- Brian Ferneyhough by Lois Fitch
Grove Music Online defines New Complexity as “a term that became current during the 1980s as a means of categorizing the music of Brian Ferneyhough, Michael Finnissy and a number of younger composers . . . all of whose music was held to share certain aesthetic and formal characteristics. In particular they sought to achieve in their work a complex, multi-layered interplay of evolutionary processes occurring [End Page 569] simultaneously within every dimension of the musical material” (Christopher Fox, “New Complexity,” Grove Music Online, http://www.oxfordmusiconline.com [accessed 18 September 2015]).
Lois Fitch, currently on the faculty at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester (U.K.), has focused a substantial part of her academic career on the New Complexity, and most specifically, on the music of Brian Ferneyhough. In her book, Brian Ferneyhough, Fitch undertakes the formidable task of authoring the first extensive volume in English on the life and work of the composer. The two major studies in French that precede her book (Nicolas Darbon, Brian Ferneyhough et la nouvelle complexité [Notre-Dame-de-Bliquetuit: Millénaire III, 2008]; and Francis Courtot, Brian Ferneyhough, figures et dialogues [Paris: Harmattan, 2009]), attest to how little material on Ferneyhough has been written. Of these two monographs, Fitch has a decided preference for the work of Courtot, which she believes “considers parts of the oeuvre from the perspective of Ferneyhough’s interrelated concepts of gesture, figure, and texture” and “is an important resource for establishing the many levels at which Ferneyhough’s conceptual and technical preoccupations intersect” (p. 5).
At the onset, Fitch alleges (rather than states as incontrovertible fact) that Ferneyhough is considered “the father figure of so-called ‘New Complexity’ ” (p. 3), implying the need to legitimize unfavorable or negative connotations associated with the concept of New Complexity and its relationship to the composer. She makes it her intention to examine Ferneyhough in the context of reevaluating what she considers to be marginalization of his work. Fitch believes that reductive representations of one musical dimension to the exclusion of others are problematic, and that the compositional parametrics and exploitation of musical time–space are two agents of consistency seen throughout his career (p. 6).
While the book follows the standard format of biography followed by descriptive analyses, the biographical section is pleasantly brief, summarizing only the most relevant points of Ferneyhough’s formative years and how they relate to his compositional output: his early interest in brass instruments, mentors and teachers who helped him along the way, and key composers who were early influences to whom he was indebted, including Hindemith, Berg, Varèse, Boulez, and Stockhausen. “Ferneyhough’s relative lack of access to major twentieth-century musical resources (scores and recordings) before attending the Birmingham School of Music is documented (see Brian Ferneyhough: Collected Writings, edited by James Boros and Richard Toop [London: Routledge, 1998], 98–106), and his juvenilia act as a diary insofar as his encounter with particular composers and their music is enshrined and reflected in his compositional endeavours from the age of 15” (p. 22).
Many of the critical assaults and routine dismissals of Ferneyhough’s music as “unplayable” derive, in part, from a style of parametric composition, mostly inherited from the Darmstadt School: density and interplay of highly intense gestures across the spectra of pitch, rhythm, and dynamics. The composer himself acknowledges the difficulty, density, and “blackness” of his scores. Fitch incorporates a number of ideas, mostly from others, that support the notion that his scores are inaccessible, unworkable, and overly notated, yet she believes “their critique stems from an awareness of the importance of the visual aspect of the score for its own sake” (p. 44). In addition, Fitch contends that, while the composer’s notation exhibits certain elements reminiscent of indeterminacy, it is “the vertical ‘interruptive’ lines [that] furnish one example of Ferneyhough’s use of notation to determine a performance outcome” (p. 69). Fitch provides music examples, but they are scattered. Some complexities that...