well, that the subgenres you list all largely feature music that is either composed extemporaneously, or performed by its own composer. The question of tradition as I understand Ferneyhough to mean it here effectively arises due to the need to interpret The Score in the context of a swirling vortex of ever-splintering genres and subgenres. To what degree, in such a context, can composer and performer be assumed to share the same set of priorities in performance practice?

      And finally, I don’t think that Ferneyhough’s notational specificity has anything at all to do with commanding performers to play in a specific way. It has far more to do with providing the performer with the detailed tools necessary to decode the music and form an interesting interpretation in the absence of communally-received meaning-mediating structures such as diatonic harmony, Baroque ‘affekt’, etc.

      Certainly, the performances on this disc have much more to do with the construction of fascinating, three-dimensional musical landscapes than they do with ‘being commanded how to play’.

      • I think the answer to the issue of communication between composer and performer is answered by Elision in this case – they know the composers working in this specific continuation of modernist music and have developed (as you note) performance traditions. Clarinetist Carl Rosman has an immediately recognisable style, for example, which I think must influence how someone like Barrett composes. It’s as much a scene/subculture as any other genre really (audience included).

        It does rather remove the need for such a lot of ink I’d have thought. But if Mr Ferneyhough wants to spend his hours writing such detail, it’s up to him.

  2. znikomo

     /  May 17, 2010

    When I was a student, I had a piece workshopped by a not-to-be-named Australian orchestra, during which a player absolutely exploded at me (through the conductor, as per protocol) because he was insulted at having to read such a badly written part, after which he demanded it be rewritten in a readable way. What was my crime? In bars of 4/8 and 5/8, I had grouped sets of four and five quavers together Bartok-style. Mea culpa.
    Needless to say, every composer has their own laugh-inducing stories of this nature, which indeed are basically de rigueur for even being considered one. I quote it here though, as a means of illustrating a single reservation I have in considering maximum notational precision (especially within ‘modernist-progressive’ environs, for want of terminology) as the acme of compositional desirability – namely, not every composer can ‘afford’ it, with the resources at their disposal. I mean ‘afford’ almost literally. I had the misfortune of ‘studying’ with perhaps the most reactionary teacher in Australia (fancy making a guess?), under whom even a latent desire of developing an inquiry into Ferneyhough’s music and methods (or that of any other contemporaneous ‘modernist-progressive’ for that matter) would not just be questioned, but basically pissed on and extinguished. Which is a shame given the interests I had started to develop during my teens, which under a more sympathetic teacher might have been nurtured into more fruitful outcomes. It was difficult enough in a financial and social (i.e. class) respects for me just to attend university at all, let alone relocate to another city or to attend the appropriate summer schools, etc., where the arcana of this compositional weltanschauung is actually promoted in a positive way. And this has left me living with some painful truths, connected with composition as a socially relevant act – as a composer, I have no access to ELISION or other equally responsible performers within this genre, ipso facto I cannot ‘afford’ to develop my compositional style along those lines. I can only speak the language(s) that function syntactically within my world (even if I would desire to learn different ones), therefore such ‘restrictions [in] notational specifications’ or otherwise are ironically for me more an act connected with social justification than of compositional compromise.

    • SoundisGrammar

       /  May 17, 2010

      I agree that it can be difficult, perhaps particularly as a composer, in Australia to meaningfully come to grips with these kinds of musical developments through the last hundred years in Europe (and I think you’re right that every composer has stories of the sort you describe) when one has limited access to other practitioners interested in this. Somehow, the library doesn’t always cut the proverbial mustard without practice-based activity to consolidate and concretise what you’re reading about.


      The situation has never been better in Australia than it is right now. There’s an increasing amount of interest in terms of both composers and performers (it’s not just ELISION doing this stuff, y’know). The proliferation of young new music organisations with catholic tastes, the repatriation of a number of outstanding performers, a generation of young performers who are prepared to try anything, the coming-of-age of the experimental scene in Melbourne, and so on and so forth means that access has never been better. If only it were financially viable, being a composer in Australia would be almost a dream gig.

      But perhaps what you’re talking about points more towards a flaw in the basic, received model of composer/performer interaction – composer goes and writes a work of genius in isolation, and only then does the performer pick up and play it. I’d personally like to see an alteration of this model whereby a greater focus is placed on the interaction between performer and composer, whereby a communality of intent can better be fostered (c.f. ELISION’s working relationship with Liza Lim, Richard Barrett, and a whole slew of younger composers). The composition and performance of ‘difficult’ music requires a great deal of trust and mutual respect, and this ends up being more about building musical communities than disseminating masterpieces, which I think can only be a good thing.

    • The answer to the problem of access I think is to start your own scene, where you are. Make friends with other musicians and start putting concerts and/or recordings together. That’s how Elision started, the Melbourne 70s Clifton Hill community, Bang on a Can, most decent groups. Yes, it can be difficult, but starting with what you’ve got is often the best way to make something incredible and distinctive. The Australia Council is there for a reason.

      I’ve stopped composing for orchestra because of the ambivalent attitudes of some performers (even with me being one of the orchestra), preferring to write music for people who are enthusiastic to play it (ie my own group – Topology – mostly).

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