Brian Ferneyhough was born in Coventry England and in his youth, he played the cornet along with other various other brass instruments in school. In his college years, Brian attended the Birmingham School of music as well as the Royal Academy of music, where he studied composition. Upon completion of his music education he began his journey as a composer and educator. Between 1973 and 1986, he taught composition at the Hochschule für Musik Freiburg, Germany. From 1987 to 2000 he was professor of music at University of California at San Diego. Since 2000, Brian has been at Stamford University teaching composition. Brian also gives classes and lectures at many other learning institutions such as Ferienkurse in Darmstadt. Known as a pioneer in the "New Complexity" style of contemporary music, Brian's compositions offer a challenge to musicians who perform them. His works have been performed by many important orchestra's, ensembles and soloists throughout the world. I recently asked Brian a few questions about his career.
R.V.B. - What was it like growing up in England after the war? What kind of music were you exposed to at a young age and how did you get involved in playing an instrument?
B.F. - I was born in Coventry, which city had been bombed very badly a couple of years earlier. As a very young child I remember going to the market in town, and having to thread our way between bomb craters of various sizes. At the time this seemed perfectly natural, of course. Perhaps my later interest in damaged structures was born at that time? When I first attended secondary school the music teacher, who had been Coventry's Director of Military Music during the war, demonstrated various instruments to us. I was totally fascinated by the cornet and asked him if I could try it out. The odd noises thus generated seem to have convinced him of my potential as a brass player. Thus, I joined his brass band, and played various instruments over the course of some seven years. My school also owed to the same teacher a pile of broken and superannuated woodwind instruments. I managed to make several instruments reasonably playable. Thus began my exposure to the flute and oboe.
R.V.B. - Was your family musically inclined also?
B.F. - No it wasn't. I was an only child, my father was a shepherd before the war and had not had much schooling; my mother's family was resolutely opposed to education for girls so that she remained very frustrated all her life on the self-realization front. As can be imagined, the arts were a nonpriority in my home environment.
R.V.B. - Can you give me a brief synopsis on what you may have learned during your college years from Lennox Berkeley and Klaus Huber? How did you get involved in private instruction with Ton De Leeuw and did he offer something different than the other two? What other composers work did you particularly like?
B.F. - From the former I learned nothing. However, I did appreciate (as a literally starving student) the tea and cakes he offered each week at his private home in Little Venice where he gave lessons. He was always a notably urbane and well-meaning presence, but his Nadia Boulenger influenced gallic aesthetics were completely unable to deal with my compositional needs. Huber was a different matter: I had met him during the Gaudeamus Festival in the Netherlands and was impressed by his emphatic belief that music should seek to grab the world by the collar, as it were, and try to make a real difference to people's lives. Although his approach was, at base, a sort of Protestant mysticism (think Dürer or Lucas Cranich), I still felt that he understood my secularist ambitions aiming in the same direction. He was a supreme technician in both formal invention and instrumental usage – both things that have continued to occupy me up to the present day and have, I hope, been passed on to my pupils. He was also the first major figure to take my work seriously. Ton de Leeuw was a sort of disappointment. He was at a point in life where he was turning inward to a compositional language based on Far-Eastern elements and was not very interested in talking about things far removed from that. It may be, also, that I was not well-equipped to take a positive stance towards him occupied, as I was, with a first year of living abroad in one of the coldest winters on record.
R.V.B. - How happy were you with your first attempts at composing? What would you say your first successful piece was and why?
B.F. - I regard myself, essentially, as an auto-didact, in that I had arrived at a first stylistic plateau by an intensive process of swinging pendulum-like between more conservative works aimed at dealing with particular techniques or materials and much more adventurous projects in which exotic sonic invention was combined with the fact that I was in no way sure of what I was doing. This initial duality exists, I think, right up to the present day in terms of pushing ahead, then folding advances made into a more unified Nd grounded idiom. You ask about 'successful' pieces. I suppose that a set of Orchestral Variations I wrote in 1964 would qualify here. Sadly, it was only performed once (with me conducting), so it had few influences on later developments. I had at that time good connections to a loose group of wind players, so my first work to successfully cross the larger performance divide was a work for woodwind quintet, 'Gerhard Variations' (based on a theme from Roberto Gerhard's 3rd Symphony) which was awarded first prize in Liverpool University's Young Composers' Competition of 1966. In that piece I was able, I think, to bring the two sides of my then praxis into a fluid and nervous whole.
B.F. - Klaus Huber was instrumental in getting the Hochschule to add a lecturer's position to the professorial position he (KH) accepted in 1973. Not feeling himself particularly gifted in formal analysis of contemporary works on an ongoing basis he offered me the chance to take over that aspect of his job. I was very happy about this, since work prospects were very bleak and, in addition to this activity, I was also permitted to give composition lessons for the first time. It would be difficult to overstate the importance of Freiburg for my composing and teaching. It forced me to learn German up to very high professional standard, thereby affording me entrée to a whole new world of musical thinking.
