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Il Tempo della Figura Author(s): Brian Ferneyhough Source: Perspectives of New Music, Vol. 31, No.

1 (Winter, 1993), pp. 10-19 Published by: Perspectives of New Music Stable URL: . Accessed: 21/03/2011 19:12
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N HIS POEM "Self-portrait in a Convex Mirror" John Ashbery says of dreams: They seemed strange only because we couldn't actually see them And we realized this only at a point where they lapse Like a wave breaking on a rock, giving up Its shape in a gesture that expresses that shape. I propose to return to this haunting image later in my presentation as offering some hints as to possible resolutions of a whole succession of problems facing contemporary composition, especially in respect of the relationship between musical style and the perception of discursive, form-generating energy.

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The term figure has been employed with a vast spectrum of nuance over the course of several centuries: on the one hand, this renders its useful present-day definition an all but impossible task; on the other, there would seem nothing inherently objectionable in adding one more definition to those already extant, especially since long searching has led me reluctantly to conclude that no better general term is available for the precise distinction I have in mind. In particular, I would like to avoid any examination of historically mediated usage at this point. What specifically interests me is the extent to which some form of clear distinction between (1) the global delineation of a musical shape and (2) its internal potential for assisting in the creation of musical states with which it is not coextant is a prerequisite for achieving a more precise insight into the present problematic condition of compositional/formal thinking. In the first instance, we are talking of a fundamental semantic/ syntactic fissure; the gesture means, for the most part, by virtue of reference to specific hierarchies of symbolic convention-either artificially established ones or, more basically still, those deriving, by means of abstraction and analogy, from species of bodily comportment. It has been in this area, rather than in the field of musically immanent, synthetic meaning generation, that the late Twentieth Century has wreaked many of its more offensive depredations, since very few generally accepted gestural vocables have managed to withstand the storms of dissolution and renewal so characteristic of the last forty years. Response to this deprivation has been especially regressive of late, in that significant numbers of composers have taken to looking back towards a supposedly pristine and (crucial assumption!) somehow more "natural"era of musical communication in which compositional means stood in an intimate and unproblematic relationship with whatever "content" (emotional states?) music was implicitly assumed to manifest. While it is clear that this attitude towards the cultural recycling of disjectamembraof previous epochs is not to be uncritically rejected as a means of assuring the "shock effect" demanded by W Benjamin, it seems equally plausible to assume that an increasingly marked preference for historically preformed elements will lead to a partial disenfranchisement of those same elements. such units out of the contexts which Ripping gave them being leads to a fatal debilitation of their innate expressive powers at the same time as their integration into new montage forms demands precisely this unimpaired semantic impact in order to support and bring out the envisaged innovatory impact of their juxtaposition. Denuded of their auratic mantles, such isolated elements present themselves, more often than not, as references to anterior worlds of sensibility rather than as their symbolic reevocation. It must be admitted that music seems significantly more problematic in this respect than the visual arts, where conventions may


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be said to exist prior to any particular realization. In music, in contrast, it is difficult to envision semantic units entirely divorced from the specific succession of processes engendering them. It is perhaps for this reason that quotation has, in music, such a powerful capacity for undermining discursive identity. The same can be said, to a lesser extent, of more generalized stylistic reference. One possible counter to this pervasive problem is the return to a semanticity largely dependent on information resistant to concretization in a "supercontextual" manner. It is on the basis of this consideration that the figure is proposed as an element of musical signification composed entirely of details defined by their contextual disposition rather than their innate, stylistically defined referential capacity. The synchronic is replaced by diachronic successivity as the central mode of "reading" musical states, for the reason that a progressive, accretional definition of musical vocables is indispensable if a counterweight to the suffocating presence of historically concrete stylistic triggers is to be created. In this presentation I will be examining various paths towards the isolation of figural significance and, in particular, will be focusing on the concepts of musical energy and lines offorce as being of some utility in making more precise the envisioned relationship between musical objects (seen as morphologically discrete, self-consistently affective signals) and those formal perspectives suggested by the interaction of local, ancillary aspects of those same objects considered as free-floatingly mobile structural radicals possessing the potential to unfold and reproduce themselves in independently meaningful linear trajectories. Returning to the Ashbery citation from the beginning: two main ideas seem to be inextricably entwined in those few lines. Firstly, the view that the present constitutes itself only as sensed absence; secondly, that our "lifeline" to reality might perhaps be interpreted as a special form of motion. What, after all, is "expression"but a sort of passage from one state to another, in which neither the presumptive beginning and end points are primary, but rather the "no longer" and "not yet" whose impressio they bear. In this context, the image of the wave refers both to some natural, unformed undertow of creative potential, shaping events according to whatever form of dynamic law, and to the fleetingly insubstantial moment of perception, born along on the crest of the wave as an unrepeatable trace of being. The energy entrapped in the wave (which is, in a sense, the wave) being ejected into concrete form by the unyielding resistance of the rock, is instrumental in effecting the transition from the physical to the configurational, thereby becoming invested, as action, with symbolic stature. Force, as the liberation of entrapped energy, finds its counterpart in an energy definable as the application of force to a resistant object. The intersection of these trajectories in the musical discourse is the locus of the present, which is thus weighted, at any given

