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27 Feb  


Went to the Brian Ferneyhough Total Immersion day at the Barbican yesterday, though it was more of a toe dipping than the full baptismal effect as I only went to the string quartet concert and the talk in the afternoon. This is part of my (cunning) plan to try and listen more to things I think I don’t like – last year I was really taken with a Morton Feldman piece at the Proms, an epiphanic moment, largely courtesy of Howard Skempton who had put me in an empathetic frame of mind beforehand.

It is so often the case that going to an arts event of any kind with a friend who likes something that you don’t can be a very enlightening experience – I always remember going to an exhibition of Léger (under duress) with a friend who filled me full of excitement for a painter I thought I didn’t like. It is particularly true for performers who get to love something they started off hating through having to perform it. When I was in the BBC Singers, it happened over and over again – start of the week ‘what is this bollocks?’ – end of the week ‘y’know, this piece has got something about it…’ But it was also true that music which was wonderful to perform sometimes was mystifyingly unsatisfying to listen to, and that was experience I’m afraid I always had of Birtwistle. And that was definitely my experience of the Ferneyhough Missa Brevis, thrilling and ultra challenging to perform and then sadly dry and uncommunicating to listen to.

So I thought I’d try again yesterday, with the benefit of two talks with Ferneyhough, one with Julian Anderson before the string quartets, and the other with Tom Service (sporting one white glove, slightly sinister!). I went to the event with Elizabeth Winters, who some of you will know is a gifted composer, and writes music very unlike my own. We were both struck forcibly by the Barbican audience, which I would say was 90% men – in the second talk, the packed audience had 8 women in it, I counted them. I found this very distracting. After all, if you went to a Sofia Gubaidulina or Unsuk Chin Total Immersion Day, you would be staggered and unsettled to see an audience that was 90% women. It was hard not to feel that we were intruding, that we had stumbled into the Barbican Chapter meeting of train spotters, or a reunion of 1970’s bikers. I am joking, it was a bit smarter than, but you get the point.

It was also really striking how dense and impenetrable the language of the talks was: if some curious music loving couple had wandered in, attracted by the trail on the Today programme (not!!), thinking they’d give it a go, I don’t believe that they would have understood a word of the first talk, and very little of the second. There was an air of uncompromising intellectualism that was giving no quarter. A question like ‘what was your childhood in Coventry like?’ was definitely off limits!! The only hint of anything personal came when Ferneyhough talked briefly about being in a brass band, an intriguing piece of info, but Tom Service’s lip visibly curled, and we soon got back to super-heated fragments again.

Maybe Ferneyhough’s long hair had something to do with it, but I felt very much that the whole thing was like being at a Victorian meeting of a scientific society, where nothing emotional (God forbid!) was going to be mentioned, nothing personal. It was all strangely antiquated, dusty and arid. The thing you needed to know about Ferneyhough before listening to his music was that he had read Adorno in the original German. And, you know, it was a shame, because Ferneyhough himself was not pretentious in the least. I had an unpleasant memory of what it was like to be a woman composer in the 70s, like you were the indulged eccentric in the family being allowed to sit and listen with the grown-ups, as long as you didn’t try and say anything. Obviously and thankfully, things have changed, but not on Planet Ferneyhough it would seem, where a world of music that is written by men and a culture that only expresses  the male libido, is taking its last stand.

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 PaulBarker commenting on Total Immersion:
27 February 2011 at 14:30

Thanks Judith. Your note certainly reminded me of things I have been concerned with increasingly. The language composers use to describe their work, the reduction of music to sound without regard to how it is heard or perceived or communicated, the explanation or justification of music as if it were a rationally argued discourse, all of which lie behind the idea of avoiding emotionality. It is, I believe, an illusion, as everything we are is conjoined bodily to everything else; Mary Midgley put it so much better in Science & Poetry. Admiration sounds close to love, but Stravinsky spotted the chasm between them when he remarked he wished people would love music more and admire it less.

 judithbingham commenting on Total Immersion:
27 February 2011 at 14:42

Thanks for that Paul - I agree with everything you and Stravinsky say!Although I didn't write the blog in order to slag off Ferneyhough, I think the thing I found really disturbing was the exclusivity of the talks. Yes, music can of course be ultra-complicated and appeal to people who want to analyse it and experience it in that way, but like Bach say, it should have a universal appeal that does not have to reduce to words.I wanted him to be human, and take the risk of revealing that humanity to us - but there weren't even any Q and A moments which might have been more revealing. It was an arid experience for me - while I humbly allow for the fact that other people might have been bowled over.

