You are on page 1of 4

Brian Ferneyhough on Music and Words


Brian Ferneyhough on Music and Words

December 2004

Unlike my approaches to stylistic continuity in instrumental
compositions, I have always begun a new vocal work with a
certain amount of trepidation. This is, to be sure, partly to do with
entering the complex world of another artist as, as it were, an
overweening late-comer; whilst this is of course not to be
understated, it does not lie at the centre of my concerns, which is
to be found, rather, in the array of implicit or explicit fault lines
exposed by two world systems, those of verbal / conceptual as
opposed to musical discourse.

I have sometimes spoken of music as being, if not a language,
them amenable to being treated as if it were a language. This
primarily operative assumption aids my stylistic evolution to the
extent that it enables me to ignore wider philosophical concerns
which, because articulating more abstract issues, are likely to
stand in the way of concrete, context oriented enactments of
meaning production. One might imagine, I suppose, that this
would render the alliance of poetic texts and musical con-texts
less, rather than more, problematic: in fact, however, it is not
infrequently precisely this twofold emphatic emplacement of
aesthetic locality which gives rise to a fatal flaw or discontinuity
which the composer ignores at his peril.

Thus we are left with alternate but equally enervating states of
affair. On the one hand, the demands of 'standard received'
textual conventions - sentence structure, accentuation, case
agreements and the like - relentlessly conspire to undermine
optimal deployment of musically immanent parsing devices; on
the other, the very departure from these norms which
characterizes much highly-individuated poetic locution presents
the composer with the prospect of text-music discontinuities of
daunting proportions. Since it is usually music (as the aptly
named 'setting') which is imagined as faithfully serving the text
by displaying it to best advantage, the composer not prepared to
accept this ritual self-effacement is constrained to formulating
and realizing quite complex work-specific strategies. In effect, he
must accept, re-inscribe and thus empower this fundamental
fracture of communicative discursivity as the price of creative

Let me offer here only two examples from 20th Century vocal
practice. Firstly, I would argue that the striking discontinuity
experienced when reading the George texts taken by Schönberg
for 'Das Buch der Hängenden Gärten' serves a double purpose.
Who does not experience the energized void, the ephemeral
flickerings of transience evoked by the musical rhetoric (if such
be the appropriate term for the undissimulated energeticism of

1 de 4 10-01-2007 23:28

the crude dandyish formality of the texts themselves. The composer who ignores or seeks to cosmeticize this discontinuity can scarcely avoid locating himself on one side or the other of this basic divide. On occasion. If. My second example. the moment of ultimate dematerialized release. we succeed in finding new ways. and ultimately consume (and. Here. for instance. It is difficult for me to completely separate my identity as a composer from that of pedagogue. fleeting and yet potent sense of Innerlichkeit. When text is involved one needs. proposing to us a refreshingly uncloying perspective of compositional liberty in other dimensions of decision making. perhaps as the ubiquitous self-mirroring of the row forms in late Webern frees us from the slavish reconstruction of redundantly through-rationalized enactments of epistemological legitimization.html expressive identity) in these songs? It is to be sure the transience of the historically-bounded. ironically validate). I find myself frequently asking myself the same questions that I might pose to a pupil as a way of surmounting a creative obstacle. Who could argue that this staging of symbolic re-absorbtion of the Romantic subject into the luxuriously oceanic presence of voluptuously tempting materiality does not provide the composer with the opportunity to posit another. I am strongly persuaded of the expediency of undertaking the assimilative process in several discontinuous steps. to acquire a sense of the degree to which the active sense of its context is to be rendered account of in the conjoined form. one encounters the composer himself applying himself with exuberant excess to the creation of musical forms which both distance themselves from. A certain degree of autonomy may be defined along this path. of mapping and resonating the divide this is still a challenge worth the candle. the text to be set is viewed initially as 'available material' there are many qualities contributory to its aesthetic presence which can serve the composer's purpose in. at the same time we cannot by any manner of means discount the fact that this release is achieved on the basis of poetic incorporation of sultry. in restrospect. is 'Pierrot Lunaire'. If. an inwardness of the moment? In the same way. here.buffalo. above all. it is sometimes impossible to say with certainty at which points the transcriptive effusion of vocal usage flows over into the circumambient instrumental environment. also from Schönberg. Common to both these examples is the awareness of the impossible fracture I spoke of at the outset.Brian Ferneyhough on Music and Words http://epc. so the suddenness of Schönbergian expressivity in this seminal work is predicated on the presence of George's ultimate foregrounding of mediation. though. as it were. musical and textual imagery go hand in hand. world-weary imagery and extreme self-aware artificiality of structure. no matter how provisional or work-specific. the prelapsarian space of 2 de 4 10-01-2007 23:28 .

