brian ferneyhough
in conversation with joshua cody
photo: betty freeman

Brian Ferneyhough was born in Coventry, England, in 1943. He received formal musical training at the Birmingham School of Music and the Royal Academy of Music, London. In 1968 he was awarded the Mendelssohn Scholarship, which enabled him to continue his studies in Amsterdam with Ton de Leeuw, and the following year obtained a scholarship to study with Klaus Huber at the Basel Conservatoire.

Following Ferneyhough's move to mainland Europe, his music began to receive much wider recognition. At the 1968 Gaudeamus Composers' Competition in Holland he was awarded a prize for Sonatas for String Quartet and this success was repeated in 1969 and 1970 with Epicycle and Missa Brevis. The Italian section of the ISCM at its 1972 competition gave Ferneyhough an honorable mention (second place) for Firecycle Beta and two years later a special prize for Time and Motion Study III which was considered the best work submitted in all categories.

He was made Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1984 and an Associate of the Royal Academy of Music in 1990. From 1973 to 1986 Ferneyhough taught composition at the Musikhochschule in Freiburg, Germany. Between 1984 and 1987 he regularly gave master classes at the Civica Scuola di Musica, Milan. In 1986-87 he held the position of principal composition teacher at the Royal Conservatoire of The Hague. He has been a Professor of Music at the University of California, San Diego since 1987.

Joshua Cody, artistic director of the Ensemble Sospeso, conducted this interview in the fall of 1996.

I found your comment that "the most significant recent development in contemporary (complexist) music is a global absorption of irrational metrical structures" fascinating, especially the suggestion that such a development is a parallel, in the world of rhythm, to "an increasing fascination with microtonality." Would you care to expand on what you are envisioning here?

I wonder where I said that! Actually, most things I say in public lead more or less directly to my own compositional practice, so I should be careful about generalizing lest they come back to haunt me. Probably what I meant to express was the sense that meter has long been a relatively under-utilized resource, and that one thing I have been attempting for quite a while now has been a consistent re-integration of metric structure into the way we process unfamiliar sonic information. Meter represents a very useful form of middle ground mediational compartmentalization with respect to perceived time flow, and allows one to deal more delicately with aspects of fine-tuning in the prevailing realm of time-space analogy and its inconsistencies and ambiguities. I don't really hear meter as a form of pulse hierarchization but rather as a quantified space to be experientially articulated and differentiated. I therefore assume that relative ratios between different-length measures are to some significant degree appreciable in and of themselves. That is certainly the basis for my pre-compositional operations, anyway, where I frequently compose out the entire metric structure of a piece in modified cyclic form, where each cyclic revolution undergoes some form of 'variation' much as if measure lengths were concrete musical 'material.' In the 90s, I have been at IRCAM annually, and working on Patchwork's until then under-exploited rhythm capabilities has encouraged me to attempt to link up what goes on within a measure more insistently with what happens between measures. Most recently, I have begun reflecting these fundamental ratios in terms of patterned cutting between a number of superincumbent virtual realizations of identical data, so that the tendencies invoked on the local level are also present in terms of the overall tendencies exhibited by the form.

The so-called 'irrational' measure lengths, i.e. those based on beats expressed in terms of fractions of full beats in the prevailing tempo, thus giving rise to such time signatures as 3/10 or 5/24, are useful as local 'dissonances' serving to refocus attention and instantiate reassessment of the prevailing temporal perspective. A somewhat distant analogy would be the metric modulations typical of Elliott Carter's music, where a steady pulse in one tempo would continue across at exactly the same perceived rate in a new tempo, albeit notated differently, thus providing the performers with a constant unit of measurement when undertaking complex series of tempo modifications. I said earlier that these pulses are not normally present to the same degree in my own practice or, at most, are present only fleetingly through two adjacent measures. I find that such 'irrational' measures serve as a useful buffer between local changes of event density and actual changes of base tempo, which latter I interpret as being a more thorough-going radical intervention. Other composers have taken this particular technique much further than I in the meantime, with the result that the Law of Diminishing Returns has begun to apply.

As far as the—admittedly loose—parallel with microtonal systems is concerned, there seems, in my opinion, to be a considerable number of highly recognizable categories of rhythmic patterning (for instance, self-similar—fractal—patterns) at least as capable as various currently propagated categories of microtonal usage of being reproduced and recognized. General educational practice, unfortunately, takes little cognizance of either area.