 AnnaSutton commenting on Total Immersion:
27 February 2011 at 16:21

Hi Judith,

I felt the need to create an account just to tell another side of this - since I was someone who was 'bowled over'! - I saw your blog post via Twitter.

Unlike you, I didn't go to the talks, but I did go to the evening concert - I really wish you'd stuck around to hear it! I'm kind of unsurprised you had a rather 'arid' experience, when you missed the most extraordinary part of the day and just saw all the interviews.

I was similarly a bit wary of Brian Ferneyhough's music, because of that fearsome reputation for being impenetrable. So I was amazed by the music. The two orchestral pieces, in particular, were incredibly exciting, vividly colourful and full of moments of extreme beauty.

The BBC singers performed the Missa Brevis with amazing charisma and passion - the ending was very moving, and the swooping soprano lines in the final bars was unlike anything I've heard before.

I have to say, it really changed my opinion of his music. Hearing it live is quite thrilling and I feel a little bit privileged to have heard "La Terre est un homme" which I'm sure is not performed very often.

I think your opinion of Ferneyhough may have changed too, if you'd heard it.

Like you, I thought the vast number of white men (all of a certain age, all with the look of 'doing my PhD' about them) was annoying, but I think this is entirely the fault of Ferneyhough's reputation. If people heard how vivid the music is, and ignored all that academic language it would have huge appeal, I think.

It's worth noting that Ferneyhough's own introduction to the music at the beginning of the evening concert was very concise, useful and witty, so perhaps a lot of the 'arid' talk was the fault of the academics and writers who interviewed him?


 ClareStevens commenting on Total Immersion:
27 February 2011 at 16:30

What a great blog, Judith - really interesting. I was very sorry not to be able to go to the Total Immersion Day - though I have to say they are not as appealing as the old Composer Weekends used to be. In a strange way it's easier to give up a whole weekend than one day, and there isn't the same cameraderie that you get when you keep bumping into people for three days. Re your point about the lack of women, it sounds as though it was particularly pronounced with Ferneyhough, but I did notice when I went to the Composer Weekends that women were outnumbered, especially at the Saturday morning events. I'm not sure it's a matter of individual composers' music being more or less appealing to women, I think there are not that many women ho feel able or incline to give up great swathes of weekend time to concert-going.I'm usually in a minority of women at organ study days, too.
Completely agree with you about the process of coming to appreciate, reassess or even love music one initially finds difficult. It can be richly rewarding.

 Elizabeth Winters commenting on Total Immersion:
27 February 2011 at 21:43

Thanks for posting this Judith.

I know little of Ferneyhough’s music so was looking forward to hearing the string quartets and the afternoon talk (sadly, I couldn’t make the evening concert as I had a ticket to Anna Nicole). The strongly male dominated audience was slightly unnerving, even though as a composer, I have got used to this a little over the years! Having never seen Ferneyhough ‘live’ before, I was just waiting for him to say something which would give me an insight into what is behind all those notes – what motivates him to write. But I came away feeling quite unenlightened on that front. However, maybe the make-up of the audience was part of the issue? If the audience had been different (for want of a better word – less ‘geeky’) would the talks have taken a slightly different turn? Nevertheless, there was the odd moment when I did feel ‘connected’ – one instance being during the string quartet pre-concert talk when Ferneyhough gave us an insight into his working methods for the Sonatas for String Quartet – quite unlike what I'd imagined.

What did strike me though was that the quartet concert wasn’t particularly well attended – as Ferneyhough’s music isn’t performed a great deal I would have expected a better audience. Maybe the evening concert was better attended? But I did enjoy some of the music – maybe ‘enjoy’ isn’t the right word but I certainly appreciate more than I used to. I wish it had excited me though!

