Brian Ferneyhough : “Adorno Presentation”


Goldsmiths College, London, 21 February 1998 [1]



Since my personal appreciation and interpretation of Adorno’s thought has necessarily been conditioned almost exclusively by my experience as a practicing composer I propose to restrict my comments largely to that area. I have always been distrustful of artists who create according to the precepts of a programme, no matter how well intentioned, and thus composing ‘musique informelle’ according to Adorno’s - admittedly rather imprecisely formulated -  dicta is an ambition far from my mind. In any case, a literal-minded adherence to  such a list, assuming it to exist, would surely amount to little but a sad travesty of the vision of aestheti­cally aware and responsible freedom he ardently espoused.


It was interesting, re-reading Vers une musique informelle after a period of several years, to recognise in Adorno’s extensive and wide-rangingly speculative musings a number of ideas which, on a more local plane of self-interest, I have had repeated occasion to articulate to myself, albeit in far less elegant and eloquent form. Certainly since the onset of the 1980s I have sought to confront and reformulate the unfruitful pseudo-dichotomy of serial (or other) forms of order as against supposedly more subjective and spontaneous means of fixing musical meaning which lies at the heart of Adorno’s concerns. At that time I postulated what amounts to an axis defined by precisely these two same largely fictional - at the least, wholly non-functional - extremes. I further imagined that a work, or parts of a work. might be generated by means located at specific points along this axis - that is to say, closer to one extreme than the other. I termed the referential extremes ‘automatic’ and ‘informal’, whereby materially identical elements - say, a group of quaver triplets - would come, by being generated either as instantiations of numerically-steered processes or as figurations and re-inscriptions of sedimented semantic import, to function in at least theoretically distinct ways. I am sure that one of the motivating factors of Adorno’s position was the wish to re-emphasise the capability of plurifunctionality, whereby, in the aesthetic context, the comparison of apples and oranges would be a valid possibility.


According to my then theory, an automatically-generated discourse would, as it were, be the real fata morgana or trace of its immanent means of production and, it is true, I personally sense a great ‘lightness of being’ inhering in what thereby emerged, in that, the more stringent the means and thus more contextually delimited the field of operations, the more convincingly the work’s ideolect was able to support such perceptual Ungereimtheiten as sequentially applied series of generative mechanisms might engender - quasi-tonal or modal melodic pitch configurations, for example. The background of this approach was my growing conviction that exclusionary style-defining strategies demarcated by those primarily proscriptive indices of supposedly non-integrable or potentially misleading and ‘loaded’ sonic images which have dominated late-Modernist discourse (and, in a different, but surely similarly totalising manner, the flaccidly banal inclusivity of post-Modernist ethical whitewashing) have led to a fatal impoverishment of compositional means. If we expect nothing, we receive nothing. It is plausible that one of Adorno’s most pressing aims for a musique informelle would have have been the re-absorption of these scattered residua without this necessarily implying a parallel acceptance of their once all-inclusive ideological enframings. The deadly attractions of the latter course are to only to frequently encountered in contemporary music concerts, where the the ghastly evocation of just such desuetous sociocultural assumptions has come to resemble the gilt frame which authenticates the Old Master it contains. When speaking of Expressionist/free atonal works from the early part of the century Adorno evokes the ‘friction’ with something they sense to be alien, something with which they cannot become identical: “But even friction coefficients cannot be preserved artificially.” This may or may not be the case; nevertheless it precisely this ‘dissonantial’ potential which, rooted at the deepest level of what we understand by musical language, offers us today renewed opportunities, provided that the generative methodology characterising the work be sufficiently resilient as to both engender and re-absorb the apparently discrepant element.


This brings me to the opposite pole of my axis - the ‘informal’. By this term I do not intend material extruded by some sleight of hand from the inaccessible depths of the ‘spirit’, but rather musical elements which, however rigorously they may later be employed, enjoy a primal state already imbued with a certain internal differentiation or relational complexity. Because of this ‘pragmatic a priori’ aspect, such elements are in a position to enter into a dialogue with the composing consciousness, assigning values and articulating criteria of relevance themselves amenable to being treated as material for further manipulation. Far from being one-dimensional ‘thematic/motivic’ givens, such elements are able to move up and down a scale conjoining the extremes of apperceivable material quiddity and abstracted strucural vehicle. In so doing, they mediate - in Adorno’s sense, dialectically - both local and global architectures of meaning.


It will be clear that the mediation of numerically-derived operations giving rise to ex post factum traces of no-longer-present compositional acts with already partially predetermined objects, relations or situations is not entirely unproblematic, but it is precisely this continued impurity of exigency which, for me at least, gives rise to one of the most powerful forces thrusting the composer into new domains of ‘otherness’. If we are, as I fear, but little able to change our fundamental selves, at least we can seek to propel ourselves into unfamiliar environments wherein our customary reactions may call forth unfamiliar interactive results.


