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Form-Figure-Style: An Intermediate Assessment Author(s): Brian Ferneyhough Source: Perspectives of New Music , Vol. 31,

Form-Figure-Style: An Intermediate Assessment Author(s): Brian Ferneyhough Source: Perspectives of New Music, Vol. 31, No. 1 (Winter, 1993), pp. 32-40 Published by: Perspectives of New Music

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FORM-FIGURE-STYLE:

AN INT'ERMEDIATEASSESSMENT

BRIANFERNEYHOUGH

En art, et en

musique, il ne s'agitpas

reproduire ou d'inventerdes formesmaisde capter desforces.

peinture commeen

de

-Gilles Deleuze

NE OF

THE

most unfruitful arenas of confrontation in recent com-

positional aesthetics has been the

attitudinizing

and its rationale.

embracing

version of panstylistic pluralism, the more mutual intolerance and

of central

question

of

style

The more the general climate of opinion has tended towards

some

groups

virtuoso

have come to obscure entire

issues. The increasingly uncritical acceptance of any and all incidental

Form, Figure,Style

33

stylistic usages has driven many composers into one or other of the cur-

rently flourishing ideological camps in which serious application to spe-

cific areas of difficulty has

which are often little more than verbally articulated body gesture, trans-

mitting approval or opprobrium as the case may be,

works themselves. By these means a clear-headed reexamination of the

implications inherent in

ted into satisfyingly primitive expressions of clan spirit. Most disturbing,

perhaps, has been the phenomenon of deliberate remystification

cal expression:

dangers of such a

music is being eroded

since it is this same supposed immediacy of transmission which

engenders the self-congratulatory point of view that there can be such a thing as a global solution to the chronic dissolution of musical substance.

One conceivable approach to a provisional resolution of the dilemma

might be a renewed concentration on, and redefinition of,

itself: in particular, it seems vital to focus attention more intensively on

the diachronic features of stylistic formation, since this alone

salutary counterbalanceto views of

taneity of diverse physiognomic features in some historically referential,

but

of period

another flourishing aesthetic

sectarianism, upon a falsified model of musical history. Being hypo-

stasized into a massive totality (in however limited a real form), such

model building rapidly leads to a devaluation of the internal coherence of

the individual

signifying.

carefully staged

equally unten-

and authenticated by either the

rapidity and spontaneity of the associated creative

of some

distillations of abstract,

material-bound

characterize that

structuring systems are, to some extent,

arbitrary and spontaneous, just as most

final

self-programming of the affective

of musical substance as an iconic trace of the creative volitional act is full

of pitfalls. The increasing emphasis placed upon the direct expressive

on the part of the composer. The ideology

transparency

vocables

act, or else by reason discursive

committal in nature, is founded, like many

given way to the production of writings

irrespective

of the

norms is conveniently diver-

of musi-

particular stylistic

the following considerations will seek to underline the

position at a time when the expressive potential of

by

continual resort to false forms of directness,

the term style

promises

a

style

which concentrate on the simul-

apparentlyextrahistoricallyutopian subjectivism. The unholy alliance

reference and formal

organization often little more than non-

work and its own

specific

criteria of autohistorical

It should

scarcely be necessary to emphasize that the

supremely artificial) opposition of two

a music distinguished

(but nonetheless

able fictions-(1)

supposedly natural qualities innate to the

employed, and (2) one-dimensional

gesturally

strategies of generation such as are often purported to

scapegoat, Serialism-does not survive

spontaneity is nothing but the

ritual of

all-purpose much detailed examination. All

stage of a frequently lengthy and intense

34

Perspectivesof NewMusic

power of the musical gesture attempts to convince us that the internal rhetorical energy which it is said to generate is sufficient to supplant any

of a "for-

secondary formative function which the constituent

mal continuum" might otherwise have been in a position to contribute.

qualities

This is a highly perilous doctrine, if

only

because any attempt to

significance of a ges-

underline still more clearly the immediate, holistic

tural unit leads, almost inevitably, to its assumption of effective self-

sufficiency and formally passive encapsulation in a henceforth largely

immediacy of expression-however that

else is required for the ade-

quate appreciation of its specific vehicle than gorized as to denotational intent, and (b) the

material presence. That such experientially isolationist tendencies have

gained access to the

time as the

earlierhistorical

from

heartlands of current musical thinking at the same

contingent context. Focusing term may be defined-suggests

its capacity to be cate- of its direct

on

that little

(a)

apperception

adoption of vocables derived relatively unmediatedly

epochs is surely significant,

and points to the destabiliz-

seemingly

unproblematic

ing and disorientating factors which such

appeals to "expressivity" conceal beneath the surface.

