Seminar with Brian Ferneyhough 25 March, 2009

Almost didn’t get out of bed that day. I was under the weather, and a warm blanket, but I managed to hop on the train to Amsterdam in time for Ferneyhough’s seminar on his flute pieces, which was organized by Joel Bons (artistic director of the Nieuw Ensemble) and Harrie Starreveld.

Harrie kicked off by playing a bit of Mnemosyne for bass flute and tape (or- and this I’d forgotten – 9 live players. I’d just love to be part of that someday!). He discussed how he learned and practiced the piece. Nowadays, you can put the notes into the computer and play them back, at all speeds. This would function as a kind of mnemonic learning device for the rhythm, but only an additional device, you would still need a click track to stay together with the tape. Ferneyhough highly recommends using a click track. Some players have tried without and not succeeded. The problem with getting out of sync with the tape is that the harmonies, which play a crucial role, will be all wrong.

Harrie played a recording of a computer realization of one bar to show how one could slow it down to learn the rhythms mnemonically


….a computer-like rendering with literal-minded exactitude is not the point of this piece (or any of Ferneyhough’s music). Each of the three lines of the solo part has its own character. Indeed, that is one reason they are notated on separate staves. There is a play of interruptive polyphony between them. He also went on to say that his music is consideredcomplex because conservatory training in rhythm is only basic. The focus in ear training is on interval recognition, rather than rhythmic recognition.How does the human element come into play in this piece? One way: the performer is observing him/herself learn. There are the 3 textures/voices, the performer has to choose which one is primary at a given time. However, he cautioned against mere approximation: approximation is the negative side of interpretation.Harrie remarked that the end result sounds very flexible. This led Ferneyhough to remark that when you hear a performance of Beethoven, you don’t hear a reading of the score: you hear a translation of tradition. The vernacular of music is evident in Beethoven, it is not in contemporary music.

To me, personally, this is an added human element to a performance of his music. This contemporary vernacular is yet-to-be defined, and seeking it is part of the creative process. Maybe this is also what he means by the performer observing his/herself learn?

Next our student Daisuke played Cassandra’s Dream Song. One part of the opening passage was the best Ferneyhough had heard it to date. Way to go Daisuke! The opening strophe Ferneyhough described thus: the first half is “effort rhythm” then “precise rhythm”. It is a building up of energies, a somatic crescendo, then releasing. This is to engage the body from the very first moment of the piece. The flute as an extension of the body is how he thinks of this piece.

I didn’t know that the original idea was to improvise the order of the strophes during performance. However, Ferneyhough has gotten away from this idea. One has to find a way to intersect the two pages and create chains of continuity.

He touched on several of the techniques, the different vibrati/smorzato, and the section with voice. A male flutist should, ideally, sing falsetto. If not possible, you need to add the beating effect, as this passage should sound like two weaving sine waves. He is not sure if the fingering of the multiphonic with the high F# is a good one. He didn’t have an open-holed flute to work with, so was wondering if someone would come up with a better fingering.
While discussing notation at one point he said: you don’t choose notation, it chooses you.

Then a brave lady [must find out name, anyone?] played Superscriptio. This turns out to be not the first piece with irrational meters (1/10, 3/12). It was first done by Henry Cowell, then by Dieter Schnebel in the 1950’s. (See also my post on irrational meters.)

He admits that the opening page and a half is cruel. However, that is not the intention. This piece opens his entire Carceri cycle: a single instrument – high and very light. The opening section is not meant to be “musical” – rather, it is coming to terms with ways of contrapuntal thinking. Later on, the material becomes “musical”. Harrie commented that the opening is however quite melodic, like a children’s ditty. He even performed it as such for a radio broadcast.

The next section needs attention to the speed of articulated passages. They are at uncomfortable speeds, sometimes slower than expected. This is important, otherwise one can get carried away and go with the vertige, but then it ends up sounding like any other contemporary piccolo piece.

There is a famous passage in this piece with repeated C’s that are notated differently, but performed at the same speed. This is because he has several systems running simultaneously. When things like this happen, OK. Even if his system comes up with something tonal like a reference to a major triad: so be it. The performer needs to be aware when this happening, but doesn’t need to show it to the audience.

Further, he explained the meaning of the title “Superscriptio”. It’s part of an emblem (usually found in collections called emblem books). This was a 16th century form of learned entertainment – a combination of texts and images . Above the image a short motto (lemma, inscriptio [superscriptio – because it is above] ) is scratched or handwritten introducing the theme or subject, which is symbolically bodied in the picture itself (icon, pictura); the picture is then described and elucidated by an epigram ( subscriptio ) or short prose text.

Here is an example of two French emblems

This is not a complete reporting of my notes from the seminar, only some of the things I was able to jot down while also taking photos!



3 responses to “Seminar with Brian Ferneyhough 25 March, 2009”

  1. admin Avatar

    Joshua Creek has left a new comment on your post “Seminar with Brian Ferneyhough 25 March, 2009”:

    Hi Helen,

    An insightful summary of a seminar that I wish I could have attended. Thank you!

    I have some questions.
    You wrote: “BUT… ….a computer-like rendering with literal-minded exactitude is not the point of this piece (or any of Ferneyhough’s music).”

    I was wondering if you could elaborate on that sentence. Is what you say based on something Ferneyhough said or mentioned at the workshop, or at another time, or is it mainly your interpretation of his musical aesthetic?

    And does this statement apply just to rhythm (i.e., the preciseness of execution of rhythms in irrational meters for example), dynamics, special techniques, pitch, or all of these combined?

    I ask this because Ferneyhough’s Performance Notes for Superscriptio states: “A precise understanding of the metric conventions governing this work is, for its correct execution, of vital importance. […] No rubato should be incorporated at any point since many of the work’s effects depend upon the degree of synchronisation between metric and other compositional principles obtaining at any given juncture. Dynamic markings should likewise be considered, in principle, as absolute values.”

    In other words, I am wondering whether you think inexact performances of say the rhythms in the irrational meter (as opposed to a performer (or computer) learning the precise way to perform say a quintuplet in 1/10) is acceptable, or not. And if exactitude of rhythmic performance or execution of other details specified in the score is not Ferneyhough’s intention then I wonder why he used irrational meters in the first place, as they are so hard to do!


  2. admin Avatar

    Hi Joshua,
    thanks for your question, very apropos since I am working on a new Ferneyhough piece for Ensemble, Contraccolpi, which we will premiere in June this year.
    Checking my notes, this is something Ferneyhough said himself. Someone from the audience asked him “why don’t you just write for computer, then it would be perfectly exact.” Ferneyhough replied that that is not the point, and then went on to talk about the performer observing himself learn. The context of this conversation was the three lines of Mnemosyme, each of which has a separate character. A computer can’t do character like a human can (my words). So to answer your question, I see this statement as applying to all musical parameters.

    In regards to the Superscriptio performance notes, he does not even mention exactitude. You need “a precise understanding of the metric conventions”. This understanding will tell you how fast a gesture is, and wheather it is slower or faster than its neighbors. If you know this, you will understand how to execute the rhythm correctly; whether you actually can execute it precisely or exactly is another question. I think I am coming to understand more and more what he means by the performer observing himself learn.

    So in answer to your question whether I think an inexact performance is acceptable or not, if the inexactness comes from human error but it is clear that the performer understands the rhythmic relationships, it is acceptable. Every performance of a Ferneyhough piece is a work in progress, from my point of view.

    As to why he uses irrational meters in Superscriptio, it is a convention that avoids bar lines, “tuplet” notation and meter changes. Cleaner for him, but requires more calculation from us.

    I hope this helps.
    Best wishes, Helen

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