EMS Proceedings and Other Publications

The Influence of Technology on Composer’s Creative Thought: The Music of Brian Ferneyhough

Pamela Madsen

In the evolving field of electroacoustic music much has been done to forward the techniques surrounding the speed and efficacy of production of new and diverse sounds, notation and processes. However, little reflection has taken place about what these advances mean within the context of an evolving canon of compositional thought: historically, theoretically, and pedagogically. As a theorist, while I have completed doctoral training at Yale University (focusing on set theory and extensions of prolongational analysis) and a Ph.D. at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) (focusing on the evolution of compositional theory in the late twentieth century) and currently teach composition/theory and technology at California State University, Fullerton (CSUF), I found my training and resultant analytical tools lacking with regards to electro-acoustic and computer music. To be prepared to analyze electroacoustic music and the use of technology in music I had to learn more about the programs used and about the composers currently using computers in music and have access to the strategies used in their compositional processes.

In my post-doctoral research I have worked as a guest composer, theorist, researcher at several institutions of Computers in Music: CRCA (Center for Research in Computing in the Arts) at UCSD, CCRMA, (Center for Computers and Research in Music and Acoustics) at Stanford University, CCM (Center for Contemporary Music) at Mills College and IRCAM (Institute for Research in Computers, Acoustic and Music) in Paris, France. At these institutions I evolved new strategies for analysis through the intensive study of computer programs, archival research documenting pre-compositional materials and interviews with composers who use technology in their compositional work.

Specifically, I have been studying the works of composers who have composed works using technology at IRCAM. I have studied selected composers pre-compositional materials, scores and resources documenting these composers work and the work of the composer’s assistants in technology while they were in residence at IRCAM, and materials archived in the IRCAM Mediatechique. My critical investigation focused on the assessment and documentation of how the use of technology (either as pre-compositional tool or use in processing and manipulation of sound) influenced compositional thought. I tried to look at a spectrum of compositions by selected composers ranging from pre-technology works, to work which use technology, to works that are about the use of technology. Composers’ works which I focused on included: Brian Ferneyhough, Kaija Saariaho, Johnathan Harvey, and Michael Jarrell.

In my research some of the questions, which I considered, are: How do techniques of electroacoustic music connect with a body of existing works and procedures of works that do not use technology? What are the implications of computer-assisted pre-compositional algorithms within the frame of a developing compositional logic? When one evolves a technique of composition to enhance the speed and complexity of interaction between the composer and their material to what ends is this serving? Can the processes used in electroacoustic composition be traced logically to the extension of existing compositional techniques? Does this interface foster a better communication of the composer’s critical thought and can the investigation of the documentation of this interface provide a useful tool for analyses? To better answer these questions and for the purpose of this presentation I have chosen to focus on the issue of computer-assisted pre-compositional thought through the archival study of pre-compositional materials of selected composers in particular, Brian Ferneyhough. I have chosen Ferneyhough since I have known his music for many years, prior to his use of technology and have witnessed the expansion of his techniques and his compositional strategies as a result of his use of technology.

Pre-compositional Algorithms and Composers’ Creative Thought: Brian Ferneyhough’s Use of PatchWork

The music of Brian Ferneyhough has often been thought of in terms of its complex rhythmic structure and the extreme technical demands that it places upon the performer. However, as Jonathan Harvey assessed in his Foreword to Ferneyhough’s Collected Writings "most listeners are rarely totally lost, despite the difficulties on the micro level." For as Harvey expresses "Ferneyhough’s subjectivity is palpably present: the music is emotional." But what generates this emotional presence in his music and why is it so difficult to understand, trace or grasp? As Harvey continues,"[Ferneyhough’s music] is sometimes developed to a point where it seems to go beyond itself. The speed with which different expressivenesses follow each other, and the density with which they superimpose vertically, are so great that a sort of overload can occur, one which transcends the restlessness of arousal, like a film run through at ten times the proper speed."

Echoing Harvey’s statement above, the problem in assessing much of Ferneyhough’s music lies in the speed and density of its presentation. Over time, I have been able to slow down the presentation of material in my mind (or perhaps conversely speed up my own rate of intake) so that much of what is being communicated in the score seems to make sense. However, I have not been able to write about it as a theorist in some convincing analytical way. That is, until I started to look more closely at his sketches, namely the process by which he generated his compositional algorithms which yields his pre-compositional material for much of his recent work, combined with the understanding of how these materials are then filtered, selected and congealed to form the final work itself.