Although

the relevant connotations

have

"expression" defined except by reading between the lines of otherwise

pronouncements, the essence of the matter would

or sign-constellation be, to a sig-

of the term

scarcely been

vacuous ex cathedra

sign

nificant degree, transparent to emotive intentionality. According to this

view, the sign would, in some respects, be analogous to a glass pane

variable degrees of translucency,through which the emotive object-the

act of composing (as rendered palpable.

transubstantiation of the act of self-observation) -is

The

denied. But that is not all: such a doctrine

ries of

ular emotional

of

sound

this would not,

what such a doctrine must needs involve. Much recent music relies heav-

types calculated the listener in a

to energize the

ily on variants of a rather

seem to be this: that the musical

with

spiritual state, one assumes,

of the

composer

in the

necessity and desirability of

musical gesture which

images,

while

mediational artifice are either ignored or

suggests that there are catego-

are somehow naturally permeable to partic- resistance to others.

offering corresponding

Though it is clear that the human ear tends to react to various

types

stimulus according to relatively constant somatic considerations,

prima facie, be a

sufficiently powerful interpretation of

limited repertoire of gestural

receptive and interpretational faculties of

culturally quite specific fashion.

especially disturbing that this species of "Pavlovian"semanticism

has succeeded in gaining so much ground at the expense of subtler and

vastly more flexible

doing, a number of larger-scale aspects

grow thereby still more rigid, mechanically unaccommodating, and

It is

views of expressivestrategy-particularly when, in so

of

compositional organization

Form, Figure,Style

35

divorced from the fundamental, vitalist energies which one assumes to

be both their ultimate raisond'etreand generator. In particular, it is this tendency's espousal of a form of "expressive atomism" which vitiates

its own devoutly proclaimed program: the

succeeds

in transmitting its one-to-one correspondence with its triggering emotive

state, the less it needs-or

form of functional interaction with its immediate surroundings in the work. Even if it were to be argued that this view be overly inflexible (in

into one

another)

that, in practice, the various gestural/affective

the principle remains clear: expressive denotational monads

negate their own potential internal power by evoking it in the act of sig- nification itself.

emotively

most gravely the life force of more efficiently the individual

denotational

complex

can allow itself to be compromised by-any

units

merge

At the very moment at which the

gesture aspires to rise above its mate-

rial presence it falls back into the mere historically conditioned material

state, since its aspiration to uniqueness empties it of the possibility of

entering the community of

right. The energy required to create the

that its ability to exercise an

insignificant. Such gestures

remain, like strangely visible black holes, at the still center of their own

burnt-out identity. They exist solely on condition that they relinquish any claim to enter into more complexly fruitful formal associations except in

the form of primitive chains or

mechanisms of the "Contrast Principle."

tially absolutist iconic pretensions they become, paradoxically, inter-

changeable, depersonalized

recognizable categories of

by means of some degree of porousness that a gestural unit attains access

to any viable framework of

to its fundamen-

tal isolation. The

body of principles can be only partially surmounted by the acting-out of

composing individual; even such a role

by which the creed of spontaneity

subversive contradic-

then, the degree

a state

arbitrarinessof a gesture increases in direct

signifying

acts as a gesture is

subcategory in its own consumed by the time

its boundaries have been established, so

influence on the category pertinent to it is

by

a despairing reliance on the shaky

By proclaiming

their tenden-

tokens of generally (but only generally)

principally

communicational activity, since it is

articulative possibilities. The sense of the

proportion

barriers erected against large-scale argument by this

of affirmative monolithicity by the

of strained self-awareness demanded

the insistently

be a version

of

bears eloquent witness to the extent to

seems

to

remains distinctly fragile, reflecting

tions at its very core. The last availablecounter to this formal dislocation

and inconsequentiality

revanchism-the

a repertoire of sign categories incapable of developing its own grammar

of

programmatic

imposition of arbitrary, external formal principles upon

continuity. Thus, recent years have witnessed the reemergence of textbook forms

36

Perspectivesof NewMusic

such as variations, passacaglia, rondo, and the like: whilst there is noth- ing implausible per se in the employment of such molds it nevertheless seems likely that the current drive away from forms which are intimately interwoven with the expressive strategies of which they are composed

represents a symptom of the abyss

ideals and "image" of neoromantic aesthetic arguments, and the forced unnaturalness of their reification through abstract forms which are,

to the lacunae in the naturalist

position. If semantically loaded elements are to be called

antee directness of communication, the dilution of these same elements

as a result of their integration in organic formal patterns

being called into question as functioning iconic signals: if, on the other

hand,

retain their monadic innocence only at the considerable cost of appearing

in a condition of

radically cumambient context, which

interlocking of levels than is, in fact, present. On a larger scale, then, the

arguments of this school of

rebound upon its members with a

and a species of Neoconservatism are the

Material which exhausts itself in the violent flare of its

into the world can scarcely serve as the basis for a revised concept of styl-

istic integrity, be this pluralistically

a period of polemic reductionism has been a

consideration of foresee a renewed

further vistas of ready-

made, found objects, but,

energy sources

drive towards

schizophrenic disassociation from their cir- latter itself pretends to a more conventional

yawning

between the immediate

themselves, the most persuasive witnesses

upon

to

guar-

leads to them

more arbitrary formal models be imposed, the gestural elements

thought against so-called "Serial" music

vengeance. Forced inconsequentiality

logical endpoints of this trend.

