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Form-Figure-Style: An Intermediate Assessment Author(s): Brian Ferneyhough Source: Perspectives of New Music, Vol. 31, No.

1 (Winter, 1993), pp. 32-40 Published by: Perspectives of New Music Stable URL: . Accessed: 21/03/2011 19:14
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En art,et en peinture commeen il ne s'agitpasde musique, ou d'inventer des reproduire formesmaisde capter desforces. -Gilles Deleuze

most unfruitful arenas of confrontation in recent compositional aesthetics has been the question of style and its rationale. The more the general climate of opinion has tended towards embracing some version of panstylistic pluralism, the more mutual intolerance and virtuoso attitudinizing have come to obscure entire groups of central issues. The increasingly uncritical acceptance of any and all incidental

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stylistic usages has driven many composers into one or other of the currently flourishing ideological camps in which serious application to specific areas of difficulty has given way to the production of writings which are often little more than verbally articulated body gesture, transmitting approval or opprobrium as the case may be, irrespective of the works themselves. By these means a clear-headed reexamination of the implications inherent in particular stylistic norms is conveniently diverted into satisfyingly primitive expressions of clan spirit. Most disturbing, perhaps, has been the phenomenon of deliberate remystification of musical expression: the following considerations will seek to underline the dangers of such a position at a time when the expressive potential of music is being eroded by continual resort to false forms of directness, since it is this same supposed immediacy of transmission which engenders the self-congratulatory point of view that there can be such a thing as a global solution to the chronic dissolution of musical substance. One conceivable approach to a provisional resolution of the dilemma might be a renewed concentration on, and redefinition of, the term style itself: in particular, it seems vital to focus attention more intensively on the diachronic features of stylistic formation, since this alone promises a salutary counterbalance to views of style which concentrate on the simultaneity of diverse physiognomic features in some historically referential, but apparentlyextrahistoricallyutopian subjectivism. The unholy alliance of period reference and formal organization often little more than noncommittal in nature, is founded, like many another flourishing aesthetic sectarianism, upon a falsified model of musical history. Being hypostasized into a massive totality (in however limited a real form), such model building rapidly leads to a devaluation of the internal coherence of the individual work and its own specific criteria of autohistorical signifying. It should scarcely be necessary to emphasize that the carefully staged (but nonetheless supremely artificial) opposition of two equally untenable fictions-(1) a music distinguished and authenticated by either the rapidity and spontaneity of the associated creative act, or else by reason of some supposedly natural qualities innate to the gesturally discursive vocables employed, and (2) one-dimensional distillations of abstract, material-bound strategies of generation such as are often purported to characterize that all-purpose scapegoat, Serialism-does not survive much detailed examination. All structuring systems are, to some extent, arbitrary and spontaneous, just as most spontaneity is nothing but the final stage of a frequently lengthy and intense ritual of self-programming on the part of the composer. The ideology of the affective transparency of musical substance as an iconic trace of the creative volitional act is full of pitfalls. The increasing emphasis placed upon the direct expressive


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power of the musical gesture attempts to convince us that the internal rhetorical energy which it is said to generate is sufficient to supplant any secondary formative function which the constituent qualities of a "formal continuum" might otherwise have been in a position to contribute. This is a highly perilous doctrine, if only because any attempt to underline still more clearly the immediate, holistic significance of a gestural unit leads, almost inevitably, to its assumption of effective selfsufficiency and formally passive encapsulation in a henceforth largely contingent context. Focusing on immediacy of expression-however that term may be defined-suggests that little else is required for the adequate appreciation of its specific vehicle than (a) its capacity to be categorized as to denotational intent, and (b) the apperception of its direct material presence. That such experientially isolationist tendencies have gained access to the heartlands of current musical thinking at the same time as the adoption of vocables derived relatively unmediatedly from earlier historical epochs is surely significant, and points to the destabilizing and disorientating factors which such seemingly unproblematic appeals to "expressivity"conceal beneath the surface. Although the relevant connotations of the term "expression" have scarcely been defined except by reading between the lines of otherwise vacuous ex cathedra pronouncements, the essence of the matter would seem to be this: that the musical sign or sign-constellation be, to a significant degree, transparent to emotive intentionality. According to this view, the sign would, in some respects, be analogous to a glass pane with variable degrees of translucency, through which the emotive object-the spiritual state, one assumes, of the composer in the act of composing (as transubstantiation of the act of self-observation) -is rendered palpable. The necessity and desirability of mediational artifice are either ignored or denied. But that is not all: such a doctrine suggests that there are categories of musical gesture which are somehow naturally permeable to particular emotional images, while offering corresponding resistance to others. Though it is clear that the human ear tends to react to various types of sound stimulus according to relatively constant somatic considerations, this would not, prima facie, be a sufficiently powerful interpretation of what such a doctrine must needs involve. Much recent music relies heavily on variants of a rather limited repertoire of gestural types calculated to energize the receptive and interpretational faculties of the listener in a culturally quite specific fashion. It is especially disturbing that this species of "Pavlovian"semanticism has succeeded in gaining so much ground at the expense of subtler and vastly more flexible views of expressive strategy-particularly when, in so doing, a number of larger-scale aspects of compositional organization grow thereby still more rigid, mechanically unaccommodating, and

