composition class

Image: Rodrigo de Castro (Jornal de Resenhas)


A reflection on the teaching of musical composition based on the account of Brian Ferneyhough's "classes".

In the European summer of 1995, I was already 33 years old and with a considerable number of works behind me, when I applied for the Medieval Composition Course. Royaumont, on the outskirts of Paris, ministered by the pope of New Complexity, Brian Ferneyhough. Each year, the event was repeated and Ferneyhough was accompanied by another composer to teach classes, and that year it was the turn of the Swiss Michael Jarrell.

Likewise, a contemporary music ensemble remained as a resident throughout the course, and that year it was the case of Ensemble Recherche from Freiburg. There were around 80 candidacies and the coordinator of Royaumont, Marc Texier, in a selection carried out with Ferneyhough, had chosen 12 names, from different origins, who stayed there for about 40 days. I was one of those selected.

Being the only one from the Americas, along with Ferneyhough himself, we both arrived two days early and left two days after everyone else had left. Both in these first two days and in the two final ones, I walked around the gardens of that wonderful Abbey next to Ferneyhough, in very fruitful and friendly conversations. I was the only one to receive one of his scores as a gift from him, and with an autograph: his beautiful work Carceri d'Invenzione III. I was interested in the exchange with masters and colleagues, the opportunity to receive an order and the stunning place where the course was given.

Each of the selected composers was commissioned a work with a specific training within the possibilities of the together resident, and it fell to me to write a piece for clarinet and piano. Half of the work was to be written before the start of activities in Royaumont and sent there, as proof of the good progress of the composition, while the other half was to be completed there, in the course of discussions with Ferneyhough and his assistant (Jarrell) .

I was never able to stop the momentum of my invention when the composition process was triggered and was already in full swing, and this time it was no different: even before taking the plane to Royaumont, “TransFormantes II” was already entirely composed, in all its details [1].

When I got there, I was faced with the question of what I would do with Ferneyhough and Jarrell, since I was convinced of the ideas and structures that I had worked out and considered the composition absolutely finished. Each of the 12 “apostles” would be assigned a daily schedule of work with Ferneyhough. Jarrell was also available to exchange ideas with the songwriters. But what would I do in that time, since I showed no inclination to change anything I had done? In any case, I prepared myself to “let my guard down” and face the critical comments that would eventually have the effect of proposing some alteration.

But already in my first meeting with Ferneyhough, the most expected and logical thing happened: after examining my entire piece, talking to me and seeing the entire structure of TransFormantes II – a composition of profiles elaborated from speculations that had technical techniques as a starting point. compositional personalities, but also the cyclical serial permutations of Olivier Messiaen, speculatively poured by me into the terrain of heights –, Ferneyhough stated more or less the following: “Your piece is ready! It is a completely finished serial work”. And then he was adamant: “You could give your time to others!”, which, agreeing with him, I soon accepted.

I stayed for the remaining days deepening my friendship with everyone, while I calmly witnessed, almost on vacation, the agony of my colleagues who, reaching the end of the course, were unable to finish their plays. I found it strange that he had, with such a direct tone and demonstrating so much naturalness, stated that my piece was of serial lineage. For years I had been fighting against the serial vision of the past decades, which had resulted in processes of automation of composition, not very phenomenological, which always bothered me even in the most masterful works – and there are many – of integral serialism.

However, hearing from someone else – let alone the ultimate defender of complexity – that I composed in, let's say, post-serial lineage was for me something not only revealing, but, in a certain sense, encouraging: I should really assume the character strongly structural of my modus operandi in composition, even though I was always concerned with the sound result of the structures I created. I was a “berian”, par excellence, but of affiliation like Berio himself – a structuralist. Listening to that was, in a way, a kind of “composition class”, or rather psychoanalysis…

The chat with Jarrell resulted, on the other hand, in an immediate musical identification, and precisely around our mutual deep admiration for the work of Luciano Berio, already threatened by then with being considered a “master of the past” by European fads, especially by the own complexity à la Ferneyhough, which most of Royaumont's colleagues sought to imitate, and by French spectralism.

On one of the nights, I remember well that I sat down at the piano next to the then young composer Bruno Mantovani – who would later become the Director of the Conservatoire National de Musique de Paris – and we improvised four-handed jazz, to the delight of Michael Jarrell, who watched our improvisation and claimed to also like instrumental jazz, even telling us that he had studied the style systematically, if I'm not mistaken, at the University of Berkeley (coincidentally where I gave a lecture at CNMAT a few days ago, during my stay present in California, where I write these lines).

That playing on the piano, of course, was just a moment of relaxation in the midst of debates entirely dedicated to contemporary musical writing of those days. Added to these relaxed moments were other less musical ones, like when Jarrell lent me his tennis racket so I could enter a tennis court for the first time and, even so, beat Bruno Mantovani, who bragged about having played a lot of tennis in his club. life, in an unpretentious departure (at least on my part).

While the conversations with Jarrell were always individual (and in my particular case, we also dealt with my TransFormantes II only once), with Ferneyhough, in addition to the individual meetings, there were daily sessions with all the composers: Ferneyhough standing in the middle , surrounded by tables occupied by all of us. Of these, I participated every time and I was able to appreciate the way in which Ferneyhough reacted to the most diverse pieces – including my own – that were presented by my colleagues. For me, those meetings were of great value, not only because of the discussions that arose there, but above all because I was able to envision a way of teaching composition that was totally different from mine. Seeing the difference, I realized what I was like.