own emergence

orientated or not. Perhaps, for some,

necessary prelude

to the re-

stylistic means. If so, it would be pleasant to be able to

concentration, not upon still

by

means of an intense

upon

these

investigation of the

propulsive

which invest gestural complexes with their

the future,

lines of force themselves

as

expression in waiting. The situation outlined above has not been selected as a convenient weapon with which to attack particular individuals. It is intended far

more to serve as one of several possible illustrations through which the

need for new perspectives on the

demonstrated. Of equal pertinence would also have been a consideration

of that

extracted from

style," since many of the arguments already offered would

equal measure. It is not

many works offering vast and fractured vistas of

one

able answer to a problem, it appears likely that there is no problem.

would seem to be especially true in

question of style might usefully be

to

integrate elements

apply

here in

in very close detail the

"quantum leaps" from

no conceiv-

This

approach to pluralism which

necessary

attempts

various disparate cultural sources into a single "meta-

to examine

prefabricatedstylistic habitat to another. Where there is

respect of stylistic plurality at the

Form, Figure, Style

37

present time. In any case, it is at least very questionable if any single styl- istic tendency could, by reason of creativeforce majeure,provide that sub-

stitute "common language"

perfunctorily, lamented

quences would be achieved, not by praying for rain, but through a conse-

quent and painstaking attempt to reconstruct the authenticity of a

musical dialect-be it that of one stices out.

or several composers-from the inter-

whose

present lack is loudly, if sometimes

Far more wide-reaching

conse-

on all sides.

Faced with that interpretation of style which concentrates largely on

the surface characteristics of

to affirm the importance of the cumulative, developmental aspects of the endeavor. Elements do not simply appear, they emerge imbued with

only that ubiquitous but vague shadow of the past, but

own "autobiography," the scars of depend on the exclusivity of the

history-not

also, more significantly, their very

their own growth.

spontaneity/precalculation axis for their validation unwittingly depreciate

postulated extremes presup-

pose channels of signification which remain

dimensional suddenness of surface which a more deeply, more differ-

the means in their own hands, since both

given materials, it would appear necessary

Theories which

imprisoned

in the one-

entiatedly oblique species of discourse would

some form of depth perspective depends on

avoid. The reintegration of

reestablishing

contact

virtuoso

ideology

type of patterning which of the

energic potential

of

perceptual categories

between the surface features of a work and its inner, subcutaneous

drives. Like

performers, the compositional style which aspires implicitly to the status

of natural object denies us

of

the holistic gesture be dethroned in favor of a

takes greater account of the transformative and

subcomponents of which the gesture is composed. It is a question, in the

in

respect of the "afterlife"of a gesture, since it is here, at the moment of

dissolution, that the constrictive

to be released as formal energy. A gesture whose component defining

features-timbre, pitch contour, dynamic level, and so dency towards escaping from that specific context in

independently signifying radicals, free to recombine, to

further

into

gestural forms may, for want of other nomenclature, be termed a

specific

parametric aspects of the figure produces a unit at one and the same

time material

figure. The deliberate enhancement of the

first instance, of the conscious

that very illusion is sustained. It is thus

into

the crossplay of forces by which

the beautiful illusion of perfection offered by many

entry

imperative that the

employment

preforming of gestural material is able

sign,

on-display a ten- order to become

"solidify"

separatist potential

of

and

temporary focus of the lines their often violent release.

of our communal cre-

ative experience. Whatever the pros and cons of aesthetic maneuvering as

presence,

semantic

of organizational force until the moment of

The concept of the parameter has become part

38

Perspectivesof NewMusic

far as its original function is concerned, the term is surely indispensable if we wish to come to practical grips with the above-outlined notions. Regardless of the extent to which many composers might seek to per- suade us that the analytical mobility of parametric inflection has been

superseded by a return to the integral

tive gesture, we should not permit ourselves to become confused: the

power of such rhetorical assertions lies mainly in their undifferentiated

substance, while the character of

course is of quite another order. One quences of the sometimes over-literal

"classical"serial period has been, not so much the flawless establishment

of some materially egalitarian utopia of authorless creation, but, rather,

the almost incidental demonstration that

any potential focus of many lines of directional energy.