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juncture, by a unique balance of tensions, a unique "fingerprint." Thus: musical force and musical energy are not identical. Energy is invested in concrete musical objects to the extent that they are capable of rendering forces acting upon them visible. Lines of force arise in the space between objects-not space as a temporal lacuna, atopia, but at that moment of conceptual differentiation in which identity is born-and take as their vehicular object the connective impetus established in the act of moving from one discrete musical event to another. There are objects which resist distortion by the forces directed at them; their damaged, violated integrity signals to us the measure of those same forces and energies deployed: it is their "expressivehistory." Just as some musical objects are comparatively more resilient, so the nature and power of the forces to which they are exposed need to be calculated with a view to gradual "weathering," erosion, or their sudden omnidirectional "dematerialization." At such moments it is the line of force itself which, like a wave, assumes momentary physical shape as a spectral foreground projected onto the cloud of energized particles seeking opportunity to congeal into a further, gesturally coherent (delimited) object. The gesture is "frozen force" to the extent that it stands for expressive sentiment, for an absent exchange of expressive energies. The gestural vocable is, in many ways, comparable to the individual word, in that it may be usefully recognized in radically diverse contexts and manifested through a vast variety of individual nuance. One may thus register the semantic component of a gesture without feeling constrained to follow through the implications of the received information, thereby activating the inner structure and constitution of the gesture itself. To some extent, the affective content of the gesture is only loosely related to its apperceptible surface; the figural activity thus consists, in part, of devising means of ensuring that the latent volatility of the gesture burst through this contingent carapace in order to liberate that surplus of discursivity hitherto locked into the interstices of the sonic object. In certain interpretations of tonal music, the gesture rises to figural status via the specificities of its harmonic embedding; it is individuated by its evident contextual utility. One readily appreciates why this type of figural energy was, in the final analysis, autodestructive, in that increasingly extreme individuation led irreversibly to the dissolution of the activating framework-tonality-itself. It seems to me to be vital that the composer seek to establish broadly comparable relations between the quasi-denotational sense of the gesture and its less specific connotational import. If the individual gesture is perceived as the mere casual exemplification of, say, a particular rhetorical category, the individuation of its component elements degenerates to the status of incidental embellishment. If, on the other hand, this very same individuation assumes such particularized independence, the topos from which it


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emerges recedes beyond the "recognition threshold." The balancing of these aspects in a continual process of give-and-take is situated at the core of the figural enhancement issue: if, as I believe, the purpose of the figure in much recent music is situated parallel to the progressive decay of "background" posited above, then the process is presently cycling through at a significantly more rapid rate of flow. At such velocities of figural dissolution and re-formation the gestural object itself threatens to break up, being replaced with a shimmering web of energy exchange. Thus it is that we sense a disturbing and fundamental fracture between the concrete presence of the sound object and any credible contextbound validation in terms of functional (figural) projection. The search, in recent decades, for ever more innovative sonic characteristicsmight, in this light, be seen as a dim reflection of the sense of unease which is provoked when the impotent, immobile object and an adequately autonomous structuring methodology fail to coincide. The idea of the figure as mediating instance assumes great constructive significance in such a situation, to the extent that emphasis is placed on the structurally mediating capacity of concrete gestural qualities. John Ashbery employs the image of consciousness as the crest of a wave, always changing the material of which it is composed, always driven forward by the sea's restless energy but, in a certain sense (like all wave forms) not really moving. The function and nature of the figure are closely allied to this image: musical consciousness is always the impingement of the past upon the array of possible futures to which (pace Derrida) it continually defers. The moment itself is defined, not by any constancy of material substratum, but by its motion; it is the projection of figural energies which make the pointer visibleby means of which the motion is measured. The idea of the figure is locked, for me, precisely at the intersection of the defined, concretely apperceptible gesture and the estimation of its "criticalmass," its energic volatility. Both aspects are generated by means of broadly equivalent means; if this were not so, a large-scale modulation, employable as a linguistic tool, would scarcely be conceivable. The figure delivers momentary perceptual frames-stage sets-capable of projecting particular hypothetical evaluational categories into the still-tobe perceived future of the discourse. To some extent, we recognize and locate the nature of such a frame while still physically living through the decay and dissipation of one or more anterior frames, whereby the partial superincumbence or "cross fading" of an indeterminate series of prior states comes to provide a significant, albeit necessarily fluid and evolutionary perspectival orientation. The late German author Arno Schmidt employed the term "lochriges Dasein" (perforated Being) when attempting to come to grips with the structure of individual experience. He suggested that perception is characterized less by a hypothetical unbroken stream of consciousness, along