The word is that your séjour in the U.S. is coming to an end. What effect has living in America had on your compositional output? What effects do you foresee arising from a return to Europe?

When I left Europe in 1987 I did so with the thought that my relevance as a composition teacher would benefit from a certain cool distance to certain tendencies I had been observing for several years with increasing disquiet. Sometimes one can be so closely involved with things that the larger context is lost to view. I feel very grateful to San Diego for enabling me to keep intensely functioning as a teacher of high-grade pupils while maintaining my connections in Europe, where I have continued to teach several courses a year. This year I'll be in Darmstadt, Hungary, Paris, Royaumont, and Japan.

What effect these nine years have had or will have on my composing I really don't know—probably I'll be the last one to find out. Certainly being in California has encouraged a sustained commitment to rethinking the nature, purposes, and relevance of the contemporary arts, specifically music, for a society which by and large seems to manage quite well without them. I have come provisionally to feel that I have reassessed certain problematic aspects of my own artistic roots and, in so doing, have completed some sort of not very clearly-defined cycle. The recent appearance of my Collected Writings has of course tended to mark a psychological milestone of sorts in my relation to things theoretical. I doubt if I would have invested the effort involved in producing that collection had I chosen to remain in the comfortable embrace of an increasing rigidified European New Music ambiance. Naturally enough, I couldn't have foreseen the vast sea change which has come upon that scene as a result of German reunification and associated events. I suppose that the scope and implications of such forces have rendered my personal accounting ritual pretty much obsolete. That's how things sometimes go.


At the risk of being impertinent, any insight into what you have determined 'problematical' concerning your artistic roots would be very enlightening for those fascinated by your aesthetic development.

You must forgive me if I don't get too specific here. It would probably be extremely difficult to find an artist whose roots were not, to some significant degree, "problematical," since it is this body of personal experience—filtered, to be sure, through communally articulated channels—which fuels one's own perceptions of selfhood. Leaving Great Britain in my mid-twenties did not permit me to erase whatever had brought me to that parting of the ways; quite the opposite, in fact. Whatever transformations my creative self may have undergone in the interim have been counterpointed, as it were, by the living ensemble of those earlier concerns and the circumstances under which they were defined. Similarly, the delineation and development of my core aesthetic concerns has largely come about by way of the juggling and realigning of what sometimes seemed to be hopelessly mutually incommensurable sets of value-defining systems, some specifically musical, some not. This was possible only by dint of extended periods of frequently quite painful reflection and digestion. When I speak of "cycles," I am referring to lengthy intervals of relative homogeneity, if not in the resolving of problems, than at least with respect to the consistency of their capacity to productively irritate. The past nine years in San Diego have represented such a period of questioning. As so often in life, I think, one comes to a conviction, without being able to locate exactly how or when it arose, that something has been 'dealt with,' that one has paid one's dues to an issue without necessarily pretending to have single-handedly resolved it. After lengthy ruminations on teh state of contemporary music, the ethics of its social rationale and the seeming unavoidability of its bearing witness in a language other than that of the witnessed, I find myself somewhat at peace with where I stand on these issues, without (I hope) succumbing to the perilous attractions of monadic stasis. Merely a prelude to further destabilizations, I presume.


You have noted that the piano piece Lemma-Icon-Epigram is not an "actual" failure, but suggests a certain kind of failure: in one sense, "the final inability of motivic writing to fully come to terms with the demands of the rest of the work." You have also described the Second Quartet of Schoenberg as a dramaticized failure of a classical string quartet. This kind of failure to fulfill certain expectations in the listener provokes a disappointment that animates, in a dynamic movement perhaps reminiscent of Brecht, aesthetic reflection.

Perhaps that's so. On the other hand it might be said that, whereas Brecht's strategy involves a consciously pre-calculated expulsion of the observer from one zone of otherwise integral mimetic witness into another, far bleaker space of alienation, Schoenberg's quartet actually lives through some sort of organic rebirth in and through the necessary flowering and fading of untenable discourse-immanent contradictions. This business of failure is very difficult: at a time when the popular media are reveling in an unprecedented access of vernacular confidence, it seems more important than ever to keep obstinately questioning and requestioning the carrying power of specific linguistic means, even at the risk of appearing hairsplittingly mandarin. Questioning the nature and implications of liminal instances necessarily involves failure, if only in the specifically technical sense of entering spaces where prevailing criteria of success scarcely apply. That said, of course there are younger composers currently emerging whose main strategy resembles a game of chicken, in that their means are intentionally stretched so thin and taut that excess expressive energy is engendered by the ever-present prospect of them self-destructing altogether. In a time of relative cultural complacency, that is surely one legitimate ploy for creating high-tension resistance in individual circumstances.