and indivisible nature of the emo-

musical dis-

even minimally complex

of the most farreaching conse- of the

manipulations

typical

form of sonic unit is the

in such

compositions was not, in the first instance, a necessary consequence of

parametricthinking as such but, rather, follows directly from the specific

aesthetic

parametricdeploy-

ment tended to generate a series of contextless monads,

by no means obviously followed from the abstract rules of play

they owed their existence. It was thus the overall decontextualization of

parametric structuring which led inevitably to the decay of

tional credibility, not sonic event as being a

a number of independently

any particular inadequacy inhering in the view of

ing are related to the perception that total mobility

positions adopted. The deepest doubts concerning serial think-

The acausally immobile quality of the

parametric complexes

of

whose aural logic

to which

composi-

the

resultant

momentary fixing

On

of

the

moving streams of information.

"dematerialization"of the event, its radiation into, and illumination of its

is an essential prerequisite for the establishment of

defining context,

those taut chains of

event must needs remain

a return to itself as

affective

identity is processually transcended.

perspectives sug-

gests the need for a stylistic ambience in which an uninterrupted move-

ment from level to level, from

ever-present possibility.

affective gesture with the

analytical fashion suggests itself since, by

adopting such a standpoint, the

gesture is brought to function

which enhances the

to smallest element of form, is an

contrary,

mutually embedded perspectives without which the

largely

incommunicado in respect of larger for-

experiences

mal concerns. In this fashion, the event

A realistic

substance at the very moment at which the illusion of stable

reintegration of parametrically defined

largest

A mode of composition

energy

to productively dissolve itself in a quasi-

in several ways simultaneously,

its

thus

throwing its shadow beyond the limits set by

physical borders, while

take on

lives of their own-without, however, divorcing themselves from the

the strands of parametric information of which it is composed

Form, Figure,Style

39

concrete point of their common manifestation to such a degree that their independence on the processual level could ever pose a serious threat to

to the credibility or integrity of the gesture

being primarily a subclass of the gesture, partakes of the general "speech

resemblance"characterof the latter, without at any point

essentially syntheticemphasis. Its very dependence on

diacy of the gestural manifestation guarantees that a return to the static

inconsequentiality of neoserial hierarchieswill be rendered improbable.

itself. The enhanced figure,

renouncing its

the material imme-

The present state of value-free pluralism

purpose),

demands resolution, not in

of "common language" (since

the continued search for some Holy Grail

this would also imply common

rigorous definition, both in the single work and in the work series, of a

continuity of context in and through which

whatever their incidental origins-may assume audible responsibility for

the embodiment of a stylistic tradition in the making. The major prereq- uisite for such an undertaking, far from being the punctual selection of

general types of surface feature, is the creation of a

state of stylistic homogeneity. The current defeatist denunciation of

this quest, since there is always room for a

language which offers the listener a rich panorama of life-forms in

motion. Progress in this sense is surely attainable.

but rather through

particular

the

vocables-

continuously evolving

"progress" need not inhibit

Only the conscious and systematic deconstruction of the gesture into

semantically mobile figural constellations mer's inherent limitations, since it is the

which permits the definition of the category through which it wishes to be

heard, ratherthan vice-versa.

peculiar

force all its own, and it is

precisely this impetus which informs the dissolu-

gesture into a cloud of liberated, form-building atoms. A musi-

on whether it

is presented as the evidential trace of a completed process, or as a concrete

we can

imagine a species

so formulated as to

into a governing corona of classificatory

febrileworld of forces which remains for us to

governing instance of, the

expansion, diversification

streams of formal potential.

work, of that form of aura which

the proper exploitation of such

possibilities, no matter what surface characteristics an individual com- poser's style may display. More than ever, it is likely to be the consistency

will be the most effective guarantee for

only long-term evolution can provide

to overcome the for-

promises synthetic nature of the figure

Expressiveenergy derives, in large measure,

from the impacting power of restriction; arrested motion has a

tion of the cal element

possesses radically

different

qualities, depending

"given," the result and goal of unmediated invention. Analogously,

of form in which all contributory sonic events would be

permit the differentiated radiation of their particles

hierarchies:it is this articulatedly

secure.

of

independently steered

Style is important as the vehicle for, and

and combination

The progressive accretion, from work to

40

Perspectivesof NewMusic

of whatever stylistic means are adopted that, simultaneously resisting and encouraging invention, will prove most capable of validating a species of

expressivevitality which, like

not content itself with

limits of the individual work.

the architecturalfantasies

of Piranesi, does

remaining industriously imprisoned within the

First published in English in theDarmstaidter Beitrage zur neuenMusik19 (1982).