Sunday, September 23, 2018

Brian Ferneyhough: No time (at all) for two guitars (with score)--on the use of extended techniques in guitar music in the European avant garde and American vernacular music decades earlier

Brian Ferneyhough's "No time (at all" can be watched over here
[4-25-2021, or, uh, now you have to go here]

If you want to watch a video performance of Salut fur Caudwell by Helmut Lachenmann for two guitars you can go over here

(though it's a bit close to half an hour as opposed to the seven-ish minutes Ferneyhough).
and probably it's Christopher Caudwell ...

Okay ... what's curious to me as a guitarist (and composer) about this Ferneyhough duet is that you've got the bottleneck technique showing up, you've got string bending glissando effects, you've got cascading chords in harmonics, you've got pizzicato muting of chords, you've got stratospheric high notes that can only be played by putting an object over the rosette and ..

Robert Johnson did most of this in a mere two minutes with "Preachin' Blues".

which is not to say that if you're into the New Complexity or Lachenmann's experimentalism there's exactly something wrong with that.  There are some pretty fun sounds in these works but ... as an American guitarist composer there's hardly anything in the above performances you can't hear by way of extended techniques in blues recordings made by Johnsons (Robert or Blind Willie) from the 1920s and 1930s.

What I find curious is that there are folks who can find what Lachenmann wrote for guitar duet amazing and ... sure ... there's stuff in it that sounds fun but as an American guitarist with a love of blues, jazz and country there isn't one sonority or technique in the Lachenmann guitar duet that you wouldn't have heard in music by African American musicians from ... you know, about ninety years ago.  As the use of extended techniques goes for guitar the European avant garde could be said to have been half a century behind American popular music.

or Blind Willie Johnson singing "God Moves on the Water"

Not that I can't appreciate things about the Ferneyhough or Lachenmann guitar duets but they're never going to seem more interesting music to me than Robert Johnson, Blind Willie Johnson or Charley Patton.

or Bo Diddley ... or pick someone.

While I've expressed my reservations about the terms "Eurological" and "Afrological" and I honestly still have those reservations, hearing performances of Ferneyhough and Lachenmann help me to appreciate why in the field of musicology the terms got coined because to even know who these composers are is to be in so rarified a field already that it seems dubious to imagine that these guitar duets are avant garde on the basis of extended techniques that African American musicians were making use of a century ago in popular musical styles.  Whether in the diddley bow idiom or the Hawaiian slack key idiom and, of course, later on in Delta blues, the extended techniques in the linked guitar duets existed generations earlier in African American and Hawaiian musical traditions.

These two examples aren't even the only cases in which these extended techniques are employed.  Bottleneck technique shows up in a work for guitar by Sofia Gubaidulina, for instance.

You can see it in action about 13:00 into this performance

Nadia Borisolova has also made use of bottleneck technique, and of strategically placing pencils through the strings in pieces like "The Dance of the Wind and the Shaman" She brings out the bottleneck technique about 5:23 into the performance

She also has a movement in her Butterfly Suite where pencil and bottleneck techniques get used.
The bottleneck technique shows up at 0:44 and goes up until about 1:04

I've thought about writing about her Butterfly Suite for a while now.  You can find the score at Theodore Front, for instance.

Nikita Koshkin's "Piece with Clocks", of course, has a number of extended techniques involving foam mutes, a cork and other devices.  Thankfully his work is getting widely played enough someone posted a video demonstrating how these sounds get coaxed from the guitar.

Which gets me to a qualified appreciation of the influence of a composer who's not going to be one of my favorites but whose influence I believe is not really contestable in the 21st century, John Cage.  Just on the basis of prepared piano Cage's influence has to be accounted for and not just in terms of piano music.  The prepared piano introduced ways of modifying strings that has permeated into the classical guitar literature, too.  Now I'll be first to say I prefer extended techniques using bottleneck and prepared guitar from Russian and American music to the Germanic/British avant garde stuff that started off this post.

The guitar duets presented at the start are, for me at least, the least interesting realizations of extended techniques for guitar compared to either the American blues (or country) traditions; or the Russian guitar traditions.

Borislova's work is compelling to me and I have wanted to write about her guitar music for a while but absent easier access to recordings or films of her performing it's been tough to know when or how to bring up her music in a way that could make any sense to someone who's reading a blog.  Thankfully as new material emerges online this is less and less an issue.

Now if you're into the Darmstadt style legacy of sonic experimentalism I don't really have anything I could or would want to say to change your mind about you being into that. I do like me some Xenakis and the Haba string quartets are pretty cool.  But as extended techniques for guitar go there's nothing Darmstadt associated composers have done for the instrument that hasn't been done better three quarters of a century earlier by the Americans (and often people of color as current nomenclature has it).  For that matter there's a rather broadly Russian tradition of using extended techniques with some debt to John Cage along the way.

Those duets at the top of this post aren't necessarily bad pieces, I like parts of the works ... but I trust my polemical point is clear, that there's nothing in those works that wasn't pioneered in American popular and vernacular styles in the first decades of the 20th century with roots going further back in some cases.

So I can have some clearer appreciation for terms like "Afrological" and "Eurological" in avant garde music in the Western idioms post 1945.

Now if someone like, say, a John Borstlap wanted to come up with a polemical case for why Darmstadt style experimentalism isn't even experimentalism he could propose something like what I just wrote about how there are no extended techniques for guitar performance used in the Ferneyhough and Lachenmann guitar duets that weren't pioneered in American folk and popular traditions seventy years prior.  But if Borstlap sticks to a binary taxonomy in which popular music or music ever used as entertainment and diversion rather than transcendental art then he won't have the option of making such a polemic because blues, jazz and country become entertainment rather than art or even perhaps "music".  Whereas, by way of a deliberate contrast, I would venture to guess that someone like Ethan Hein or Kyle Gann could appreciate all of the polemical points I'm making here.

It's also a point that Roger Scruton could have made addressing Darmstadt if he'd thought to make that point when he spoke there ...

but he didn't.  He dutifully mentioned Gershwin but I would think that if you wanted to really stick it to Darmstadt in a visiting lecture you'd point out something like what I've just discussed about the history of music for the guitar.


Anonymous said...

Personally I dislike his pretentious unfounded alien-styled inhumane chaotic pseudo-random material, which exists only for it’s own sake and creates sensory responses that are not of the composer’s intention, but just happen to occur.
Make no mistake: Ferneyhough is no real composer; and the fact that this has never been accordingly stated or criticized shows the times in which we live: Feed the people any rubbish, with just a hint of added intellectual superiority and they’ll believe it and worship your ‘message’.

... Ferneyhough... the charlatan king of pretentious wishful implication

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

I've been a bit baffled why UK classical music critics sing the praises of Ferneyhough and have basically ignored Ben Johnston's string quartets, which at least for the most part actually have tunes. He could sound like de-tuned Shostakovich sometimes but since I like Shostakovich I'm okay with that.

And, of course, Johnston, who passed earlier this year, made a case that we should retain tonality and drop equal temperament rather than keep going down the paths charted by Schoenberg and disciples, which is another reason I like Johnston more than Ferneyhough.

So, we basically agree about BF. :)