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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