Ferneyhough and Fields of Musical Probability

The works of Brian Ferneyhough have, over the past several decades, generated much controversy and have earned either the dedicated advocacy or passionate dissent of listeners, performers, and composers. Known, for better or worse, as the founder of the “New Complexity” movement in contemporary chamber music, Ferneyhough’s music makes incredible and unprecedented demands on performers, generally communicated through dense but utterly gorgeous notation. At the core of Ferneyhough’s musical philosophy, there is great attention given to the frailty and limitations of human beings, those imperfect creatures that we’re all too familiar with. The intense demands made upon the performers in this music are not exactly designed to challenge them to reach new heights of musicality, but rather to fail in this pursuit – the music itself (in this case being the rhythmic, timbral, and pitch information given in the score) is designed to be impossible to “perfectly” realize.

Through these means, Ferneyhough accomplishes a new kind of aleatoricism – with music that’s impossible to fully realize, the results of any given performance are instilled with a greater sense of unpredictability. Granted, this could reasonably be said for any musical performance if you were to examine it in microscopic detail, but the difference here is that these unrepeatable flaws in the realization are brought into the macroscopic musical experience. Given all of this, it’s difficult to decide, ultimately, where the “music itself” actually resides in this kind of work.

It’s difficult to make a case that it can be found in the score, as this is meant to be ultimately unplayable and is used, really, to generate a field of musical probability rather than a perfectly realized performance. I think the strongest case could be made that the essence of this music lies in the flawed, aleatoric performances – in sound, though I struggle with this idea as well and here is why: Ferneyhough’s use of highly complex generative systems to create musical material and formal constraints ultimately leaves me wanting as a listener. These processes and complex transformations of material are not of the aurally perceivable variety (and certainly NOT on the first listen). What the listener perceives is disorder, despite the impeccable organization present in this music. Indeed, these processes and the complexity of the organization seem to be driving more toward a compelling presentation at a conference on contemporary composition than at creating a direct and communicative aural experience for a listener.

Where does this leave us then? Where is the music to be found? In the score that’s impossible to realize? In the musical performance that is momentary and singular – unrepeatable on the macroscopic level? In the chaotic aural experience in which the musical discourse is impossible to perceive? While I’m sure it’s clear that I’m not exactly Ferneyhough’s biggest fan (I have severe moral quandaries with his philosophy as well as his relationship with performers), I find the questions that his work poses to be highly valuable ones. I would never go so far as to say that this is not music, but I’m hard-pressed to find the music itself in the score, the performance, or the aural experience. Where, then, does it lay? Perhaps fragments of it are to be found in all three, perhaps somewhere further in the ether than I have, as yet, dared to go. Here’s a bit of listening to accompany your contemplation:



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