"Brecht's strategy involves… a far bleaker space of alienation."

The concept of a work encompassing and expressing failure without itself falling victim to it is another fascinating idea. To what extent may a work present an image of failure before it becomes an "actual" one?

Above all, we need to distinguish between the representation and manifestation of a given characteristic quality. This unfortunately is sometimes difficult to achieve, in the sense that it seems to demand a sure insight into the artist's original intentions. Does Beckett's Happy Days merely represent (among other things) futility, or does the very mechanism of the work somehow nourish itself on its own circularity in a fashion inevitably leading to ultimate breakdown? Both aspects are surely present in differing measure. A work successfully representing breakdown must also partake inwardly of that same progressive disfunctionality in some real manner—in other words, there have to be real and sometimes perilous consequences, both for the work and the artist, in the latter's choice of representational strategy. If the work of art is to continue pursuing the vision of both being in and of the world but nevertheless in some fashion being more than just one more object to the mounting clutter, this is the specific point, I think, where this must be assured.


For instance, you have stated your belief in the necessity of a restricted base of language for a successful piece of music. For you, a "certain piece by a well-known composer" failed on a number of levels, among which was the problem of the performer's interpretation of different musical styles. But couldn't a work use that very uncertainty—the dilemma of the performer, faced with such diversity without the protection of a single, trusted code of interpretation—to portray a sense of alienation from the concept of unified language that you uphold? In other words, what failures is a successful work permitted to portray? How can a valid work portray the rupture of one of its own cardinal rules—in this example, the cohesiveness of language?

Probably it can't, if all one is going by is an unmodulated chain of stylistically unambiguous links. Part of the problem is setting up the rules to be broken in the first place: they are not just inherited lock, stock, and barrel with the first style-evoking constellation. Why, in such a case, should the performer essay any sort of considered approach at all? The most likely reaction would be a staggered hierarchy of degrees of commitment ranging down from an 'authentic' interpretation of what the player knows (or empathizes with) best to those elements with whose presumed conventions the performer is least familiar. The more original the material, the less it is capable of calling forth that rich set of inextricably interlocked associations which is the indispensable foundation of style-specific interpretation. No, I don't think that composers can off-load this particular responsibility onto the performer; it is they who, in the final analysis, are directly charged with providing binding compositional contexts to be interpreted—and that means, on some level, if not a 'unified language,' than at least an underlying and apperceivable group of communal assumptions.


You speak of a work's "appropriate weighings of innovation and convention." Is this a dialectical, historical model? In spite of the traditional demand to recognize the radical innovation of great works, isn't a great work essentially conventional rather than innovatory? Isn't "convention" just another word for the permanent dégré zéro frame of mutual reference which must be assumed before we can enjoy "innovation"—"the revelation of new perspectives, according to constantly mutating sets of (musically immanent) rules of play?"

In other words, to what extent may a work incorporate innovation before tipping into the realm of mere curiosity, "mere experimentalism?"

What eternally fascinates me personally is to occasionally re-experience the shocking newness of a handful of real masterpieces of the twentieth century. What makes a specific quality or quantity of innovation retain its intense newness over the years? I imagine you are perfectly right in suggesting that some categories of innovation remain largely dependant on a circumambient bed of convention: there are, on the other hand, important works in which the role of stylistically-defined convention is of far lesser consequence. The more insignificant the influence of global conventions (as in a lot of the music of this century, for instance), the greater the pressure on composers to seek absolute and unrepeatable originality. As in the world of fashion, this often leads to conformity by default, thus creating a wholly different and more socially diffuse form of lingua franca than those based on the imperious polemics of one 'school' or another. Anyway, it is frequently difficult to discern if it is the transgressive example of great works which defines the outlines of acceptable convention or the dead hand of mediocrity which gives the great work a helping leg up. Luckily, outstanding compositions largely set their own rules of reception, so we are spared the travails of dissatisfying over-generalization.

Actually, I don't really like the term 'experimental' very much. Even if there exist music subsumable to such a term, it seems to belong to a fundamentally different genus than, for instance, extremely radicalized forms of familiar conventions. In spite of all his extremely innovatory techniques, I would certainly hesitate to think of Lachenmann (to name only one) as an 'experimental' composer.