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divorced from the fundamental, vitalist energies which one assumes to be both their ultimate raison d'etre and generator. In particular, it is this tendency's espousal of a form of "expressive atomism" which vitiates most gravely the life force of its own devoutly proclaimed program: the more efficiently the individual emotively denotational complex succeeds in transmitting its one-to-one correspondence with its triggering emotive state, the less it needs-or can allow itself to be compromised by-any form of functional interaction with its immediate surroundings in the work. Even if it were to be argued that this view be overly inflexible (in that, in practice, the various gestural/affective units merge into one another) the principle remains clear: expressive denotational monads negate their own potential internal power by evoking it in the act of signification itself. At the very moment at which the gesture aspires to rise above its material presence it falls back into the mere historically conditioned material state, since its aspiration to uniqueness empties it of the possibility of entering the community of signifying acts as a subcategory in its own right. The energy required to create the gesture is consumed by the time its boundaries have been established, so that its ability to exercise an influence on the category pertinent to it is insignificant. Such gestures remain, like strangely visible black holes, at the still center of their own burnt-out identity. They exist solely on condition that they relinquish any claim to enter into more complexly fruitful formal associations except in the form of primitive chains or by a despairing reliance on the shaky mechanisms of the "Contrast Principle." By proclaiming their tendentially absolutist iconic pretensions they become, paradoxically, interchangeable, depersonalized tokens of generally (but only generally) recognizable categories of communicational activity, since it is principally by means of some degree of porousness that a gestural unit attains access to any viable framework of articulative possibilities. The sense of the arbitrarinessof a gesture increases in direct proportion to its fundamental isolation. The barriers erected against large-scale argument by this body of principles can be only partially surmounted by the acting-out of a state of affirmative monolithicity by the composing individual; even then, the degree of strained self-awareness demanded by such a role bears eloquent witness to the extent to which the creed of spontaneity remains distinctly fragile, reflecting the insistently subversive contradictions at its very core. The last available counter to this formal dislocation and inconsequentiality seems to be a version of programmatic revanchism-the imposition of arbitrary,external formal principles upon a repertoire of sign categories incapable of developing its own grammar of continuity. Thus, recent years have witnessed the reemergence of textbook forms