In 1995, behind me there wasn't just a series of works; I also had a few years of experience teaching composition, as well as a few years of learning with the man who had been and remains the only great master I had in composition: Willy Corrêa de Oliveira – and this even considering the most relevant conversations that I had with Henri Pousseur (my doctoral advisor) or with Karlheinz Stockhausen (whose Courses at Kürten I was even a professor of analysis twice, after having been a student there in 1998), in addition to having been a student at the Pierre Boulez Courses in 1988, at the Center Acanthes de Villeneuve lez Avignon, and having accompanied Luciano Berio in all his activities at the Mozarteum in Salzburg, in 1989.

Comparing the way in which I myself practiced teaching composition with Ferneyhough's behavior towards students, I was surprised by how tolerant he was in the face of results that were absolutely opposite to what he defended in his works. I asked myself how this would be possible without some degree of hypocrisy or demagoguery... Because even in the face of some piece of music of extreme simplicity, of complete disinterest due to the poor result, Ferneyhough managed to put himself “in the shoes” of the student and put himself questions that concerned him almost individually, without taking a stand against the aesthetics evidenced by that particular piece.

On the one hand, I admired his democratic sense and the emanation of his sympathy, receptivity and flexibility in the face of propositions that, we knew, were so strange to him; on the other hand, I was bothered by his abstinence, with his refusal to take a clear position in the face of the aesthetic fact, the separation of his function as a professor of composition and his work. How can an artist of stature put aside what he creates and invents to make what we know he doesn't like in the slightest appear to have value?

At the end of the course, Ferneyhough met with Marc Texier and announced the works that should be selected for the subsequent Festival Ars Musica de Bruxellas in 1997, then directed by Eric De Visscher (who would become the Artistic Director of IRCAM in the following years ). Meus TransFormantes II, a work of notorious complexity – including from an interpretive point of view, requiring great virtuosity from both performers –, but with a language quite different from the excessively intricate plots of Ferneyhough's music, was one of the selected works, even though Ferneyhough did not – contrary to what had happened in relation to the others – exerted any minimal influence.

It was yet another proof of his eminently democratic and laid-back attitude, but not enough to assuage my annoyance at his excessive aesthetic tolerance. I realized, therefore, that I acted in a way, if not the opposite, at least quite different from his when he “taught” composition. I have never refrained from taking a clear position on what is presented to me by a composition student. In the great scriptural branch of radical music, there is obviously room for substantial differences; more than that: they are fundamental, because the great works – the only ones that will deserve to remain in the rigorous filter of history – are always original and, therefore, inventive, and, as genuine inventions, different from everything that preceded them.

But the trails traversed by the creator are not exempt from bias; quite the contrary: the great artist is the one who knows how to defend the awakening of his esthesis to the world, the propositions that his aesthetic attitudes bring to the anesthetized world. The work of art is, therefore, always a proposition. It is, in a certain sense, a flag defended by the artist's sensitivity, a cry – even if uttered with deep pleasure – for the awakening of the sensitivity of his fellow countrymen. For a student to learn from his teacher, and a teacher to teach his student, there must be an aesthetic proposition, and on both sides. Regardless of whether it is an instrumental, electroacoustic or mixed composition, it will always be based on the propositions brought by the student that the master will be able to react and, based on his propositions, establish dialogue, clash and criticism.

Thinking about the discussions I had with Willy about what I did, late nights at the kitchen table at his house, in the middle of Sunday, and how much that all fed me deeply when I saw Willy poring over what I proposed, but always proposing myself other things from those, I understood that his posture was very different from that of Ferneyhough and very close to mine – and that, in a certain sense, I learned from him not only the craft of composition, but also the craft of teaching it –, but that that so prolific and stimulating discussion only became possible because I brought it dense production, minimally inventive, proposing, somehow with a certain degree of originality.

Because somehow, what was being invented by me, albeit in an immature way, stimulated Willy's critical eye, because what emanated from there was in tune with a certain way of listening to the world that was dear to him. The identity was natural, and I am convinced that, if I had presented something to which he would have been aesthetically opposed, he would not have failed to point out his “disgust” and even his “disapproval”, however cautious he might have acted, pointing to me. another way.

I don't know to what extent aesthetic tolerance is the best way to face the tendency towards imbecility of contemporary societies. Perhaps it is ever more necessary to know how to cry out to this world, to have the courage to enunciate, not only through works, but also through our personalities and our ways of acting. Tolerance can only have value if the first test is passed: the proclamation of differences. Then there will be the survivors, those who will know how to impose themselves, because they are detached from the anesthesia of the world, and all tolerance will be welcome, as it will be the celebration of invention and originality, in its multiple and infinite ways.

Ezra Pound once asserted that "there is no stupider place to lie than in front of a work of art". And he was right! For this reason, composition is not properly “taught”: it is debated. The best way to open horizons to the student through which his speculation can unfold is not the “teaching” of composition, but rather musical analysis. It is possible, therefore, to analyze how such a genius composed such a piece, the way in which he was inventive at a certain time, but it is impossible to teach how to compose, because the New is not taught, it is invented. Every debate only evolves towards the state of tolerance and coexistence of differences when there is, in the works that undergo such testing, a sufficient dose of invention. And if talent, dexterity in the face of sound – which we so commonly call musicality – is not taught – because either you have talent or you don't –, in the same way invention is not taught.

*Flo Menezes, musician, is professor of composition and electroacoustic music at Unesp and direct from Studio PANaroma.

Originally published in the magazine Vortex.


[1] A professional recording of TransFormantes II (1995) can be heard with Sarah Cohen on piano and Paulo Passos on clarinet here.

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