Saturday, January 30, 2010

Ferneyhough & Feldenkrais

For some years, the British-born, American-based composer Brian Ferneyhough has been testing the outer limits of what players can play and listeners can hear, and he has become the somewhat unwilling figurehead for a movement known as the New Complexity. Ferneyhough may win the prize for inscribing more black dots per square inch than any composer in history: a characteristic bar of his Third String Quartet has the first violin setting forth jagged, double-stopped figures over a range of several octaves, replete with glissando, trills, and seven different dynamic markings; the second violin playing a stream of twenty-nine thirty-second notes; the viola playing a stream of thirty-three thirty-second notes; and the cello scrubbing out disjointed figures down below. Because not even the most expert performers can execute such notation precisely, it becomes a kind of planned improvisation, more akin to a free-jazz or avant-rock freak-out than to anything in the mainstream classical tradition--mutatis mutandis, a mosh pit for the mind.
--Alex Ross, The Rest Is Noise, p.522-3

The New Complexity invites the perfectionist performer to become friends with failure--a third F to add to the title of this entry. Preparing a piece of Ferneyhough's music begins with opening the score, gasping, and closing it quickly again. Then a second peek. The music looks very difficult and completely opaque--it's not really possible to get a sense of it from looking at it. Only after many hours of staring, working out complex mathematical relationships on graph paper, playing a single beat fifty times before it becomes familiar, does the music begin to shape itself. In the meantime, the performer (at least this is true for me and a colleague or two who discussed the process candidly) finds herself pinned against the edge of ability. There is so much to focus on, so many markings for each fragment of a second, that it really is impossible to render perfectly. And that's not the point of this music.

But for musicians trained all their lives to reach perfection, this music can be a challenge to identity, emotional endurance, and sense of self. As I was preparing the piccolo part for Flurries this past month, I repeatedly came up against a wall--I can't do this! My brain jangled (I could almost picture a big neon alarm blinking OVERLOAD) and I had to stop practicing. I knew that perfection wasn't the point but because I habitually make perfection my goal with learning music, I couldn't help panicking.

There is a series of Feldenkrais lessons designed to be impossible. They study a movement from Judo called the Five Winds Kata, which very few practitioners have ever accomplished. The reason Feldenkrais chose this movement was to keep the focus off the goal, which is almost unattainable, and on the process of learning and exploration--to give the student the chance to practice ease, curiosity, and awareness even in the most frustrating situations.

When I remembered those lessons this past month, it was easier to approach the Ferneyhough. I had the patience break it down and play everything within my comfort level, slowly enough that I could play with ease. Paradoxically, this helped me learn much faster than practicing with ambition, and running headlong into that wall over and over again. It was really interesting to notice when I approached the wall of frustration and inability, and how my identity as a musician came into question when I got too close.

I also thought deeply about what failure would mean. Ferneyhough's music is in essence a kind of orchestrated failure. A tinge of fear is an essential element; making it go away would take the exciting edge from the performance. Acceptance had to happen on a different scale: I had to accept that I can't accept failure, that I would feel fear and anxiety, and that these feelings were a vital part of the performance. Another paradox--when I stopped running away from anxiety, I started to enjoy myself, to hear the music, and to sense gestures and textures I hadn't noticed before.

A performance is just a snapshot of an ongoing process. With all its movement, its unfolding in time, music is so much more about process than goals. The process, not the goal. Expression, not perfection. With patience, ease, and grace. Mantras I keep rediscovering.