Brian Ferneyhough is widely recognized as one of today's foremost living composers. Since the mid-1970s, when he first gained widespread international recognition, his music has earned him an enviable reputation as one of the most influential creative personalities and significant musical thinkers on the contemporary scene.
Ferneyhough was born in Coventry on 16 January 1943. His early musical experiences occurred in the informal context of local music-making in his native city. Later, he enrolled at the Birmingham School of Music, and then at the Royal Academy of Music, London, where he studied briefly under Lennox Berkeley. In 1968, following the award of the Mendelsohn Scholarship, he went to Amsterdam to study with Ton de Leeuw, and the following year a further scholarship allowed him to pursue his studies with Klaus Huber at the Basel Conservatoire. During this early period, his work began to attract attention, being awarded prizes in three successive years at the Gaudeamus Composers' Competition (1968-70). Two years later Firecycle Beta was given an honourable mention (second place) by the Italian section of the ISCM, which also awarded Ferneyhough a special prize in 1974 for Time and Motion Study III as the best work submitted in all categories. In the same year, the performance of several of his works at the Royan Festival established Ferneyhough as one of the most brilliant and controversial figures of a new generation of composers.
By then, Ferneyhough had discovered a parallel vocation as a teacher of composition. Thanks to Klaus Huber's enduring support, he was appointed onto the teaching staff of the Freiburger Musikhochschule in 1973, remaining there until 1986. Following his move to the United States in 1987 he has taught at the University of California at San Diego (1987-1999) and most recently Stanford University, where he is William H. Bonsall Professor in Music. Alongside these permanent appointments, he has been associated with the most prestigious teaching institutions and international summer schools for contemporary music. From 1984 to 1996 he was Composition Course Co-ordinator at the biennial Darmstädter Ferienkurse fur Neue Musik, and from 1990 principal teacher at the annual Composition Course of the Fondation Royaumont. He has held Guest Professorships at the Royal Conservatoire, Stockholm, the California Institute of the Arts and the University of Chicago, and a Guest Professorship at Harvard University in 2007-8. In addition, he has given guest lectures and master-classes at the Civica Scuola di Milano, the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique de Paris, the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge, and Durham, and at several North American universities and colleges. The fruits of the more formal lectures have appeared, alongside interviews and texts that have their origins in more personally motivated analyses and stock-takings, in his Collected Writings (Harwood Academic Press, 1995). Goldsmiths College, University of London awarded him an honorary doctorate in 2012.
Ferneyhough's work has been performed and featured at the major festivals of contemporary music, including Akiyoshidai, Brussels, Darmstadt, Donaueschingen, Glasgow, Holland, Huddersfield, ISCM, La Rochelle, London (Almeida), Milan, Middelburg, Paris (Festival d'Automne), Royan, Salzburg, Strasbourg, Venice, Warsaw and Zurich, and he has been the recipient of several professional and honorific distinctions. In 1984 he was made Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. He has since been named a member of the Berlin Akademie der Künste, the Bayrische Akademie der Schönen Künste and a Fellow of the Royal Academy of Music. Most recently, he has been awarded the Ernst von Siemens Music Prize for 2007. A BBC Total Immersion event was dedicated to the composer in 2011, and his 70th birthday in 2013 has given rise to a number of celebrations.
Ferneyhough's output is remarkable as much for its rigorous reflection on the nature and deployment of musical material as for the diversity of its influences and references: philosophy, certainly, as well as literature and painting; but also science fiction, alchemy, and mysticism. This more speculative facet of Ferneyhough's inspiration is sometimes lost sight of, but it is evident as early as Transit (1972-5) for large ensemble and voices, and as recently as the opera Shadowtime, (1999-2004), whose overtly philosophical bent is deliberately undermined by equally strong impulses in the direction of irrationality and transcendentalism.
An abiding concern with transcendence is at the heart of Ferneyhough's music, and helps explain those aspects that are often regarded as wilfully difficult and impenetrable. It colours his own attitude to the act of composing: the grids and sieves that inform his technique are as many constraints through which 'creative volition' must pass in order to surpass itself. The same is true of his performers, who are called upon to wrest themselves free, Houdini-like, of the shackles of the composer's devising: the title of Ferneyhough's multi-movement Carceri d'Invenzione cycle (1981-6) is a deliberate pun, meaning both ‘imaginary prisons’ and ‘prisons of invention’, just as Giambattista Piranesi's eponymous etchings of dungeons, with their multiple vanishing points, often hint at the possibility of escape. The solo pieces from the mid-70s - Unity Capsule for flute (1976), Time and Motion Study I and II for bass clarinet and 'cello (1974 and 1977) - each deal with this question, even when escape is ultimately denied (as in the 'cello piece, perhaps the most pessimistic work in all of Ferneyhough's output).
Alongside idiosyncratic pieces like these stands the magnificent series of string quartets, which includes six to date, and punctuates each decade of Ferneyhough's career from the 1960s onwards. An early First String Quartet has long since been withdrawn, its place taken by the Sonatas for String Quartet (1967). The apollonian Second Quartet (1980) remains one of Ferneyhough's best known pieces, while its darker, inscrutable successor (1987) seems to turn the material of the Second inside-out. In addition to the named series are the occasional pieces Adagissimo (1983), Exordium (2008), and Silentium (2013), which uses a plainchant as its basis, and the four Dum transisset settings (2007) based on works for viol consort by the Elizabethan composer Christopher Tye. This recent interest in borrowing material from past composers and repertories (which also pervades Shadowtime) is pre-figured by the Fourth Quartet with soprano (1989-90), whose scoring deliberately invokes Schoenberg, as does the String Trio (1995), which stands comparison with the quartet series for ambition and rhetorical eloquence. The Fifth (2006) and Sixth Quartets (2010) each inhabit sharply contrasted worlds, utterly different from what has preceded them. The latter continues Ferneyhough's recent investigations into large-scale works composed of fragments, begun with Les Froissements d'Ailes de Gabriel from Shadowtime, continued with Ferneyhough’s second orchestral piece, Plötzlichkeit (2007), and latterly the mixed sextet Liber scintillarum, and Finis terrae (both 2012), whose ensemble layout, including vocal sextet, recalls that of Transit. The most recent substantial work to date is Schatten aus Wasser und Stein, for quarter-tone oboe and string quartet (2013).
These most recent departures in his work testify to Ferneyhough's ability to re-invent himself at an age when many might be tempted merely to consolidate past successes. Transcendence, again: if Ferneyhough's music has a positive message beyond its unflinching exploration of the complexities of mind and of Geist, it is surely this.
© Fabrice Fitch