The Melting Point: Two European Composers in America

The Melting Point: Two European Composers in America

The Melting Point?

Brian Ferneyhough and Esa-Pekka Salonen are reshaping American music, but neither is sure he’s an American composer.

Written By

Frank J. Oteri

Frank J. Oteri is an ASCAP-award winning composer and music journalist. Among his compositions are Already Yesterday or Still Tomorrow for orchestra, the "performance oratorio" MACHUNAS, the 1/4-tone sax quartet Fair and Balanced?, and the 1/6-tone rock band suite Imagined Overtures. His compositions are represented by Black Tea Music. Oteri is the Vice President of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) and is Composer Advocate at New Music USA where he has been the Editor of its web magazine,, since its founding in 1999.

Brian Ferneyhough at the Parker Meridien Hotel in New York City
Friday, July 22, 2005, 6 p.m.

Molly Sheridan: Now that you have lived and worked in this country for so long, do you feel in any way like an American composer?

Brian Ferneyhough: I find it very difficult to answer a question which uses terminology of that sort because I don’t really know what it feels like to be a composer of any nationality. In a sense, none of us come from nowhere—stylistically, historically, and in terms of national culture or the part of the world we come from. We’re influenced by all these things, but there are so many imponderables that mix up together that it’s very difficult to imagine what, let’s say, a British composer might be today which other composers in other countries are not. Maybe the accent? Who knows? But certainly there are countries the size of which and the multiplicity and diversity of which make it very difficult to think of any particular set of styles or concerns as being relevant. And so their style is a no style, shall we say, or a many-styled approach.

Since living in the United States, I’ve been forced to come to terms with the fact that most of my doctoral students in composition started out in music doing their independent rock bands in their father’s garage. Now, there’s a downside to that—they’re completely absorbed in a certain culture when they come to me. But there’s an upside, too, which is that because their exposure to what you might call classical or historically high culture has been very minimal. There are many things that they can learn on the fly. They can become much more immediately inventive than if they had absorbed a great deal of culture from their background. Someone who’s learnt to play the Beethoven Violin Concerto at the age of 12 or, more germanely, to play the piano to a very high standard, tends to think through their fingers. They don’t think through their mind. They don’t think through the analytical faculty which guides the heart in any sort of art work. So that’s one way in which I think Americans are Americans.

European composers have absorbed naturally much of the historic background of Western music before they start being composers. For instance, in France and Italy, you have to do an eight-year course to be qualified as a composer. Only in the last two years of that course are you allowed to compose your own pieces. The assumption is that it’s sort of like a pyramid. History is the lower echelons of the pyramid and you then arrive at the point where, having learned everything else, you can move on. I find that a very questionable sort of assumption. My approach is much more what I’d call problem-oriented: One thinks of an issue, one tries to formulate a question about possible musical styles, events, processes, and then you look for means of answering that particular question. And that doesn’t require any sort of predisposition regarding nationality or stylistic pertinence, or really anything else other than your own inventive powers.

It’s certainly true today that nationality is a major issue in contemporary composition simply because, after the fall of the Berlin wall, we no longer have the ideology of internationalism which was very much in force after the Second World War and which we hoped would stop wars in the future. Since the Cold War is now history, we no longer need the advanced or experimental art forms as sort of visiting cards of high culture with which every country can congratulate itself. So Germans, French, British, Italians, and Americans have very much gone back into their own foxholes and this question, which never would have arisen back in the 1970s or ’80s, now has again become very relevant.

MS: Though you don’t think of yourself as American or not, are there aspects of American composition that you’ve come in contact with that have influenced you in any way? Especially as you’re talking about the difference in the educational system and in thinking, how does that Americanism impact the work you do?

BF: Well, you know, I’d be the last person to be able to give an answer to the question as to what extent America has influenced my composing. I’ve not lived in a major city here. As in Europe, I’ve almost always lived in medium and small urban conglomerates because the less there is available to do, the more time you spend doing your composing. It’s the way I have to do things. So if we assume that the main aspects of a nation’s culture are found in the big cities, I’ve pretty much escaped that in terms of America.

