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The British composer Brian Ferneyhough, who has spent the last three decades of his life in the United States, has been named one of the founders of “New Complexity”, a term he rejects. Other composers that are lumped into this category include James Dillon and Michael Finnissy. This term is a result of the incredible complexity of his scores, leading them to be referred to as the “ ne plus ultra of musical complexity”.
Brian Ferneyhough was born in 1943 in Coventry in the West Midlands and grew up playing in the local brass bands. He entered the Birmingham Conservatoire in 1961, where he received formal musical training until 1963. Between 1966 and 1967, Ferneyhough studied composition with Sir Lennox Berkeley at the Royal Academy of Music in London before receiving private composition lessons from Ton de Leeuw in Amsterdam between 1968 and 1969. Ferneyhough’s final studies were with Klaus Huber at the Musik-Akademie der Stadt Basel from 1969 to 1971.
Ferneyhough has received many honours and prizes throughout his career, beginning with the Mendelssohn Scholarship in 1968 and three consecutive prizes in the Internationale Gaudeamus Muziekweek in Amsterdam (1968-70). The 1970s were an especially eventful year for Ferneyhough in terms of awards. He received an honourable mention at ISCM (1972) and a special prize for the best work submitted in all categories at ISCM (1974) in addition to a bursary from theExperimentalstudio des SWR in Freiburg im Breisgau (1974–75), an award from theDeutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst (1976–77) and the Koussevitzky International Critics Award (1978).
More recent honours include having been given the title Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 1984, being named an Associate of the Royal Academy of Music in 1990, serving as a fellow of the Birmingham Conservatoire (1995) and the Royal Academy of Music (1998) and being elected to the Akademie der Künste in Berlin (1996). He has also received the Royal Philharmonic Society Music Award for Chamber-Scale Composition in 1995 forOn Stellar Magnitudes and the Ernst von Siemens Musikpreis in 2007 for his œuvre.
After completing his studies, Ferneyhough pursued a career in teaching alongside composing. His first teaching post was as a composition teacher at the Hochschule für Musik in Freiburg im Breisgau (1973-86) along. During the mid-80s, Ferneyhough gave regular masterclasses at the Civica Scuola di Musica in Milan (1984-7) and was the head composition teacher at the Royal Conservatory of Music in The Hague from 1986 to 1987 before moving to the United States, where he was appointed Professor of Music at the University of California, San Diego (1987-2000). Since 2000, Ferneyhough has been active as Professor of Music at Stanford University, where he teaches composition.
In addition, Ferneyhough has been teaching at the Ferienkurse in Darmstadt since 1976 and served as coordinator of the composition course for ten years. Ferneyhough became involved in the Voix Nouvelles the Fondation Royaument in 1990, and remains active as the director of the composition course and in 1993, he joined the faculty of the IRCAM in Paris. In addition to his regular posts, Ferneyhough had held a number of guest professorships at schools including Harvard University, the Royal College of Music in Stockholm and the University of Chicago.
Ferneyhough’s compositions often require a bit of extra information as they are “the ultimate in complexity” and “philosophically demanding”. While previous composers such as J.S. Bach and Beethoven wrote complex music for their times, later composers such as Schoenberg, Webern and Nancarrow took these intricacies to a new level with compressed forms, atonality and convoluted cannons. After World War II, another generation of composers experimented with modern forms, including Ligeti, Stockhausen, Boulez and Xenakis; however, Brian Ferneyhough’s music seems to be the most musically complex until now. His works feature “notational overload, performing difficulty and even philosophical questioning”.
Due to the complex nature of his music, audiences are very divided on his works as a whole. His piano pieceLemma-Icon-Epigram, for example, has received comments from both confused listeners, “It sounds like a monkey throwing itself on the keyboard” and experienced listeners, “If you don’t get this, you’re a philistine”. An example of the complexity of this piece can be found first in the rhythm which includes figures in which “you need to count 10 hemi-demis in your head in the time of eight, but you also have to subdivide them into one group of five against four in your new virtual tempo, and then six against four, before a final hemi-demi rest in that overall scheme of 10 against eight”. Even after the rhythm is deciphered, the musician is left with a jumble of notes and detailed dynamics, expressions and pedal instructions. With this in mind, it is no wonder that the inexperienced listener might hear a monkey jumping on the keyboard, but upon deeper investigation, the music does become more accessible.
One might think that Ferneyhough is a control-freak aiming to micromanage every single articulation and expression, however this is quite the opposite. He believes that the all of the instructions in his score add to the freedom of the performance, as every performer will interpret each piece of the expressive puzzle differently.
Ferneyhough’s output, including orchestral, chamber, choral, vocal and piano works, has been performed worldwide. He has had works commissioned by the Arditti String Quartet includingSilentium which appears on their album Gifts and Greetingstogether with the works of composers such as Harrison Birtwistle, Marco Stroppa, Liza Lim and Uri Caine. The ensemble recherche has also commissioned and recorded works by Ferneyhough which are featured on their own label ensemble recherche series. The ensemble has several albums dedicated solely to Ferneyhough’s works, one of which includes the chamber worksFlurries, String Trio,In nominee a 3, Streichtrio and Incipits while the other contains theFunérailles and collaboration from the Arditti String Quartet, violinist Irvine Arditti and percussionist Christian Dierstein. The most easily accessible work on these albums is Bone Alphabet (1992), which precedes theFunérailles. While this work is often described as “the most difficult work ever written for solo percussionist” it is quite easy to listen to. An interesting trait in this work is that the performer is able to choose their own instruments, of which there should be seven that range from low to high. The trick is that none of the adjacent instruments can be made of the same material. Percussionist Jonathan Hepfer described his own process of learning the piece, “there are 156 measures in the piece and each measure demanded between 2 and 20 hours to learn”. He then poses the question, “So after all of this crystalline and poetic travail, why does the piece sound more like a garbage truck driving down a bumpy road than Bach’sGoldberg Variations?” This is for the listener to decide and to find their own meaning to this “jagged dance” and “marvelous journey” as, in Werner Herzog’s words, “it is a great metaphor. For What? I don’t know—but it is a great metaphor”.