More recently I have come to define a slightly more differentiated form of possible intersection between the two extremes laid out by Adorno in Vers une Musique informelle. It seems to me that his denigration of the more literal-minded versions of serial procedure has much justice on its side; at the same time one should be wary of drawing the conclusion that an unsatisfactory result necessarily implies the unqualified invalidity of the means. His caviats regarding the internal ambiguities attendant on the ubiquitous reliance on motivic/thematic procedures must also be taken extremely seriously. In works such as my Second String Quartet I have attempted to map out a field of compositional morphology in which aspects of both domains have been actively retained and systematically re-synthesised. On the one hand there are clearly delineated constellations of departure - that is to say, in­tegral gestures - on the other, salient physiognomic features defining the internal constitution and self-consistency of those same constellations are designed with a view to being what one might term vectorially active, in the sense that their degree of definition is such that it is possible to imagine them, reduced to abstract parametric quanta, projected onto future states of the discourse where, in combination with other such strata, they recombine to bring forth qualitatively new and distinct constellations which nevertheless are, to some degree, consequences - or, at least, partially homologous mutations - of their various points of departure. Examples of such ‘active’ salient characteristics might be: a rising sequence of intervals formed by the successive highest pitches of constellative sub-units; a permutable concatenation of characteristic articulation types (arpeggio, tremolo, glissando and the like) whose selection and ordering would be both function and marker of associated units of information in otherwise distinct parametric domains. Since these qualities are not themselves generated by abstract streams of data but are, on the contrary, sufficiently well-formed and grounded in their original context as to suggest a multiplicity of self-consistent continuations, it follows that the composer is in no way constrained a priori in his creative interpretation of these figurations. In this way the protean recombinatorial fecundity of serial/parametric procedures is retained whilst eluding the more egregious disadvantages of motivic principles too closely allied with iterable concrete contouring. Most of my compositions of the last fifteen years work on the assumption that musical objects and processes are not fundamentally, generically distinct. Just as objects, when subjected to microscopic examination, may be devolved into a number of discrete sub-components (as the means employed by Schönberg to structure the themes in his 1st Chamber Symphony bear vivid witness), so musical processes - as it were, the shadows thrown by objects in time - can come, as continua with accretive tendencies, to replace the referential marker function of closed, monadic gestural contiguities. Cross-fading, illusionistic punning and other intuitively deployed mind games are thus encouraged in a universe where neither putative total spontaneity nor obstinately blinkered, unidimensional local event-generation are sole competitors in the race to authenticity.


A further step along this same path has been made possible by recourse to the computer as a subsidiary productive tool. Strikingly at variance with the general perception of the computer as removing from the artist a major part of his autonomy, my own experience emphatically underlines quite the opposite experience. By systematising and categorically re-ordering the ensemble of my own procedures, I have acquired the capability of as many ‘runs’ through a specific set of operations as necessary in a comparatively brief time-span. When composing entirely by hand, one is sometimes constrained to accept the first or second-best solution to extensive sequences of calculations simply by reason of the amount of time and effort invested; with the computer, on the other hand, I am able to enter into a distinctly more tactile, sensual and intuitively immediate relationship with respect to what the innate limits and possibilities of any given computational situation might be. By beginning with the precise reproduction of already-extant techniques in the new medium rather than immediately beginning to work with relatively highly evolved programme-native procedures I have been able to build on the foundations of prior personal habits, thus retaining close and immediate contact with the nature and limits of creative liberty therein suggested. In this way, high levels of prior formalisation are the necessary precondition for the decidedly non-formalistic instantiation of compositional strategies.


Allow me to offer two specific examples of how my involvement with the computer has refined my involvement with some of Adorno’s precepts.


(1) Guided random techniques allow me to set upper and lower thresholds of permitted variation for numerous processes, either on a global scale or associated with designated atomic events. In this way, identical abstract relational models may be induced to generate entire chains of variants. I certainly do not regard these derivates as being subsumable to ‘thematic/motivic’ principles, but nor are they members of categories derivable from para-serial, punctual desiderata. Rather, they operate freely, but within rigorously defined boundaries, reflecting and re-reflecting already-complex - I want to say ‘organic’ - fundamental relational conditions.


(2) I have already said that the computer facilitates the definition of many diverse realisations of identical streams of input data. Transferred to the global perspective, such capabilities enable me to pre-define an n-level matrix within which there exists a 1-to-1 relationship between vertically-aligned (but perceptually distinct) realisations of segments of those data streams. If we further assume that the processual transformations applied to each matrix level result in audibly distinct speeds of change from level to level, then it follows that cutting across the matrix (selecting one and only one level as exemplar of each segment) results in what might be termed a sort of ‘musical archaeology’, accessing and linking vastly different types of material and degrees of evolution from moment to moment. If we then posit a set of ‘if-then’ rules governing the likely order and frequency with which these strata are accessed, then a situation arises in which a family of approximate relationships progressively and irregularly emerges according to which middle-ground coherency is formulated on the basis of perceived syntactic correspondence and relative degree of processual evolution of the component elements. As in the case of Schönberg’s 1st Chamber Symphony, themes are not immutable entities but rather malleable successions of aurally distinct sub-components whose ordering and individual degree of transformation provide practically unlimited flexibility.


Adorno says: “The problem, however, is not to restore the traditional categories, but to develop equivalents to suit the new materials, so that it will become possible to perform in a transparent manner the tasks which were formerly carried out in an irrational and ultimately inadequate way.”


Elsewhere he asserts: “The materials will emerge from every successful work they enter as if newly born. The secret of composition is the energy which moulds the material in a process of ever-greater appropriateness.”


Whether this audible goal can best be attained by the development and nourishment of a self-consistent personal style (as I in fact maintain) or by other means as yet unclear, the relevance of Adorno’s vision to the present situation is undiminished. It must be his ideal of a rigorous freedom, however construed from case to case, which serves to focus our energies in the face of a problematic future for the furtherance of the Modernist project in musical terms.



[1] Trad. en français par Peter Szendy (La “musique informelle”) in Brian Ferneyhough, L’Harmattan-Ircam, 1999