What I have found has influenced me here is not so much stylistic resemblance to other composers or some sort of stimulation from the history of American music, but it’s far more that I work now in a university, whereas in Europe I worked in conservatories. Conservatories have a whole different approach towards what makes a composer—how many things a composer needs to learn and on what level in order to be an adequate representer of that particular purpose. When I first came here, it was difficult for me to adapt to the academic regimen. In Europe, a composition course is really a handwork course. You teach people fine arts. In this country, it’s part of an education which includes many other things. Now I’m not saying either of those is the right thing, but I now have come to prefer the American system, which has now spread to Europe to some extent, whereby the university also has a place for the creative arts in its curriculum. And, well, if there’s any influence, it’s come from there.

MS: You’ve been speaking in general about the education process, but just to get a little more specific, when a young composer comes to you, how do you approach the training of a new student?

BF: When you deal with a new student, it’s a little bit like psychoanalysis. There is a systematic background to it, but it’s kept very much in the background and you really have to learn who that person is to some major degree. Two composers might write pieces that are very similar, but when you learn something about the composers, you can’t assume that they resemble one another in any way at all. You have to learn the intentions of the composer, in terms of what they want to produce, how they see themselves in relationship to the creative act and so on, and you have to delve deeply and sometimes for quite a long time, into the subsurface world of motivation. That’s what I find incredibly good about teaching—it enables one to maintain a very close rapport with composers of the younger generation on a very deep and intense and real level. That’s why I’ve spent so many years teaching and why teaching has always been useful for me in the sense that it’s also given me pep, stimulus, causes me to reflect upon the sort of question/answer games that I play with my own inventive powers.

If a student comes to you and wants to learn to compose, you’ve got two ways of going. One is to teach him what composers have done before and why they’ve done it. And the other is simply to sit them down at a table and invent some sort of situation they must react to. For instance, I might say to the class one day, “Ok, this week we’re going to write a one hour piece in one minute.” What can you do? You do a few scribbles on a piece of paper. But those scribbles have some relationship to musical events and musical processes and presumably sounds at some point. And another week I might say, “Ok, this week we’re going to sit down and spend an hour writing a piece that will last one minute.” Now, unless the guy finishes the piece in one minute and sits there for 59 minutes, he necessarily will enter into a different sort of transactional relationship with musical notation—the intensity, the degree of specificity with which the composer can bring into being the sorts of sounds that he wants. You can take an instant photo of the piece, which is just squiggles, or you can really go into the inner life of the piece and try to make clear to the performer how many things connect up and how many things they have to take into account when they are rehearsing and learning that particular composition.

MS: You’re obviously identified very strongly with a specific style of composition. Does that influence the students when they come to you? Do they expect something? Do you have to consciously try to not affect them or do you want to?

BF: You can’t avoid affecting them. When students come, clearly they have an image of who one is, what one’s written, and expectations they have garnered from that. However, if a student comes to study with me and wants to do music which is pretty much on analogous lines to what I do, I would grill them as to why they thought they needed to write in that particular way—what that degree of specificity of material in relation to notation and so on, had to do with their own inner processes. And I am always extremely skeptical with regard to students who come already too well formed. The sort of music I write is the product of forty years of gradually moving towards a certain idea. When young people take that up, it’s flattering on the one hand, but then they’re twenty years old and they’ve taken up the style of a sixty year old and expect me then to enable them set it forth in some other way. And I think that’s a very dangerous situation. I nearly always will send such students off to study with a different professor. I like people to come to me whose works have absolutely nothing to do, on the surface, with what I myself compose. It’s more interesting, it’s stimulating, it forces me to think outside those particular boxes, and keeps me young. And that’s very important to me in my own composing.

MS: Do you find very often that in the process of teaching that a student will change radically what they set out to do with you?

BF: Yes. I find sometimes there are composers who come with a very fixed style but then, after a year or two of questioning and experimenting, really suddenly break out into something quite different. It’s not that they’re a different person, or they pretend to be a different person, it’s just that certain aspects of themselves that are probably extremely powerful have, until that point, not been taken into account. And they suddenly find that there are things that interest them immensely which release aspects of their creativity they had not sensed before.

MS: You were the subject of one of my favorite press releases which touted you as the “high priest of new complexity.” That’s quite an image.