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which a sovereign subject moves, than by a series of relatively independent and uniquely specific experiential monads-favored instants of great depth and spiritual resonance. Between these brilliantly illuminated points, for him, lie indefinite quantities of instants distinguished by various degrees of flatter, duller sensibility, where time itself moves according to different laws. Thus, the composer needs to attain some degree of control over this perspectival fluctuation if he aspires to master his means in anything like their full formal and expressive potential. Means must be determined to generate distinguishable degrees of purposive depth which, in my view, the steady flow of gestural rhetoric is no longer (if indeed it ever was) capable of assuring. To the extent that the present stage of compositional ideology tends to favor surface interaction of sometimes only primitively related emotive signifiers it inevitably encourages the acceptance of an "all-over," onedimensional rationale of the perception/reception connex. I do not believe that this assumption can ever adequately do justice to the mind's need for insightful reordering of the experientially given, even though it naturally forms one link in the chain whereby significance is assigned. The subsuming of as many phenomena as possible to criteria of a dual nature-gestural as well as figural-allows for an infinity of intermediate steps, of contextually determinable and evaluable relationships between the crest of the wave and the hidden forces investing the marine deep. It is not my intention to suggest a fundamental schism between the figure and all other vehicles of musical meaning. In reality, it is more fruitful to speak offigural aspectsof this or that concretely extant vocable, constellation or formal unit. No figure is exclusively or merely a figure, just as no gesture is ever devoid of its proper aura of figural connotations to be activated at will. Our central concern will therefore be the establishment of criteria of intentionality: if parametric constituents of gestures are not to be more plausibly perceived as largely independent of their "matrix" (in the sense of being consciously "aimed" elsewhere) we will scarcely be able to speak of their particular directionalenergies. The possibility of the analogical treatment of diverse sonic characteristics is certainly the conceptual pivot of figurally orientated thinking and associated procedures. Without the ability to "infiltrate"the structure of the work on various parallel levels composers would scarcely find themselves possessed of the capacity to trap, accumulate, and strategically redirect the energies which the figural dissolution of the gesture calls forth. One way of achieving "depth perspective" will be to seek procedural modalities amenable to being transferredat will from one point of observation in the field to one or more others. A single example will suffice to illustrate the general direction I have in mind. The following string of rhythmic values is capable of being modified and redeployed on


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multiple concurrently operative levels, for instance: (a) internal structural consistency (degrees of long-short relationship); (b) transformational potential (the sensing of a certain tendency or processuality in the progression from "very long" to "very short" within a group, as opposed to the progressive transformation of the two values into longer and shorter on a much subtler scale) (Example 1).

r n:J J

J. rn

It will quickly become apparent that some lines of force are already at work: if these patterns are allowed to submergein order to assume the role of ordering models, as opposed to concretely present sonic entities, we can sense the added depth of perspective which resorting to such analogical displacement renders possible. For instance, other materials or processes may be predicated onto these patterns of comportment in ways tending to confirm or deny patterns of sensation already promoted; the periodicity of the superimposed elements may be quite at odds with the predominantly linear tendency of the models, or else the two layers may conjoin in the production of a still more long-term, secondary periodicity, where tendencies owing their origins to distinct and diverse generational precepts coincide with a perceptible jolt after a span of independent deviation. The energies released by these patterns on different levels can be longer- or shorter-term in nature-in the latter case it will be clear that processing the figural import is likely to occupy a significantly greater time span than the superficial registering of elements predominantly according to the weight of their gestural aspects. In fact, such considerations have little to do with neoserial manias for order; rather, they reveal a path towards the redefinition of function through the context-bound deployment of local, informal parametric manipulation. The constant creation of "fuzzy parameters"of this sort is the primary purpose of the figure, to the extent that it supports the deconstruction and subsequent opening up of the self-enclosed organism in an indefinite number of possible directions. A few variations derived from the example already given will, I believe, be of more utility than lengthy commentary: it will be evident that "lines of force" have a major role to play in situations of this genre (Example 2).