 AnnaSutton commenting on Total Immersion:
27 February 2011 at 23:50

The evening concert was well attended - yes - again, I wish everyone here might have stayed to hear it, since the amazing power of the music would really have swept away your trepidations about the earlier discussions.

For a very well written account of the whole day, which sums up the contrast between the dryness of the talks and the spectacular performance in the evening can I recommend the link below - it really manages to express what I said above, and Judith's qualms, very much better than I could have done!

 judithbingham commenting on Total Immersion:
28 February 2011 at 10:51

In a separate thread on Facebook, composer Rodney Newton wrote: 'Brian Ferneyhough was actually a tenor horn player in the City of Coventry Band, Jude, (I think he switched to cornet and flugel) and some 47 years ago we were students together at Birmingham School of Music where he studied the trumpet with Johnny Lamb and had to teach himself 20th century composition because they put him with an unsuitable teacher! He was on an ABSM teaching course and had to learn the recorder, in which he claimed he grew mushrooms because never cleaned it! He was a fine trumpeter and on graduating he worked for a short time as 3rd trumpet in the BBC Midland Light Orchestra before hitting the SPNM circuit big time and becoming a prominent figure in avant garde music.I played percussion in a world premier of his while we were were at BSM together. A march in his current style would be a thing of wonder!'
I learnt a tremendous amount from writing brass band pieces and it would have been interesting to know what Ferneyhough took from it. It is such a startling contrast to his present status.I am not a total supporter of composers appearing to be 'just like you and me' at pre-concert talks, but I still feel that less mythology more humanity can be more enlightening than analysis.

 nriddle commenting on Total Immersion:
28 February 2011 at 12:54

Actually, I had a rather different reaction to the male-dominated events: it was rather like going to an Anglican church service these days and finding that unaccountably most of the women had stayed away, while all the men had come to church. I was actually rather pleased to see that there is at least some aspect of cultural life to which some men are willing to respond. The alienation of men from large swathes of cultural (not to mention spiritual) life here is alarming.

Judith, I think you left the talk during that rather lengthy interregnum while Ferneyhough was listening to the orchestra's final run-through. There was a Q & A session towards the end after he came back, most of which was pretty direct and not by any means over-intellectualized.

Personally, I thought the day was revelatory in many respects, and actually Ferneyhough was on very open and communicative form, as were those involved in bringing the events to us. At the time that he first emerged on the scene, overt intellectual rigour (which he can certainly do in spades) was, if you will forgive the pun, de rigeur, and because he can walk that walk and talk that talk so well, people have pigeon-holed his music as being fundamentally intellectual. There is something to be said for being profoundly suspicious of anything composers say about their own music, because if they thought what they wanted to express was better done with words, they probably wouldn't have bothered writing it the music in the first place. I'm often reminded with Ferneyhough in this respect of Eliot's own notes to The Wasteland, which were only inserted at his publisher's request, and which are almost perverse in adding confusion or opacity. Not unusually, in Ferneyhough's case the composer wants us not to listen to his words, which we do (in a sense) at our own risk, but rather to the music.

Fundamentally - and the immersion day really confirmed this finally for me - this is not at root intellectual music, even if the route to achieving its goal is the composer expending vast amounts of intellectual resource. But the works of Palestrina and other composers of the Renaissance also required great intellectual effort, and you don't get to Mozart's formal elegance and perfection by just doodling on manuscript paper. Ferneyhough actually wants us to sit back and stop focussing on the intellectual structure that produces the music - at the talk he described it as being akin to coming into a room and the eye scanning over the whole thing generally before focussing in on some detail - a face, a piece of furniture or whatever, that in the end catches one's eye to the exclusion of all else. We're not expected to chase the myriad strands of material as though they were individually significant, but to find the thing that jumps out at us, and grabs our individual attention, whatever that might be. He was perhaps unusually frank about this on the Today programme when referring to a kind of Alice in Wonderland situation, where disbelief is suspended and we allow anything, no matter how unreal it would be in the “real world” to happen to us so that our imagination is released.