R.V.B. - With minimal music gaining momentum during this period, what drove you into the New Complexity side of composing? Do you feel this was more difficult to write than minimal music?
B.F. - Probably all music is difficult to write for somebody! I like to think so, anyhow. That said, I never approached composing stylistics from the position you describe; the style later associated with me didn't in fact (try Boulez's 2nd Piano Sonata or Barraque's Sonate) exist at the time, even though of course there were quite difficult works by particular composers out there
R.V.B. - In the 70's and 80's when you were a pioneer in New Complexity music, did you feel you had to concentrate in a certain area such as chamber music with your string quartets? Were the complex scores a concern for writing for smaller ensembles?
B.F. - I first consciously worked on difficulty of execution as an independent variable in 1970, in 'Cassandra's Dream Song'. As a flutist I could appreciate when, and how, to modify notational conventions so that the performer would be constantly rendered aware of the fluctuating degrees of precision being aimed at. Good interpretation is never about exactitude of rendition, but about fidelity to what the performer understands to be the balance between the visual and technical at every juncture. I extended this further in 'Unity Capsule' of 1976 with every level of articulation being understood as a potentially independent variable in a virtual polyphony of secondary characteristics. When moving to larger forces, individual parts could be made less articulationally multiplex – something one sees emerging in the 2nd String Quartet of 1979. The most extreme work was probably 'La Terre Est Un Homme' for large orchestra, finished in 1979, which teems with variegated layers of texture and elaborative technique.
R.V.B. - Did you feel you were getting through to the classical music community as the New Complexity genre was in the infant stages?
B.F. - I need to really break down your reliance on the 'Complexity' term. I did not invent it; I never used it and I see more differences between my own work and others' than similarities. One shouldn't make assumptions about musical significance by counting the number of dots on the page. Sometimes individual vectors cross over each other, which makes them seem similar in spite of them coming from (and going to) quite different places. But yes, to answer your question: criticism soon became quite personal – so much so that my music is still ignored in Britain to this day. It was a real life-saver to be able to move elsewhere.
R.V.B. - It is understood that there were various complaints from musicians who performed your compositions because of their complexity. How did you answer these individuals when trying to explain your theories on them?
B.F. - With orchestral musicians you generally could not suggest or expect an open approach. Smaller ensembles afford the opportunity of talking to each player in order to persuade them that you are neither a snake-oil salesman nor actively insane.
R.V.B. - Would you say there was a turning point performance or event that solidified your composing career?
B.F. - Probably 1974 was the pivotal moment, when Harry Halbreich and Paul Beusen included three of my works in their festival in Royan, France. It was where I first encountered Pierre-Yves Artaud, with whom I continued to collaborate for many years.
R.V.B. - Why did you decide to come to the United States in 1987?
B.F. - Firstly I needed to gain a certain distance to what had then been happening in Europe. It had become somewhat claustrophobic. For a long time I intended ultimately to return to a conservatory in Europe, but I found the US university environment, with its bubbling mixture of theory and practice quite stimulating and kept putting it off. And, in a sense, I can work anywhere as long as I have a blank wall in front of my nose, so it was not as if I were isolated from my previous environment. I still taught long and regular composition courses in Germany and France each year – hence Darmstadt at the moment.
B.F. - I don't think I ever HAD much of a life other than as a composer. That's what I'm frequently told, anyway. As a professor I was a lamentable organizer!
R.V.B. - What do you like to stress to your students as far a composing music?
B.F. - Whatever you write, make sure that you ground your technique in the response to particular key questions, problems or issues which underpin the individuality of each work.
R.V.B. - How do you go about composing? Do you have a music room and go to the ivory tower - so to speak - and come out when it's complete or is it a general process that happens over time?
B.F. - It's different now that I employ the computer both to generate and notate material. I try to keep very regular hours in both mornings and afternoons. If, on a particular day, I don't feel 'inspired' there is always enough ready work (editing, cleaning up, setting up new generative procedures etc.) to be done, so there is no excuse for slacking. At the table or away from it though, I am always actively thinking of current activities.
R.V.B. - How do you enjoy writing for the publications Collective Writings and Perspectives of New Music. Is the process of writing literature similar to composing?
B.F. - I HOPE I understand your question. First of all 'Collected Writings' was the sum of all my articles to about 1990; I didn't write FOR it. 'Perspectives' simply published articles which had already appeared elsewhere, but not in English. There was a period of twenty years when this sort of parallel activity of clarification was extremely important to me. I have always felt that certain issues can be approached in different media at one and the same time, and comparing them and remixing them can produce all sorts of unexpected insights. Most of my articles were written initially for me, not a larger public.
B.F. - Being a survivor.
R.V.B. - Do you have any other bobbies that you like to do such as taking walks, reading, or anything?
B.F. - I'm active in other art forms on an irregular basis.
R.V.B. - What are your current projects?
B.F. - Finishing up a multi-work cycle of fantasies on and around the viol consort music of Christopher Tye, the Renaissance composer.
Interview conducted by Robert von Bernewitz
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For more information on Brian Ferneyhough contact Stanford University Music dept.
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