BF: It bothers me. There are many younger composers who feel that I’ve not shown solidarity with their interests in the area of so-called new complexity. They come together, they put concerts on, they publish books, and they do various things under the rubric of new complexity. I’ve never in my life felt any real desire or ability to feel myself to be a member of anything, no matter how worthy that thing might be. I’m not making any value judgments here. I’m simply saying that that sort of thing is not available to me. If one wants to call it that, that’s very fine, but it’s not what I do. I started out long before that name was invented. I didn’t invent it, a musicologist did. And look at Milton Babbitt, how he’s suffered all these years when one of his perfectly innocent articles was suddenly headlined “Who Cares If You Listen?”. He had nothing to do with that title, but it’s followed him down the years.

So I say, well, it depends what you mean by new complexity. Is it new? Is it complex? What is complexity? Where is it going? What have succeeding generations of composers done to the concerns with which I began, and one or two other people? What do they consider the priorities in terms of what this notation or this way of thinking does for possible future musical expression. I’m not trying to avoid this particular question, but I do have to say quite clearly that I don’t believe that I belong to this group, simply because I don’t belong to groups, and I don’t know what they’re doing in detail even though many of my students indeed ultimately had to do with the movers and shakers of that particular direction. And I can see why people would think that my music, well yes, very complex and it’s being written now, ergo it must be new complexity.

MS: Is there any label you would put on it?

BF: No, I don’t put a label on it because when you put a label on something, you’ve canned it. I know that the present-day world of commerce cans things and I’m sure it’s very good that they can things for us. They radiate them and do various things to normalize them and make square tomatoes that fit more adequately in the boxes available to them. That’s not my concern. Art is about questioning how things fit together, it’s not about making them fit together better.

MS: Since your notation is so precise and detailed, is the result actually more fluid because you have been much more specific. Was this part of your early motivation to write in this way?

BF: What concerned me when I was younger was that because there were so many styles available even when I started composing, it’s very difficult for the performer to cover the whole ground to the same level of intensity or the same level of authenticity. And if I’m faced with five different styles in a concert, what do I do? Well, I fall back on my professionalism, but my professionalism may not ultimately adequately address the challenges posed by these different styles. Therefore it seemed to me important to try and create a musical notation which provided a lot of specific detail but at the same time allowed the performer to make connections towards different sorts of traditions that are part of their professional background.

It of course can be argued that the amount of detail that one puts in a piece, or that I at least put into a piece, is far higher than that which can be realized. But that’s because I don’t expect that the performers are going to be exposed to my music all the time. If you learn a Beethoven piano sonata, you don’t learn and play only those things that are in the score. You learn and play the twenty generations of piano teachers who have learned from their teachers about how interpretation means not diverging from the text in front of you, but maintaining a fidelity to the text which might require you to play something differently from what is written in the score. Rubato is a case in point. Look at any score from the Renaissance and you’ll find something that looks really rather simple, two or three lines. But if you listen to a recording of so-called authentic performance you will find wild flourishes, you will find decorative embellishments typical of a period and of each type of instrument. The composers didn’t think it worthwhile writing these things down because they were dealing with the instruments and the instrumentalists available, and the instrumentalists themselves were very often composers. But today that’s not the case. We’ve divided up the various tasks of music making much more than is perhaps ultimately good for us, but nevertheless it’s what we’re faced with at the moment, and so I’m attempting to provoke a consistent awareness in the performer when learning and playing the piece of the very mobile but rich relationship which different sorts of visual conventions may generate with respect to how one puts a piece across to an audience. So it’s not as if I’m trying to create a sort of instamatic snapshot of a piece, but I’m interested in providing the steps, sometimes the interlocking and rather self-contradictory steps, via which a performer may ascend to an adequate performance.

MS: How much do they have to project of what is actually on the page for you to consider the performance successful then?

BF: Oh, any performance which attempts to play a piece, while I might not consider it successful, nevertheless has a certain claim to legitimacy as a record of the process gone through by the performer. Of course you don’t recommend certain sorts of people for certain sorts of pieces. Different personalities serve different sorts of music better. But nevertheless, if someone is seriously concerned with realizing one of my pieces, then I think they are people who have already dealt with the question of difficulty in other more conventionally virtuoso music. So what I’m really concerned with is them sensing the variable distance, as it were, between the image, the possible sound which may emerge from realizing that image, and the degree of difficulty with which the instrumentalist must confront himself in order to produce that result.