Actually, I think Ferneyhough’s works boil down to something highly emotional, an evocation in music of the world in which we live, with information hurtling at us from all sides, change in technology, social order, political certainties in a state of flux around us (especially just now!), inducing fear, uncertainty, incomprehension. Each of us - if we are lucky - reaches out and grabs hold of something that we can hold on to, something that gives us the feeling of a fixed point to make sense of the world around us, a personal selection of political ideology, religious or non-religious attitude, social networks with friends, colleagues, cultural interests. Ferneyhough's music comes at us like an image of the maelstrom of human life and experience, too complex to take in entirely, and we are invited to grab hold of sounds, instrumental gestures, and the images they project in our minds, just as we grab hold of points of reference in the real world and hang onto them for comfort and stability in our lives. The music has to be profoundly complex, overly informational, painfully detailed, sometimes violent and unpredictable, because that's an image of what we struggle with every day in our own lives. Coping with that is a highly emotional experience for each of us, and that's why I think that, in the end, this music is very much about emotion and human experience. Concentrating on its intellectual aspects, which may fascinate the nerdier among us, is really akin to poring over the inner workings of a car engine, rather than recognizing that its actual purpose is to get you from point A to point B. The complexity isn’t the interesting thing about this music: it’s how we struggle to make sense of things in this middle of what is going on, and as in the real world, we’ll only ever make a partial and highly personal stab at doing so.

Going back for a moment to The Wasteland, there is a line towards the end: “These fragments I have shored against my ruins” – following a sequence of quotations from various sources. This seems to me appropriate to Ferneyhough’s music: we latch onto sound fragments that hurtle past us, interesting timbres, momentary images conjured from sounds abruptly thrown out by the orchestra, whatever. They are like the fragments that Eliot mentions, and we all make up our lives out the fragments we lay hold on from the world around us, and use them to shore up against our ruins.

 TimR-J commenting on Total Immersion:
01 March 2011 at 13:12

Thanks for this post, Judith. I completely agree that the audiences were male-dominated, but I'm very intrigued by nriddle's response above that at least some men are interested in some level of cultural engagement.

I wanted to pick up on your comment that 'a question like "what was your childhood in Coventry like?" was definitely off limits'. That may have been the case in the past, but it certainly isn't my recollection of this interview. In fact I thought Tom Service did an excellent job in really pushing Ferneyhough to talk about his very early career - which is almost completely overlooked. I was sat at the back so couldn't see Tom's lip, but given how often he returned to this line of questioning I would have been surprised if it really did curl. And I, for one, learnt a lot - I didn't know BF had run a new music ensemble as a young man, I didn't know any of the details about his time playing in brass bands, and I've certainly never heard him express admiration for works by Holst or Elgar before!

 judithbingham commenting on Total Immersion:
01 March 2011 at 13:26

Thanks Tim - I enjoy the Rambler BTW. nriddle is (I hope he won't mind me saying) Nicholas Riddle, the CEO at Peters, and Ferneyhough's publisher. Also my publisher!A friend pointed out to me that at the talk at Sennet House last week, the audience was much more equally divided between men and women - students of course. But I was not trying to polarise everyone, just throwing a few (hopefully) interesting points into the mix.I find it interesting that women students, composers, performers, do not support women composers in the same way, en masse - women composers still seem to be very isolated. As I said in the blog, you would be gob-smacked to see an audience made up entirely of women, - maybe we'll have to wait 1000 years or so to see that happen!

 Barry commenting on Total Immersion:
02 March 2011 at 16:28

I thought BF came across as being fairly genial in the interview. He sustained my interest more than most composers do in these situations.
What really matters is the music:if the chamber concert at Senate house veered towards earnest modern music,nothing could've been more of a contrast than parts 2 and 3 of Saturday's concert.I was knocked sideways by the passionate intensity of La Terre et un Homme-what astonishing music!

 David Bruce commenting on Total Immersion:
07 March 2011 at 17:56

It'll be interesting to see if the male/female balance is improved any on the Unsuk Chin Total Emerson day:

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