ferneyhough’s kurze schatten ii

“For knowledge, like the sun at its zenith, identifies things strictly.”—Walter Benjamin [1}

The British composer Brian Ferneyhough (1943- ) wrote this avant-garde piece for solo guitar back in the 80’s (1983-89). The specific performance I’m analyzing was played by the Belgian guitarist Kobe van Cauwenberghe (1970 ?- ) in Darmstadt, Germany in 2010.[2] Ferneyhough writes[3] that this seven movement suite was directly inspired by a series of seven short writings titled Kurze Schatten[4} (short shadows) by the philosopher/literary critic Walter Benjamin (1892-1940). [note: the above video only features movements 1-4.]

Ferneyhough notes that Benjamin’s text is about the noon-time sun “…which, as it approaches its zenith casts shadows that become progressively shorter and darker until, at noon, that they are so perfectly united with their objects that the latter stand uniquely and completely themselves, naked, without residue.”[5] To this allusion Ferneyhough adds that this imagery of the noon sun’s compressing shadows corresponds to his composition with the “physically delimited ‘text’ of the guitar.”[6] We can certainly sense this abbreviated effect when we listen to the piece. The generous use of silence, snapped pizzicatos, rigid arpeggios and irrational rhythms show this idea by the way the music is brought together in a style that’s tight and restricted. This tense sense of anxiety characterizes all the seven movements. The initial surprise with the snapped pizzicatos and severe staccatos in the 1st movement present an image of the hot noon sun almost in a literal way. For example, the abruptly snapped strings would have to have a much higher frequency wavelength than would a long low droning note, compare this to the noon sun’s actual radiating light frequency which would also be measured at a higher wavelength than in the late afternoon. Another odd specification of Ferneyhough’s is found on the score. Here we find the instruction for changing scordaturas, meaning to re-tune the guitar in a specific way, in this case strings are slackened then are tuned for specified movements. This slackening and gradual tuning back to a ‘traditional’ attunement throughout the seven movements also symbolizes an alignment with the sun’s rays. The hot sun directs us into contemplation as it’s our lifelong reference point. High noon is the peak of radiance only if we notice it as such. The mood of this music is anxiously hot.

All of this is brought together in a strange atonal composition. To be sure, it lacks a tonal center and there’s no overall key signature. One has to make listening adjustments for this, as we’re usually listening for the customary evenly timed melodies in a designated key within a simple uncomplicated meter. If the noon-time sun confines shadows, then Ferneyhough’s piece forces us inward to a more disciplined listening. As a matter of fact, the insistent snapping of the strings is reminiscent of a lion tamer’s whip snap. For this peculiar music we have to become ‘tamed’ into appreciating its many nuances with its pressured dynamics.

The constant fluctuation of irrational rhythms and bizarre intervals feels choppy and discordant because we typically demand a rational structure for our music more than we think. Yet, we’ve grown accustomed to hearing discordant sounds all the time. Think of the sounds of a city street. Certainly Ferneyhough may not have had a city street in mind, but we still get a polyphonic ‘collage’ of almost familiar resonances from the guitar. A few of the sudden arpeggios recall a momentary Flamenco strumming. Also the way van Cauwenberghe thrums the face of the guitar with his hands evokes a youthful devil-may-care spontaneity that’s carefully written into the piece as a gesture of whimsical organized randomness (if that’s not a contradiction in and of itself). These elements add a reserved flare and drama to the piece.

To think of the many difficulties this piece presents, we have to then challenge ourselves to understand it better if we are drawn in enough. When our midday shadow becomes closer to our person we can imagine the threshold of ourselves. As we listen to this music we can imagine the challenges it presented for van Cauwenberghe, just take a look at the elaborate score to get feel for the prowess he must have to even read it properly—let alone to perform it. But if we can take this idea of constraint and drawing inward as a method of rigor and studious listening, then I believe we’re getting closer to cherishing Feneyhough’s overall aesthetic intent: transcendence.[7]

aurelio madrid


[1] Benjamin, Walter. Selected Writings, Volume 2: 1927-1934. ed. Michael W. Jennings. Cambridge, MA: Belknap of Harvard University. 1999. pp. 268-274.

[2] See: www.kobevancauwenberghe.com

[3] Ferneyhough, Brian. Kurze Schatten II (intro. to the score). London: Peters Edition. 1983-89. www.editionpeters.com

[4] Benjamin, Walter. op. cit.

[5] Ferneyhough, Brian. op. cit.

[6] Ferneyhough, Brian. op. cit.

[7] See Ferneyhough’s bio on Edition-Peter’s website: http://www.edition-peters.com/composer/Ferneyhough-Brian

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s