(musicComp1) listening/study: xenakis and ferneyhough

Your next listening and score study assignment involves works that are quite different from what we have been listening to in class, and probably quite different from your normal listening habits.

  • Iannis Xenakis: Mikka (violin)
  • Brian Ferneyhough: Time and Motion Study no. 1 (bass clarinet)

Download XenakisFerneyhough.zip

You should understand that the musical selections for study are intended to help you learn compositional techniques and to expand your understanding of what is musical. Your ability to come up with new compositional ideas is enhanced by confronting the unfamiliar in music. These two virtuosic works from the 1970s sit firmly within a tradition of late-20th-century modernism that draws upon mathematical relationships and experimentation with the very nature of what is musical sound. They are beautiful and exciting – exhilarating, even.

You will need to listen to each work multiple times and with multiple listening strategies. I suggest starting with the Xenakis and then listening to the Ferneyhough.

In the Xenakis work the violin plays with constant glissando, the shape being dictated by an abundance of quarter tones that create a feeling of being completely unanchored to any tuning system of discrete notes. In many ways it is an acoustic composition using an electronic music aesthetic of pitch, or for Xenakis, an aesthetic rooted in drawing. First listen to the work a few times without looking at the score. Focus on the musical gestures as defined by shape, range, and length. Next look at the score without listening to the recording. Focus on the pitch shapes of the gestures, thinking about changes in direction and pitch range. Finally, listen to the work while following the score. It may be difficult to follow the score, as although it has many notes which should suggest lots of events to follow, the constant glissando can make distinguishing pitches within a gesture quite difficult. Look for starts and stops along with more pronounced changes in range as reference points.

Some people refer to Ferneyhough’s style as The New Complexity. It is exceedingly virtuosic, with complex rhythmic relationships, extreme changes of register, quarter-tone pitches, and a compendium of extended techniques (playing techniques not found in the traditional classical literature, such as flutter tonguing, multiphonics, fingerings to produce timbral changes, etc.). Although certainly not jazz, it isn’t much of a conceptual leap from Charlie Parker, Ornette Coleman, and Eric Dolphy to Brian Ferneyhough. The Dutch bass clarinetist Harry Sparnaay has released a recording of this work on a CD that includes music by Eric Dolphy. Ferneyhough arrives at his complexity by repeatedly applying a process to isolated material to arrive at variations and new material that is necessarily related but not always in ways that even he can describe.

My suggestion is to first look at the Ferneyhough score without listening to the work. (I strongly suggest either viewing it on screen at full size or printing it out at it’s full 11×17 dimensions.) Skip the performance notes/instructions and take in the actual notated piece. The score is a work of art, carefully crafted to communicate both the frenzy of the work and how events connect via ultra-precise notation, and the manuscript is the composer’s own hand. Ferneyhough often sets his tempo markings to the eighth note, which allows him to use beaming as a means of communicating phrase structure. Look at the increasing complexity, especially on pp. 3 – 5, and an often polyphonic notation of gestures. After a good-faith examination of the score, listen to the work while following the score. Like the Xenakis, it will be hard to follow throughout on your first attempts. Use the same advice I gave for Xenakis – contour, range, pauses, etc., can provide guide points even if you can’t follow every note. Listen to the work with the score multiple times, making a conscious effort to sometimes follow the score focused on small details of pitches and rhythms, and at other times pulling back your focus to follow the larger sense of gesture, phrasing, and the arcs of directionality.


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