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such as variations, passacaglia, rondo, and the like: whilst there is nothing implausible per se in the employment of such molds it nevertheless seems likely that the current drive away from forms which are intimately interwoven with the expressive strategies of which they are composed represents a symptom of the abyss yawning between the immediate ideals and "image" of neoromantic aesthetic arguments, and the forced unnaturalness of their reification through abstract forms which are, themselves, the most persuasive witnesses to the lacunae in the naturalist position. If semantically loaded elements are to be called upon to guarantee directness of communication, the dilution of these same elements as a result of their integration in organic formal patterns leads to them being called into question as functioning iconic signals: if, on the other hand, more arbitrary formal models be imposed, the gestural elements retain their monadic innocence only at the considerable cost of appearing in a condition of radically schizophrenic disassociation from their circumambient context, which latter itself pretends to a more conventional interlocking of levels than is, in fact, present. On a larger scale, then, the arguments of this school of thought against so-called "Serial" music rebound upon its members with a vengeance. Forced inconsequentiality and a species of Neoconservatism are the logical endpoints of this trend. Material which exhausts itself in the violent flare of its own emergence into the world can scarcely serve as the basis for a revised concept of stylistic integrity, be this pluralisticallyorientated or not. Perhaps, for some, a period of polemic reductionism has been a necessary prelude to the reconsideration of stylistic means. If so, it would be pleasant to be able to foresee a renewed concentration, not upon still further vistas of readymade, found objects, but, by means of an intense investigation of the energy sources which invest gestural complexes with their propulsive drive towards the future, upon these lines of force themselves as in waiting. expression The situation outlined above has not been selected as a convenient weapon with which to attack particular individuals. It is intended far more to serve as one of several possible illustrations through which the need for new perspectives on the question of style might usefully be demonstrated. Of equal pertinence would also have been a consideration of that approach to pluralism which attempts to integrate elements extracted from various disparate cultural sources into a single "metastyle," since many of the arguments already offered would apply here in equal measure. It is not necessary to examine in very close detail the many works offering vast and fractured vistas of "quantum leaps" from one prefabricatedstylistic habitat to another. Where there is no conceivable answer to a problem, it appears likely that there is no problem. This would seem to be especially true in respect of stylistic plurality at the

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present time. In any case, it is at least very questionable if any single stylistic tendency could, by reason of creativeforcemajeure, provide that substitute "common language" whose present lack is loudly, if sometimes perfunctorily, lamented on all sides. Far more wide-reaching consequences would be achieved, not by praying for rain, but through a consequent and painstaking attempt to reconstruct the authenticity of a musical dialect-be it that of one or several composers-from the interstices out. Faced with that interpretation of style which concentrates largely on the surface characteristics of given materials, it would appear necessary to affirm the importance of the cumulative, developmental aspects of the endeavor. Elements do not simply appear, they emerge imbued with history-not only that ubiquitous but vague shadow of the past, but also, more significantly, their very own "autobiography," the scars of their own growth. Theories which depend on the exclusivity of the spontaneity/precalculation axis for their validation unwittingly depreciate the means in their own hands, since both postulated extremes presuppose channels of signification which remain imprisoned in the onedimensional suddenness of surface which a more deeply, more differentiatedly oblique species of discourse would avoid. The reintegration of some form of depth perspective depends on reestablishing contact between the surface features of a work and its inner, subcutaneous drives. Like the beautiful illusion of perfection offered by many virtuoso performers, the compositional style which aspires implicitly to the status of natural object denies us entry into the crossplay of forces by which that very illusion is sustained. It is thus imperative that the ideology of the holistic gesture be dethroned in favor of a type of patterning which takes greater account of the transformative and energic potential of the subcomponents of which the gesture is composed. It is a question, in the first instance, of the conscious employment of perceptual categories in respect of the "afterlife"of a gesture, since it is here, at the moment of dissolution, that the constrictive preforming of gestural material is able to be released as formal energy. A gesture whose component defining features-timbre, pitch contour, dynamic level, and so on-display a tendency towards escaping from that specific context in order to become independently signifying radicals, free to recombine, to "solidify" into further gestural forms may, for want of other nomenclature, be termed a figure. The deliberate enhancement of the separatist potential of specific parametric aspects of the figure produces a unit at one and the same time material presence, semantic sign, and temporary focus of the lines of organizational force until the moment of their often violent release. The concept of the parameter has become part of our communal creative experience. Whatever the pros and cons of aesthetic maneuvering as


