Our regular listen to and look at living, breathing composers and performers that you may not know yet, but I know you should… And can, right here and now, with so much good listening online:

The British — reserved wet-blankets all, right? Ha! There’s an ecstatic light that burns in each of these composers’ work, though in very different ways:

The laser: Brian Ferneyhough (b. 1943)

Brian Ferneyhough

“Brian Ferneyhough is a composer whose every work probes afresh and ex nihilo the extremes of the musically and technically feasible and stretches the limits of notation. His music is conceived as an ongoing process of transcendence, a constant crossing of boundaries. Each composition is a flight into a virgin land, into uncharted territory. And he is a musical thinker to whom art, rather than existing for its own sake, represents what he himself calls Erkenntnisform — a ‘vehicle of knowledge’.”  — Dieter Borchmeyer



The mirror-ball: Jonathan Harvey (b. 1939)

Jonathan Harvey

“Jonathan Harvey’s music – ecstatic, inspired, filled now with contemplative rapture, then suddenly with exuberant, joyful dance, and always beautiful – has long stirred me. Among contemporary composers there is none except Stockhausen who can so regularly ‘with sweetness, through mine ear, dissolve me into extasies, and bring all Heav’n before mine eyes’.”  — Andrew Porter




The soft translucent glow: Laurence Crane (b. 1961)

Laurence Crane

“In Laurence Crane’s music the material chosen is familiar; mostly consonant, often tonal, triads, elementary chords, old well-used intervals rescued from a previous unjust ignorant redundancy. The familiar sound or image is abstracted by being placed in a new, clean and often isolated context, like a museum glass case. Its innate value is respected by it remaining alone, unornamented and unaffected during the course of the piece by any development or transformation; the image staying as and where it is by being gently reiterated or prolonged so that it holds our full attention.”  — Tim Parkinson

16 thoughts on “English Ecstasy via Myspace (Steve’s click picks #33)”
  1. Two other British composers of note, though they might be too mainstream to be bracketed with Mr. Ferneyhough and Mr. Harvey’s music are Mark-Anthony Turnage and Thomas Ades. I actually met Mr. Turnage in London when I was buying scores at his publishers and he walked in. I was very disappointed to find out he was an Arsenal supporter. I love his early pieces like Three Screaming Popes, Blood on the Floor, Greek and especially The Silver Tassie, which was supposed to be produced at the Dallas Opera in 2003 until it was canceled because the piece is anti-war and the chickenshits in the opera management didn’t want to antagonize their conservative audience.

    Ades has been quite prolific and I love Asyla and his opera Powder Her Face. I can’t wait for the recording of The Tempest later this year.

    Hopefully Mr. Harvey’s opera Wagner’s Dream, which got really good reviews, will get a CD/DVD release, I’d love to hear it.

    Speaking of British composers, Jonathan Dove’s terrific opera Flight is being done in Pittsburgh in February. Might be worth a trip to the Steel City.

  2. Steve, many thanks for letting me join in to clarify the My Space silliness. Alas, I am not musical, but applaud your first two (don’t know Mr. Crane) click picks! And I agree, it is fun from time to time to disappear down the rabbit hole. Although sometimes I find myself there a little too often….

  3. David, that’s an important – and I think difficult – point! Harry Sparnaay – who premiered the nigh-impossible Time and Motion Study #1 always goes around with the anecdote how the premiere had near to 1/3 of the notes right or something, and how when later he put in the effort to learn the piece up to near-perfection, Ferneyhough seemed almost a little disappointed, saying something like “Perhaps you could play it a bit faster”… some of the energy seemed to have gone.

    There’s a theatrics to scores that require extreme effort, and it seems that certainly in the 70s this was a common interest in avantgarde music. However, humans being what they are, in the end you only have two kinds of piece: playable and non-playable. And no matter how difficult, a playable piece will end up being mastered.

    Both in Ferneyhough and in Xenakis I hear a shift in how the music sounds that seems to have happened over the past decade or two. Both Xenakis and Ferneyhough’s work have addressed how heroic difficulty can lead to energetic performance. But Ferneyhough’s recent music strikes me as more overtly lyrical than some earlier work that seems to try to address this heroic difficulty and super-density. In retrospect, I hear the earlier music, as well, more and more in the lyrical way.