In this presentation I will briefly define the compositional algorithm program which Ferneyhough used called PatchWork (an earlier version of Open Music) and the concept of the graphic patch. I will discuss which patches are most relevant for use by Ferneyhough in his pre-compositional methods for selected works (for ex. His String Trio and Incipits) and provide examples generated from Ferneyhough’s own library of patches. This is only part of a larger research and analytical project, which investigates not only Ferneyhough’s precompositional algorithms but also ones used by other composers, as well as providing a method for structuring for my own compositional algorithms. I hope that through my reflection upon the choices made in by Ferneyhough in his compositional process I will start to uncover an emerging system of logic that generates the emotional energy and impact present in his music.

Specifically, I am interested in the deeper Philosophical/Artistic Basis of the pre-compositional notions that underlie his decisions. Specifically the concept of "Otherness” as a self-limiting parameter as defined from within the individual in pre-compositional thought and in conjunction with this concept, the question of "Locatedness" as defined as a point of departure in his works. These terms carry with them a philosophical framework that I am just beginning to understand. In working on his music, I had to research not only the score but try to understand the foundations of his philosophical thought by tracing extensive framework of German Idealistic Philosophy—of Hegel, Heidigger and Adorno. I focused on these two concepts of “other” and ‘locatedness” which form part of a basis for his compositional thought and help to posit the identification of things which are not there in his work.

For me, this notion of the forbidden"other" in his work creates the sensation, when listening, of looming on a precipice— a rather hyper-expressionist “emotional” sensation which is felt in so much of Ferneyhough’s work. For Ferneyhough the “other” in his pre-compositional thought he has identified as a set of constraints—that which is impermissible in a system, or that which falls outside of the frame. What is permissible (musically) one construes from that which is allowed. This is then located in a “geometrically defined space”. For instance in phrase structure—the platonic ideal never appears—rather the model in Ferneyhough system is slightly bent. This damaged or bent model is essentially construed from a series of if- then rules, which creates an intersecting lattice of the permissible in his work. The geometry of a work is defined by implications of the potentiality of meaningfulness. This geometry of topology defines an “allowable” space rather than a clear set of relationships. This space is defined through a lattice of coordinates. The impermissible in Ferneyhough’s works is then defined as the “fixed object”. He is interested in the superimposition of multiple transparent grids, which relate amongst themselves. One can’t find this location of the ""Other on the basis of one object but have to bring in a whole field of objects which is incomplete. Through the superimposition of external grids—the proposing of different perspectives, which one can trace through his process of editing of his PatchWork programs, and his manipulation of his pre-compositional materials one begins to find the potential locatedness of these objects on the grid, although the objects themselves are never fully revealed or realized in his compositions. What remains to create this emotional state is the highly charged vapor trails of their potentiality. What can be analyzed is the relationship between their pre-compositional source and their eventual manifestation.

In this regard the visual display of the pre-compositional tools of the PatchWork program gave valuable insight into Ferneyhough’s method of working for me. For years I studied his scores and listened to his music without much theoretical success. Only after being able to actually watch the fascinating process of Ferneyhough construct, edit and translate his precompositional thought in the form of a graphic patch on the computer screen, was I able to begin to situate the energy behind his music—for it only existed in the cross hairs of the computer screen and in what was rapidly being erased and edited out of the final product. Ferneyhough not only translated his existing pre-compositional thought but also used processes, which began to extend his method of composing, by using PatchWork. Specifically, he became interested in the use of Dynamic Permutations- Open-ended processes where one only knows where the process starts and ends— to create extendable and unpredictable changing process. Although he had considered these procedures previously, he had not used them in practice until the use of the PatchWork program, which extended his method of working to include transformational processes applied to basic formulations.

In conclusion, upon investigating Ferneyhough’s pre-compositional methods and translating them into Patchwork programs, I have reflected upon the philosophical basis of his compositional thought and devised extensions of that process into regions previously not encountered in his earlier work. Perhaps one can extrapolate about these individual intentions of Ferneyhough’s definition of the “other” as defined from within to a more global idea of the “other” in current compositional thought. Perhaps one can begin to formulate questions about how these extensions in the domain of technology for Ferneyghough created an encounter with the unknown “other” and how technology offers the ability for the composer to transcend beyond prior limitations.

Further, this study created a model for a method of assessment of what the interface with technology produced in compositional thought for other composers. In my research on the use of technology by other composers cited earlier, namely Saariaho, Harvey, and Jarrell, I have asked similar questions. With further investigations—the study of archival materials: scores, post and prior to the use of technology, and the study of the strategies encountered in the use of technology—this method of assessment will become further clarified and conclusions concerning the aesthetics of electroacoustic music can hopefully be formulated.