then folded back in at a later stage of the compositional process. in that a single voice invariably engenders the impression of a single individual who speaks. in contrast. The first scene (the evening of Walter Benjamin's suicide on the Spanish border in 1940) and the fifth both accept the conventions of dramatic identity of individual In order to ameliorate this for me unfamiliar intimacy of person and 'voice' I adopted two distinct strategies. Oftentimes this impression proves more powerful than whatever other aspects of the text the composer is attempting to address. Each of my own vocal works has necessarily given rise to lengthy reflections on such matters. I asked Charles Bernstein. Text setting is always a process. This he achieved. Vital concerns of a developing musical language (however defined) must withstand the test of fire and prove themselves equal. They may be similar.html fractureless innocence. above all.Brian Ferneyhough on Music and Words http://epc. in that the expression of time passing in the sedimentation and mutual infiltration of incommensurables contributes to the sense of distance or proximity with which text and music speak to (or past) one another. work on my 'Shadowtime' has caused me to reflect upon the conventions of characterization. each with its own ensemble of 3 de 4 10-01-2007 23:28 .or failed . In choral music. so that I was able to modulate with great fluidity between very diverse levels of structure and music . an independent poetic text. Information gleaned from such considerations can be deployed by the composer either as conceptual regulators or as value-free quanta to be regarded as equals in precompositional dispositions. In Scene 1. although the action evolves in real time. the obvious degree to which the text is 'orchestrated' is a constant corrective to overly simplified and assimilative modes of reading. mass exchange of segments) and be. The latter is. to produce a text that at one and the same time would accept manipulation (permutation.on the innate degree of plausibility with which sufficient aspects of the textual dimension are first of all bracketed out. repetition. to the formal or pragmatic concerns of the text. somewhat easier to deal with than the former. At this point I should finally make the not insignificant distinction between solo vocal and choral music. The empowering aspects of the fracture come increasingly to the fore the more the communal materiality of text and music are invoked.buffalo. several independent layers of action. my librettist. important. in my experience. and each work has succeeded . himself fully awake to this complex of issues. in its own right. in any given work. they may be (as in the first Schönberg example) crassly distinct.text interaction. Most recently. is the composer's awareness of the mutual incomprehension. the use of received historical forms as mediational instances and the nature and demands of libretti. Remembering my previous experience in vocal music.

each of which is both clearly set off from the rest by considerations of choral / instrumental disposition and re-integrated in retrospect by a slowly emerging large-scale set of formal correspondences.buffalo. 4 de 4 10-01-2007 23:28 . representing Benjamin (more precisely his post mortem avatar) interrogated by a series of figures taken from history or mythology also seeks to present each character through a specific set of musical devices.lies at the heart of all vocal composition. vying for prominence and. explicit. are superimposed.). passacaglia. and it is this dimension which permitted me to continually re-initialize the power of auratic distance from movement to movement. I sought to recall to the mind's eye the vital fracture of word and world. form of Objectivizing instance here is the fact that each encounter also adopts the conventions of a particular historical musical genre (rondo. therefore. The 'other' in this instance is the addition of computer generated sounds. in addition. thus forcing the ear to distance itself from the totality of what is heard in order to focus on specific instantiations of character projection. The final scene is likewise for choral forces only. Like the writings of Benjamin himself. isorhythmic motet. 'Doctrine' concerns itself in the first instance not with presentation but 're-presentation'. although 'The Doctrine of Similarity' seeks to maintain a fragile sense of permanent recalibration of sense and mutual dissent by being divided into thirteen separate movements. two distinct texts are presented simultaneously.html voices and imagery.nolens volens . On a more intimate level. Scene 5. On each level. All other vocal music throughout 'Shadowtime' is choral in nature. of world within world which . whereby the succession of interrogations on the stage is paralleled by an overview of the development of occidental musical forms from the 11th to the 19th Century. Perhaps the larger temporal scale involved in music theatrical projects demands a more excessive or. quodlibet etc.Brian Ferneyhough on Music and Words http://epc. there are many abrupt interventions of settings of an artificial 'negative vector' language of my own devising. at any rate.