You know, very often, particularly in virtuoso music, we get all sorts of sounds, all sorts of styles, all sorts of conventions, Paganini devil-fiddle music and so on, which sound incredibly difficult but actually one finds, when one looks at the music, because they were written mostly by the performers, there were tricks which enable them to master these seemingly impossible things rather more immediately and easily than the listener might infer. The same is also true inversely. You might have something that sounds incredibly easy, but the rules generating the interaction between the performers may be incredibly complex. In the interpretation, this necessarily also transfers itself across to the listener, although not necessarily in a directly palpable form. We have to assume that that’s how performance art works.

MS: You mentioned fantastic sound tricks that the performer knew how to do, but when you’re writing them, is there consideration and research that goes into finding out, “Is this impossible?” or does it matter?

BF: Yes, it does matter. It matters whether a thing is impossible or not. There are degrees of impossibility, and there are degrees of improbability. If you’re writing a slow piece in which difficult things don’t come very often, you can rely upon almost every performer making a good go at those things. If you have different sorts of difficulty, following upon each other rather rapidly, then the likelihood of a very precise transcription in sound of what you’ve written is much lower. So you bear that in mind.

As regards impossibility, I certainly would not write something which a serious attempt to realize would not produce musical expression, let’s put it that way. But there are things associated with certain instruments which relativize what counts as an accurate rendition. If you have a sequence of very fast flute notes and you have some very high notes and very low notes and nothing in the middle, and all the low notes are fortississimo and all the high notes are pianississississimo, there’s no way on earth you’re going to get a literal rendering of that. What I’m after is a faithful rendering of what the performer sees as the challenge implied by the way I’ve written that material.

With respect to students, I would certainly say that when you write for any given instrument you have to know that instrument. You’re an actor improvising on the stage which is the physical nature of that instrument. If you take a double bass, you have to know how far apart the positions are. Every instrument has its own theater of possibilities. And it’s very, very important that we learn so much about each instrument that we find ourselves dreaming about that instrument. I frequently will dream about an instrument which I can’t play personally—I mean, I never learned to do it. But I know so much about it that I can dream of putting my hands in the right place on that instrument to play these strange sounds.

So, if a student comes to me writing lots of microtones and glissandi, let’s say for oboe, I say, “Well, that’s all very nice, but how would you finger that quartertone down there? I don’t understand how you would actually change the fingering to do that.” And they say, “Oh, we leave that to the player.” I say, “No, you do not leave that to the player. You go and look in a book or, better still, you go and talk to a student-colleague who plays the oboe who will show you that when both hands are on the instrument, particularly a low note, there are no fingers you can move to make a microtone. What are you going to do? Now, if it’s a slow note, you may do a little bit of glissando, but if it’s a fast note, you can’t play it. There’s no point saying leave it to the player, it can’t be done.” So I’m very concerned with the issue for that sort of crude impossibility. I’m interested much more in what you might call sublime impossibility, which points out to the performer that no interpretation of a given piece is an exact reflection of what is on the paper, nor should it be.

MS: You spoke earlier about the difference between the composition students coming from the American and European traditions. Do American and European performers, either because of disposition or actual training, approach your music differently?

BF: Not any more, I don’t think. Although older generations of American performers are still extremely skeptical about a sort of music which they feel they can’t play properly, or that requires them to rehearse too long. You must remember that the 1950s and ’60s diaspora of serial composers from Europe produced a lot of composers in America for whom exactitude was a fetish, because their music is quantized in exact terms and they want that quanta realized in the ratios of the notes that are played in a performance. If you can play these notes exactly, with more or less the right dynamic and the right duration, that’s the interpretation.