    In Xenakis, however, I feel that something quite different was revealed in the course of time: balance and transparency within complexity; brilliant use of color… the space of sounds, I said earlier – if Ferneyhough now sounds like “Schoenberg squared” (and, for me, less problematic than Schoenberg), Xenakis now sounds to me like “Debussy squared”, with bits of the baroque or the medieval thrown in. (And this is largely a question of performance of course, Xenakis’ final work being from 1997)

  4. Dear Samuel,
    I know exactly what you mean, and well put if i might say so! Come to think of it, maybe some of the performances i’m thinking of are rather weaker interpretations, when the performer in a sense falls back on the energy/intensity aspect- unable to articulate for one reason or another the more structured nature and jagged intersections of material.

  5. Two other British composers well worth investigating are Param Vir and Sohrab Uduman.

  6. Sure, and generally I find it highly enjoyable. But for me, in the hierarchy of sensations, the attention to detail and the extremely flexible nature of the figures seems to be more primal than some visceral intensity which I personally rather associate with the best work of Xenakis. For me, Ferneyhough is primarily an expressionist lyrical contrapuntalist, and I tend to listen to that kind of music with a touch more distance than the kind of work that is more about the space of sounds. (But this probably also reflects a personal musical development on my own part)

  7. I find Ferneyhough’s work not hard to listen to. It’s all very well done, attractive and clear, if a bit intense. The 2nd quartet in particular remains a favorite work for me. More to the point, I figured listing this music as ‘easy-listening’ and ‘healing’ seems a perfect antidote to the fetish of subcategorization, particularly rampant in popular musics where choice of music = lifestyle = subculture and where the most important sign of freedom is a vast proliferation of those. In such a world of musical particularisms, a really new music might be the first music again to be ‘easy’ in the sense of not depending on established codes that you have to know, and ‘healing’ in the sense of opposing a categorial structure that threatens to stuff and stifle our ears. Whether New Complexity might be said to escape being a sub-culture, however, is very much open to debate – indeed, one could ask to what extent this is possible at all for an artistic movement.

  8. The “Click Picks” usually showcase “original” sites of a composer’s, performer’s or institution’s making. In this case I chose these three tribute pages to illustrate my point, simply because it was a quick, convenient and unified way to hear all three in order. And, the curious have a chance to discover a number of other links on their own, to things they maybe haven’t seen or heard before.

    Steven’s “rabbit hole” remark was apt; though there’s something to be said for dropping down one occasionally…

    Welcome, Stephanie; glad to have you join the conversation.

  9. Steven, I love your “rabbit hole” observation. So true! I am married to Brian. I believe a student brought the My Space page to his attention. He was a bit surprised to suddenly have so many “friends,” especially those from beyond the grave!

  10. Well, I’d say that Brian Ferneyhough’s music is healing, but not easy listening.

    Thanks for patching up my cynical view of the world, Stephanie (Brian Ferneyhough running a myspace page has a kind of down the rabbit hole feel to me). If you don’t mind me asking, how do you know it’s not his site? Did you ask him about it?

  11. The My Space for Brian Ferneyhough is NOT run by Brian! I guess it’s sort of a tribute site. And yes, the “Healing” and “Easy Listening” descriptions come as a bit of a surprise! (Although I suppose it’s not impossible that some far flung listener might conceivably derive such benefit!) Stephanie Ferneyhough P.S. Richard Barrett is another composer very much worth listening to.

  12. My god, Ferneyhough’s page categorizes his music as “Healing & EasyListening.”

    That will probably be the funniest thing I read all day!

  13. Interesting that Ferneyhough actually seems to running his own myspace page. This, combined with the David Rakowski youtube-a-thon from a few days back, makes me envision dissertations that reference myspace. “In 2007, Ferneyhough expressed admiration for Jason Eckhardt’s music…” Perhaps this is already happening and I just have not read them. Next, expect a few IMs from Pierre Boulez…

  14. Just to mention other British Composers who are well worth looking into:
    Michael Finnissy, Philip Grange, Piers Hellawell, Geoffry Poole, Dave Smith, Morgan Hayes…

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