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far as its original function is concerned, the term is surely indispensable if we wish to come to practical grips with the above-outlined notions. Regardless of the extent to which many composers might seek to persuade us that the analytical mobility of parametric inflection has been superseded by a return to the integral and indivisible nature of the emotive gesture, we should not permit ourselves to become confused: the power of such rhetorical assertions lies mainly in their undifferentiated substance, while the character of even minimally complex musical discourse is of quite another order. One of the most farreaching consequences of the sometimes over-literal manipulations typical of the "classical"serial period has been, not so much the flawless establishment of some materially egalitarian utopia of authorless creation, but, rather, the almost incidental demonstration that any form of sonic unit is the potential focus of many lines of directional energy. The acausally immobile quality of the parametric complexes in such compositions was not, in the first instance, a necessary consequence of parametric thinking as such but, rather, follows directly from the specific aesthetic positions adopted. The deepest doubts concerning serial thinking are related to the perception that total mobility of parametric deployment tended to generate a series of contextless monads, whose aural logic by no means obviously followed from the abstract rules of play to which they owed their existence. It was thus the overall decontextualization of parametric structuring which led inevitably to the decay of compositional credibility, not any particular inadequacy inhering in the view of sonic event as being a momentary fixing of a number of independently moving streams of information. On the contrary, the resultant "dematerialization"of the event, its radiation into, and illumination of its defining context, is an essential prerequisite for the establishment of those taut chains of mutually embedded perspectives without which the event must needs remain largely incommunicado in respect of larger formal concerns. In this fashion, the event experiences a return to itself as affective substance at the very moment at which the illusion of stable identity is processually transcended. A realistic reintegration of parametrically defined perspectives suggests the need for a stylistic ambience in which an uninterrupted movement from level to level, from largest to smallest element of form, is an ever-present possibility. A mode of composition which enhances the affective gesture with the energy to productively dissolve itself in a quasianalytical fashion suggests itself since, by adopting such a standpoint, the gesture is brought to function in several ways simultaneously, thus throwing its shadow beyond the limits set by its physical borders, while the strands of parametric information of which it is composed take on lives of their own-without, however, divorcing themselves from the

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concrete point of their common manifestation to such a degree that their independence on the processual level could ever pose a serious threat to to the credibility or integrity of the gesture itself. The enhanced figure, being primarily a subclass of the gesture, partakes of the general "speech resemblance" character of the latter, without at any point renouncing its essentially syntheticemphasis. Its very dependence on the material immediacy of the gestural manifestation guarantees that a return to the static inconsequentiality of neoserial hierarchies will be rendered improbable. The present state of value-free pluralism demands resolution, not in the continued search for some Holy Grail of "common language" (since this would also imply common purpose), but rather through the rigorous definition, both in the single work and in the work series, of a continuity of context in and through which particular vocableswhatever their incidental origins-may assume audible responsibility for the embodiment of a stylistic tradition in the making. The major prerequisite for such an undertaking, far from being the punctual selection of general types of surface feature, is the creation of a continuously evolving state of stylistic homogeneity. The current defeatist denunciation of "progress" need not inhibit this quest, since there is always room for a language which offers the listener a rich panorama of life-forms in motion. Progress in this sense is surely attainable. Only the conscious and systematic deconstruction of the gesture into semantically mobile figural constellations promises to overcome the former's inherent limitations, since it is the synthetic nature of the figure which permits the definition of the category through which it wishes to be heard, rather than vice-versa. Expressive energy derives, in large measure, from the impacting power of restriction; arrested motion has a peculiar force all its own, and it is precisely this impetus which informs the dissolution of the gesture into a cloud of liberated, form-building atoms. A musical element possesses radicallydifferent qualities, depending on whether it is presented as the evidential trace of a completed process, or as a concrete "given," the result and goal of unmediated invention. Analogously, we can imagine a species of form in which all contributory sonic events would be so formulated as to permit the differentiated radiation of their particles into a governing corona of classificatory hierarchies: it is this articulatedly febrile world of forces which remains for us to secure. Style is important as the vehicle for, and governing instance of, the expansion, diversification and combination of independently steered streams of formal potential. The progressive accretion, from work to work, of that form of aura which only long-term evolution can provide will be the most effective guarantee for the proper exploitation of such possibilities, no matter what surface characteristics an individual composer's style may display. More than ever, it is likely to be the consistency


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of whatever stylistic means are adopted that, simultaneously resisting and encouraging invention, will prove most capable of validating a species of expressive vitality which, like the architectural fantasies of Piranesi, does not content itself with remaining industriously imprisoned within the limits of the individual work.

Firstpublished in Englishin theDarmstaidter zur neuen Musik19 (1982). Beitrage