Striking a chord of avant-garde beauty

Aspects of Complexity in Recent British Music
August 30, 1996

This issue of Contemporary Music Review, a leading forum for the most recent compositional ideas, admirably refrains, for the most part, from partisanship and rather explores a distinct group within the forefront of British composition in articles and interviews that focus both on specific works and style surveys.

The existence of a school of "complexity" is one of the striking features of the volume, with Brian Ferneyhough as the "Master". The illuminating interview-article by the musicologist Richard Toop, which deals with a particular work by Ferneyhough, Superscriptio for solo flute, shows complexity to be an essential quality of technique that emerges from the composer's aesthetic. The piece, part of Carcare d'Invenzione (Prisons of Invention), is a "totally atomised" piece. Toop's analysis of the piece illustrates how "complexity" does not need to imply obscurity, but rather its opposite, clearly conceived and perceived processes.

Again complexity emerges as a quality of expressive content, rather than obfuscation or escape, in Michael Alexander's consideration of "The changing states of James Dillon", which traces processes of sieving and stratification of material. It is perhaps significant that Dillon, one of the most individual of the younger composers discussed, was not a Ferneyhough pupil, as were Roger Redgate, who praises "Ferneyhough as Teacher", James Erber, who discusses his own work, and Richard Barrett, who offers a stimulating survey of Michael Finnissy's oeuvre. Finnissy, now turned 50, occupies an intriguing place in the complex camp; as the first ever catalogue of his works, compiled by the editor Tom Morgan, shows, and as Barrett argues, it is a style that changes perhaps more than Dillon's.

Any sustained attempt to elucidate some of the apparent impenetrabilities of a significant movement in the avant-garde is a move towards the elimination of barriers between composer, performer and listener, and in this respect the present volume fulfils a vital, ground-breaking role. If, as Barrett claims, the music has "an oblique but compelling beauty, without which the most incisive and profound intellectual qualities are a waste of time", so theoretical and critical writing of the kind displayed here has a beauty all its own, and is well worth the effort.

Malcolm Miller is a musicologist, critic and tutor, Open University.

Aspects of Complexity in Recent British Music: Contemporary Music Review, Volume 13 Part One

Editor - Tom Morgan
ISBN - 3 7186 5574 8
Publisher - Harwood
Price - £.00
Pages - 251

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