CLASSICAL MUSIC / True songs for a melody-starved age: Stephen Johnson catches the fascination of Brian Ferneyhough. Plus the less complex side of life

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The Independent Culture
ACCORDING to Pierre Boulez, what we have nowadays is a blotting-paper culture - it soaks up everything. But British musical culture hasn't quite worked out yet how it is going to absorb Brian Ferneyhough - or even if it is going to absorb him at all. Hardly surprising that it was Radio 3, and not Classic FM or one of the London orchestras, that offered a special tribute for Ferneyhough's 50th birthday.

For many, no doubt, the whole event would have been the epitome of modernist elitism. Before a tiny audience in the Maida Vale studios, quite a few of the faces familiar from music publishers' brochures, two hours' worth of intense, densely textured music unfolded - if 'unfolding' isn't too simply linear a metaphor. At about the half-way point, Ferneyhough talked to David Osmond- Smith, in language almost as dense and hyper-active as his music. We heard of 'the temporary, illusory reconstitution of the self', and warnings of the dangers of 'post- Adorno recommodification' - God preserve us all.

Whether the format was the ideal way to experience the complete Carceri d'invenzione cycle is difficult to say. The pauses between the main sections, necessitated by problems of staging and recording, may have helped listeners to digest the three big Carceri sections. But it is a cycle after all, and presentation in a single, sustained sweep - demanding though that would be - might throw even more favourable light on the music.

Perhaps Radio 3 will opt for something closer to that when the edited recording is broadcast on Music in Our Time (18 July, 10.45pm) - at least radio listeners don't have to experience the whole thing wedged in one seat.

But even broken up and stretched over two and a half hours, Carceri d'invenzione was an experience for the mind to feed on, both during the event and long afterwards. However arduous it may have been at times (processing the musical information can be rather like trying to read number plates from the central reservation of the M25) the after-effect is more like that produced by an energetic work-out or a 50-mile bicycle ride - exhilarating and strangely calming at the same time. After this, going back to even a relatively respectable, enquiring minimalist like Steve Reich feels alarmingly like a retreat into musical couch-potatoism.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is the sheer physical immediacy of so much of this music. There are moments when everything seems to come together and moments when things fly apart in perplexing diversity, but this opposition is itself productive, dynamic. It is part of what Ferneyhough would call the work's 'dialectic': In simple terms, it's what keeps you listening - that and (another surprise) the elegance and beauty of so much of the writing. Here, in a melody-starved age, is a kind of singing - dissociated, tantalising, sometimes crazily distorted, but in some mysterious way true.

How accurate the performances were only a tiny number of initiates can know, but the playing of the diverse forces under Odaline de la Martinez - especially violinist Irvine Arditti and flautists Ingrid Culliford and Pierre-Yves Artaud - was powerfully authoritative in effect.