Brian Ferneyhough on Music and Words

December 2004

Unlike my approaches to stylistic continuity in instrumental compositions, I have always begun a new vocal work with a certain amount of trepidation. This is, to be sure, partly to do with entering the complex world of another artist as, as it were, an overweening late-comer; whilst this is of course not to be understated, it does not lie at the centre of my concerns, which is to be found, rather, in the array of implicit or explicit fault lines exposed by two world systems, those of verbal / conceptual as opposed to musical discourse.

I have sometimes spoken of music as being, if not a language, them amenable to being treated as if it were a language. This primarily operative assumption aids my stylistic evolution to the extent that it enables me to ignore wider philosophical concerns which, because articulating more abstract issues, are likely to stand in the way of concrete, context oriented enactments of meaning production. One might imagine, I suppose, that this would render the alliance of poetic texts and musical con-texts less, rather than more, problematic: in fact, however, it is not infrequently precisely this twofold emphatic emplacement of aesthetic locality which gives rise to a fatal flaw or discontinuity which the composer ignores at his peril.

Thus we are left with alternate but equally enervating states of affair. On the one hand, the demands of 'standard received' textual conventions - sentence structure, accentuation, case agreements and the like - relentlessly conspire to undermine optimal deployment of musically immanent parsing devices; on the other, the very departure from these norms which characterizes much highly-individuated poetic locution presents the composer with the prospect of text-music discontinuities of daunting proportions. Since it is usually music (as the aptly named 'setting') which is imagined as faithfully serving the text by displaying it to best advantage, the composer not prepared to accept this ritual self-effacement is constrained to formulating and realizing quite complex work-specific strategies. In effect, he must accept, re-inscribe and thus empower this fundamental fracture of communicative discursivity as the price of creative liberty.

Let me offer here only two examples from 20th Century vocal practice. Firstly, I would argue that the striking discontinuity experienced when reading the George texts taken by Schönberg for 'Das Buch der Hängenden Gärten' serves a double purpose. Who does not experience the energized void, the ephemeral flickerings of transience evoked by the musical rhetoric (if such be the appropriate term for the undissimulated energeticism of expressive identity) in these songs? It is to be sure the transience of the historically-bounded, the moment of ultimate dematerialized release; at the same time we cannot by any manner of means discount the fact that this release is achieved on the basis of poetic incorporation of sultry, world-weary imagery and extreme self-aware artificiality of structure. Who could argue that this staging of symbolic re-absorbtion of the Romantic subject into the luxuriously oceanic presence of voluptuously tempting materiality does not provide the composer with the opportunity to posit another, fleeting and yet potent sense of Innerlichkeit, an inwardness of the moment? In the same way, perhaps as the ubiquitous self-mirroring of the row forms in late Webern frees us from the slavish reconstruction of redundantly through-rationalized enactments of epistemological legitimization, proposing to us a refreshingly uncloying perspective of compositional liberty in other dimensions of decision making, so the suddenness of Schönbergian expressivity in this seminal work is predicated on the presence of George's ultimate foregrounding of mediation.

My second example, also from Schönberg, is 'Pierrot Lunaire'. here, musical and textual imagery go hand in hand. it is sometimes impossible to say with certainty at which points the transcriptive effusion of vocal usage flows over into the circumambient instrumental environment. Here, one encounters the composer himself applying himself with exuberant excess to the creation of musical forms which both distance themselves from, and ultimately consume (and, in restrospect, ironically validate), the crude dandyish formality of the texts themselves.

Common to both these examples is the awareness of the impossible fracture I spoke of at the outset. The composer who ignores or seeks to cosmeticize this discontinuity can scarcely avoid locating himself on one side or the other of this basic divide. If, however, we succeed in finding new ways, no matter how provisional or work-specific, of mapping and resonating the divide this is still a challenge worth the candle.