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r 6:7 5:3,--r- 3




3:2 5:4--, 5:4 r5 --3 3-

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Ts.... ..-- -

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(3) -I -----------------I



(2) J -2-------------EXAM


In Example 2a, the tendency of the original example towards the elimination of longer values in each cell unit has been compromised by the distortion of these latter by means of the imposition of irregular measure lengths, in which an initial increase in duration is followed by a more rapid decrease. The line of force informing the basic linear formation has thus become partially obscured by an equally fundamental, but less immediately apperceivable tendency-a process which thus imposes two tendency-modifying operations on the individual components of the sequence instead of the single step of Example 1. In Example 2b, the original relationship obtaining between the cells has been maintained (in that all durational pairs have identical global durations) but rendered still less evident by the combination of two opposing movements, that is to say, a reduction in the number of equidistant impulses contained in the total value of the first component of each cell, while the number of impulses dividing the second value increases. Even leaving out of consideration the measure length distortion it will be clear that this sort of energy redistribution is more perceptually problematic in a total process of relatively short duration by reason of the significantly increased amount of information to be evaluated. Example 2c illustrates the possibility of a superposition of two tendencies with different rates of change. Successive groups of three, two and five subdivisions have been


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mapped onto the durations furnished by our initial cell but, because there are now three subdivision values as against two global values in each basic cell unit, a progressive encroachment of the two figural levels occurs. If these techniques are repeated over the total duration of a fragment of whatever length, their homogeneity will tend to be registered, to a certain degree, as a subcutaneous phenomenon, as a regulator permitting other aspects of the discourse to be exposed more effectively. If, moreover, the other parametric variables, such as instrumentation, register, pitch, secondary articulation etc. are taken into account, there is clearly a vast scope for multiple stratification of formally significant linear, figurally fuelled impetus. The more that individual aspects are reunited as concrete gestural elements, the more their contextual independence engineers rich conflicts between the thereby accumulated energy and its forceful dissolution. The idea of a return to some form of rhetorically specific figural vocabulary in contemporary compositional practice would, prima facia, seem to presuppose a communality of language and intent such as to render the individual work (as expression of primarily subject-specific states of consciousness) more or less superfluous. The rejection of this self-defeating pseudo-option leads to the conclusion that some form of diachronic (linear, processual... ) procedure of figural definition needs to be mobilized in the search for musical significance in the context of any given closed form. The fact that such relationships remain, at best, imprecisely quantifiable according to generally accepted evaluative criteria is by no means an insuperable obstacle, since the existence of such ubiquitous norms would be tantamount to a species of metalanguage, fulfilling a similar role to that mentioned above in connection with rhetorical topoi.It is the glaring absence of such binding scales of value that, in the final analysis, renders the existence of the individual work necessary. Acceptance of these hypotheses would seem to imply the possibility of direct interrelationship of figures by way of the selective interpenetration/exchange of common component elements, whereby it would be the progress of this informal processuality which would decisively dictate the relative power of specific instances of figural activity. The accumulation of several layers of such interpenetrational/amplificatory activity with respect to diverse parametric qualities would both increase the degree of inbinding of particular layers in the discourse and ensure that no layer would exhaust itself in the mere act of thrusting the discourse over the hurdle separating it from subsequent instances of figural deployment: a form of statistical "safety net" would spread. The capacity of distinct aspects of the figure to create credible examples of powerful ordering categories along the lines sketched out above should be seen as one measure of its compositional utility, while its capacity for generating multiple

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(simultaneous and/or successive) streams of directionality (allowing time to flow not only horizontally but also "vertically"and "obliquely") in the sense of forcing the attention to accelerate or retard scanning operations according to the degree of interlocking-and thus resistance-of figural elements) promotes the onward-flowing projection of multiple or ambiguous perspectives, of "depth effect" in the prioritization of the sonic objects themselves. The search for a fixed definition of the term "figure" is, in my view, an enterprise of at best doubtful utility. It will, I hope, have emerged from the above considerations that a figure does not exist, in material terms, in its own autonomous right; rather, it represents a way of perceiving, categorizing and mobilizing concrete gestural configurations, whatever the further purpose of these latter might be. It implies compositional attitudes, since it will be these attitudes which, by revealing themselves gradually, form the measure according to which we are enabled to perceptually ground the continuing flow of the discourse. Music is not dead material, nor yet abstract form. Still less is it meaningless maneuvering in an uncaring, arbitraryvoid. The idea of the figure seen as a constructive and purposive reformulation of the gesture should clear the path for aura, the visionary ideal of a work entering into conversation with the listener as if it were another aware subject.We, as composers, do not only manipulate material; it signals to us--by means of the ordered freeing up and redisposing of figural energies-what it itself desires. If this concept seems unduly metaphorical: what is musical meaning, if not the revelation of new perspectives according to constantly mutating sets of (musically immanent) rules of play?

Firstpublished, in Italiantranslation, in: Quaderni dellaCivica Scuola di Musicadi Milano, 1985.