It’s taken a couple of generations of much younger performers now in the United States to come to terms with the idea that maybe exactitude of that sort is not what we as composers really now are looking for. We see composition much more now as semantics oriented. In those days, it would have been much more syntax oriented. You have to know the serial structure. You have to know the exact duration of 8 sixteenth notes, or 15 sixteenth notes. That’s what you’re presenting to the listener. There’s a cognitive issue involved with presenting the exact durations so that the listener can make something of it because the exact durations are what the piece is about. But I think since the toppling of that particular sort of exact quantizational cognitive model of compositional structuring, younger performers have become much more excited about the umbra of interpretational implications the different styles bring with them.

MS: How do you coach them to approach your music? When they first look at the scores, do you advise them in any particular way to avoid panic?

BF: I wouldn’t advise them straight away, I think. I would ask them to go away and look at it for a couple of weeks. They don’t even need to try playing it. Just go away and live with it. I know that’s not what you’re supposed to do with a performance just two weeks down the road, but I would suggest to a young performer that, without help, they should try to do that.

Yes, I do offer advice. My advice is often of a very general nature, or, then again, of a very specific nature, like particular fingering tricks or what have you. What I say to them basically is to prioritize. You should deal with those things in this piece that seem to you most meaningful now. How do you approach what makes an important aspect of this music in expression. Do you want to deal with the pitches first? Do you want to deal with the general gesture first? But then I always say that there’s a point down the road where, having learned these things—you can get a pretty good sort of fake version of the piece by that point—then there’s a point where you have to stumble. You have to retrace your tracks and try to bring together these different layers of expression, which are not learnable all at the same moment. There’s always a grinding of the gears. And that’s a sort of recalibration of where the performer stands with respect to the demands made by the different techniques which are being conjoined at any given moment in the piece. So the performer is always, of necessity, aware of the multiplicity of tasks which are involved in interpretation. When you interpret a classical piece, many of the things which you do are repressed. It’s like riding a bicycle. You don’t buy a manual for riding a bicycle, you get on it and wobble off. I suppose you could read a book that says, “move your left foot in the space of 1.67 seconds 15 cm. At the same time note that with the left wrist…” and so on, and so on. You fall off.

With my music, it’s important that the performers learn that they will fall off and that they can counteract that falling-off-ness by gradually expanding the sphere of what is available to them in their performing consciousness at any given moment. Then distill all of that intuition stuff into the background—is it a big hall, a little hall, do you have 20 people in the audience or 500, is there a fountain splashing in the background with Vespa scooters buzzing around an Italian piazza (like I’ve had in the past on several occasions)? You readjust your expectations, and you readjust where you focus your vectors of creative energy at any given moment in trying to project the piece.

MS: If the performer has to allow time for falling off and getting used to it, how should the listener come to this then? They’re probably only going to have one shot at taking it all in.

BF: Well, I can’t take any account of that one shot. That’s not my issue. A piece is there for the ages and as long as people play those instruments. Sometimes it will be played and sometime it won’t. We won’t be here anymore. We can’t do much about it—we can only write the piece that we think will be valid, in one way or another, for all those situations. No performance of a piece presents the whole piece, just as I’m not 50,000 different multiple-universe people sitting here, each one saying one word differently over the space of an hour. I’m just one of those collapsed realities at any given moment. The same is true in playing a piece. You collapse realities—the sort of wave-front of multiple realities into a single performance. So it’s very important, I think, that my relationship to the performer be one of those aspects of the music which is most active in bringing it across to the listener. In other words, the body and the extended body of the performer in relation to the instrument is really sort of the sounding board which listeners need to focus on in trying to understand what the music is doing. So it’s sort of an enhanced performer-content relationship.

MS: One last trans-Atlantic comparison: Shadowtime has been done in Europe and now you’ve had one night to watch an American audience take it all in. Anything strike you?

BF: Yes, they get the jokes. The Europeans don’t get the jokes. They don’t think of classical music as bawdy or in someway unclean or jokey, low material. In fact we find much classical music, particularly opera, works on those two levels simultaneously. If you look at The Magic Flute, for instance, you find very clearly that you have the sublime and you have the ridiculous—or Shakespeare, Midsummer Night’s Dream, the same thing. So it’s perfectly okay for a piece of music to contain elements of the ridiculous, the unexpected, the humorous. Ligeti is one of the few composers who’s managed to do that, I think. So there are things in my music and there are things in the text by Charles Bernstein which made people in the first American performance last night laugh out loud. I thought that was great.