It is difficult for me to completely separate my identity as a composer from that of pedagogue. I find myself frequently asking myself the same questions that I might pose to a pupil as a way of surmounting a creative obstacle. When text is involved one needs, above all, to acquire a sense of the degree to which the active sense of its context is to be rendered account of in the conjoined form. A certain degree of autonomy may be defined along this path. On occasion, though, I am strongly persuaded of the expediency of undertaking the assimilative process in several discontinuous steps. If, for instance, the text to be set is viewed initially as 'available material' there are many qualities contributory to its aesthetic presence which can serve the composer's purpose in, as it were, the prelapsarian space of fractureless innocence. Information gleaned from such considerations can be deployed by the composer either as conceptual regulators or as value-free quanta to be regarded as equals in precompositional dispositions. The empowering aspects of the fracture come increasingly to the fore the more the communal materiality of text and music are invoked.

Each of my own vocal works has necessarily given rise to lengthy reflections on such matters, and each work has succeeded - or failed - on the innate degree of plausibility with which sufficient aspects of the textual dimension are first of all bracketed out, then folded back in at a later stage of the compositional process. Text setting is always a process, in that the expression of time passing in the sedimentation and mutual infiltration of incommensurables contributes to the sense of distance or proximity with which text and music speak to (or past) one another. Vital concerns of a developing musical language (however defined) must withstand the test of fire and prove themselves equal, in any given work, to the formal or pragmatic concerns of the text. They may be similar, they may be (as in the first Schönberg example) crassly distinct; important, above all, is the composer's awareness of the mutual incomprehension.

At this point I should finally make the not insignificant distinction between solo vocal and choral music. The latter is, in my experience, somewhat easier to deal with than the former, in that a single voice invariably engenders the impression of a single individual who speaks. Oftentimes this impression proves more powerful than whatever other aspects of the text the composer is attempting to address. In choral music, in contrast, the obvious degree to which the text is 'orchestrated' is a constant corrective to overly simplified and assimilative modes of reading.

Most recently, work on my 'Shadowtime' has caused me to reflect upon the conventions of characterization, the use of received historical forms as mediational instances and the nature and demands of libretti. Remembering my previous experience in vocal music, I asked Charles Bernstein, my librettist, himself fully awake to this complex of issues, to produce a text that at one and the same time would accept manipulation (permutation, repetition, mass exchange of segments) and be, in its own right, an independent poetic text. This he achieved, so that I was able to modulate with great fluidity between very diverse levels of structure and music - text interaction. The first scene (the evening of Walter Benjamin's suicide on the Spanish border in 1940) and the fifth both accept the conventions of dramatic identity of individual figures. In order to ameliorate this for me unfamiliar intimacy of person and 'voice' I adopted two distinct strategies. In Scene 1, although the action evolves in real time, several independent layers of action, each with its own ensemble of voices and imagery, are superimposed, thus forcing the ear to distance itself from the totality of what is heard in order to focus on specific instantiations of character projection. Scene 5, representing Benjamin (more precisely his post mortem avatar) interrogated by a series of figures taken from history or mythology also seeks to present each character through a specific set of musical devices. Objectivizing instance here is the fact that each encounter also adopts the conventions of a particular historical musical genre (rondo, passacaglia, isorhythmic motet, quodlibet etc.), whereby the succession of interrogations on the stage is paralleled by an overview of the development of occidental musical forms from the 11th to the 19th Century. Perhaps the larger temporal scale involved in music theatrical projects demands a more excessive or, at any rate, explicit, form of fracture.

All other vocal music throughout 'Shadowtime' is choral in nature, although 'The Doctrine of Similarity' seeks to maintain a fragile sense of permanent recalibration of sense and mutual dissent by being divided into thirteen separate movements, each of which is both clearly set off from the rest by considerations of choral / instrumental disposition and re-integrated in retrospect by a slowly emerging large-scale set of formal correspondences. Like the writings of Benjamin himself, 'Doctrine' concerns itself in the first instance not with presentation but 're-presentation', and it is this dimension which permitted me to continually re-initialize the power of auratic distance from movement to movement. The final scene is likewise for choral forces only. The 'other' in this instance is the addition of computer generated sounds. On a more intimate level, two distinct texts are presented simultaneously, vying for prominence and, in addition, there are many abrupt interventions of settings of an artificial 'negative vector' language of my own devising. On each level, therefore, I sought to recall to the mind's eye the vital fracture of word and world, of world within world which - nolens volens - lies at the heart of all vocal composition.