An Interview with Brian Ferneyhough

By · Title Image © Agathe Poupeney · Date 09/14/2017

To celebrate the 75th birthday of Coventry-born composer Brian Ferneyhough, the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group has invited the pioneering Arditti Quartet to perform his music in the heart of the Midlands. Also featuring Oliver Janes on clarinet and the conductor Emilio Pomarico, a concert on December Sunday, December 9 at 4 p.m. will present works by Ferneyhough, Jonathan Harvey, Charlotte Bray and Michael Wolters. Book tickets here.

To say about an artist that you “either love them or hate them” is a cliché. Talking about Brian Ferneyhough requires more precision. The absolute mastery of his work is unquestionable. So rather than loving or hating the music, you either worship it or reject its premise absolutely. It’s difficult to talk to a composer for any length of time without becoming aware of where they stand on Ferneyhough. Like all talk about music, what sometimes gets lost in the discussion is the pure effect of the music itself. Ferneyhough’s “Bone Alphabet,” for percussion, is primitive and intricate, like an ethnomusicology recording from a highly advanced alien civilization. His compositions are unique in their ability to engage the brain: as Arthur Kampela wrote in his playlist for VAN, the orchestra piece “La terre est un Homme,” for example, has a perceptual impact where “your mind is put in this strange place where you are hearing the sounds and at the same time trying to remember what you’ve just heard. It’s almost like you can see the sounds.”After several months of trying, I was finally able to reach Ferneyhough for an interview this summer. He had recently finished a major work, “The Tye Cycle,” for the festival Wittener Tage für Neue Kammermusik, in western Germany. Asked to speak on the phone from his home in California, he said that he preferred to have the conversation via email. “I fear I don’t have a spontaneous voice mode,” he wrote.  

VAN: What do you mean by that?

Brian Ferneyhough: In large part it comes from being a professor as well as a composer; that will do it to you! Also, a lot of being an artist of any sort has to do with internal dialogues which tend to end up winding around and around in formally predictable ways. Going back to my childhood, I didn’t have much opportunity for extensive verbal interaction, which meant that talking at all involved the construction of what I called “voice modes.” I just made the term up for you, but it covers all the bases.

What music do you listen to, say, in the car on your way to teach?

I don’t drive due to 55 years of narcolepsy/cataplexy, but, if I could, I can only imagine it in blissful silence. Perhaps you mean any non-professional situation? There, the need to listen comes in waves, perhaps a couple of weeks long, followed by weeks of not listening to anything musical. As to what, I listen to a lot of Renaissance and early Baroque, especially composers connected in some way to the Venetian schools, perhaps because I was a brass player in younger years.

Brian Ferneyhough, “Bone Alphabet”; James Beauton (Percussion)

How do you decide whether a piece of yours is a success or a failure?

I actually tend not to in terms of a work as a whole, which is not to deny that, from time to time, cringeworthy moments may intervene. Since I don’t revise works after their first performance—no time—I’m just out of luck if that happens. There are works of mine that I am less than enthusiastic about, but I find, with the passage of time, my preferences tend to change. Probably it has more to do with how distant from the Ferneyhough of the present a given work’s character is perceived to be, rather than something rational.

You’ve now spent about 30 years teaching composition in California. What is your connection with the place?

The first thing that comes to mind is the light. Britain is of notably dour climatic character, so being exposed on a regular basis to Californian sunshine has made me much more sensitive to, and dependent on, this amazing luminance. My connection to the physical place is probably less than many other immigrants, in that I carry out my composing facing, if possible, a featureless blank wall. Because of my medical condition I don’t get around a lot—just a couple of times a year for a few days to San Francisco. As a teacher I tend to see my ambience very much in terms of my pupils, colleagues, and the university environment. I’ll be retiring from Stanford next summer, so it will be interesting to see how the balance changes.

Photo Charlotte Oswald
Photo Charlotte Oswald

Are there places in your own music that you find hard to imagine in your head, to sing, tap the rhythm of?

Of course there are—not the imagining in my head, but the rest. As musicians we all have to walk the iffy tightrope between exactitude and personal interpretation. My intensive work over many years with the Arditti Quartet underlines the sometimes odd relationship between “what” and “why.” The same is true for any music of practically any period. I frequently have lucid dreams where I practice conducting superimposed irrational values in long chains, so it’s clearly an issue which occupies my mind. All replication of problematic proportions or pitch relationships is necessarily based on having a natural sensitivity for context, for what particular abstract demands translate to in terms of possible forms of continuity.

Brian Ferneyhough, “Umbrations”; Brad Lubman (Conductor), Arditti String Quartet, Ensemble Modern

As someone with a degree in composition, frankly, your scores make me feel a lot of self-doubt—I know I would never be able to master even the simpler pieces on an instrument, or even tap or sing out the rhythm.

I’m sorry you feel that. When I was first starting out professionally it was almost impossible to find performers to take even moderately intricate scores seriously. After moving to [continental Europe] I was fortunate to come into contact with a number of young performers eager to confront and surmount the challenges offered. That changed everything. It’s possible to survive as a lone wolf, but much more fruitful to be an active part of a lively intellectual and creative community.

I was never a fully committed performer, although I did quite a lot of conducting of contemporary music in Britain before the cataplexy forced me to reluctantly give it up. I was a self-taught flutist and oboist as well as a semi-professional brass player, so I was well aware of the threshold values of notation. Still, my capability to perform my own music definitely came to a close with “Cassandra’s Dream Song” of 1970. An early practical encounter with unusual degrees of notational complexity made me hyper-aware of the minutiae of instrumental technique and to what degree the limitations and irregularities typical of classical instruments could be built into compositional language—all information very useful for a teacher.

Brian Ferneyhough, “Cassandra’s Dream Song”; Denizcan Eren (Flute)

Are you aware of the Brian Ferneyhough parody twitter account? It uses a photo and bio of yours, but writes things like, “they should make a sequal called BOSSSSSS BbABY GATORRR where the baby is a bossssss but a alligator also.”

Oh yes, I’m aware of it. My wife discovered it and reports back from the trenches once every six months or so. From what she tells me, your example actually seems more inadvertently literary than the more robotic scatological postings. But who am I to deny needy sub-de Sadeans their therapeutic effusions? Perhaps I should set up a counter-site dedicated to my own poetic aperçus? ¶