Remarks by Rand Steiger
Brian Ferneyhough 75th Birthday Celebration
January 20, 2018
Campbell Recital Hall
Good evening. Thank you for inviting me to be part of this event. I'm honored, and very pleased to be here. To begin, I would like to go back in time, more than 30 years ago....
In the Spring of 1986 I was sitting at a small table in a mediocre Japanese restaurant in a strip mall in Valencia, California. My dinner companion, Brian Ferneyhough, put down his tea and with his signature intensity asked me a simple question: "What do you know about UCSD?"
At the time, I was teaching at California Institute of the Arts. Stephen Mosko and I had developed a mutual fascination with Brian's music, and we were very excited when he agreed to come to CalArts for a residency. I didn't know that Brian had started to explore new places to live and work, but I did know something about UCSD. Like Brian, I had been invited to apply for a job there, and I was a finalist. A slight discomfort dissolved as we discussed it further and realized that there were two openings - junior (I was 28 at the time) and senior (Brian was a little older, and a lot more experienced). I was thrilled not only by the possibility of getting a job at a great place, but also at the prospect of being on the same faculty as Brian Ferneyhough, who I knew to be an extraordinary composer, and who I was discovering to be a brilliant interlocutor and teacher, and a witty, agreeable dinner companion.
A few months later, he and I both arrived in La Jolla, enthusiastic, but severely disorientated, although I suspect his culture shock was far more severe. I can still remember seeing him on a bright, sunny day, walking purposefully to campus through a non-descript, banal, commercial landscape, wearing a tweed jacket and carrying an umbrella, perhaps the only umbrella in hand that day in all of Southern California.
Going back a few more years, I can still remember the first time I heard Brian's music. In 1980 Earle Brown returned from a trip to Europe and arrived in Valencia to teach at CalArts during my first quarter as a student there. He brought with him a satchel full of scores and recordings to share with us in a course on recent music. Earle opened the score of Time and Motion Study 1 and put on the recording. While others in the class obsessed over the complexity of the notation, I closed my eyes and was blown away by what I was hearing - the most incredible combination of visceral energy, inventive instrumentation, and elegantly constructed note objects I had ever heard. It opened a whole new world to me, and in the next few years Mosko and I got our hands on as much of Brian's work as possible, and did our best to understand how it was made. Ultimately, we decided that we had to meet the creator himself, and fortunately when Frans von Rossum left the Holland Festival to become Dean at CalArts, we found a sympathetic administrator to invite him over. At that moment, it was not even remotely on my radar that I might end up the following year in a tenure-track position at a research university, let alone with Brian as a colleague. But, thankfully, so it was.
Brian spent 12 years at UC San Diego and energized our department as much as anyone ever has. He brought his searing vision and devoted teaching to dozens of young composers, not only the highly educated ones who traveled from all over the world to study with him, but also inexperienced, barely competent undergraduates. For he is not only a challenging and insightful composition teacher, but a very generous and nurturing one as well. He also taught a series of seminars, most notably on music and philosophy, that were game-changing for many of our students. During the quarters when these seminars were meeting, the department felt different - the discourse elevated - the hallway banter electrified.
A signature element of our composition program is the biannual juries, where the entire faculty gathers to hear and discuss live performances of new works by recently arrived graduate students. Our alumni tend to exaggerate the tense atmosphere that pervaded in the room, and a caricature has emerged due in large part to a particular alumnus well known to all of you who has a gift for imitating various faculty members.
What I recall from the juries that Brian participated in was his instant, brilliant observations, delivered in his inimitable, inventive way, usually with wit and generosity, but on very rare occasions, with sardonic toughness. Everyone else in the room struggled in vain to match his acuity. Our juries have continued, and evolved, but they are very different without Professor Ferneyhough in the room.
Of course, we all know that in 1999 Brian chose to accept a new position at an august, yet inferior institution, taking with him not only his singular perspective and presence, but more importantly, the heart and soul of the UCSD Music Department, his beloved Stephanie, who had intrepidly managed to calm the frustrations of generations of undergraduates at UCSD as they attempted to navigate our labyrinthine curriculum and cope with hopelessly disorganized, clueless faculty members. It was a severe blow to lose them both. But the resonance of their presence has not, nor will likely ever fade.
Students from this period at UCSD went on to teaching positions in France, Iceland, Japan, Mexico, Spain, and Sweden, and many in the United States, including leadership positions here, at Harvard, and elsewhere, and of course many alumni of this program have similarly been appointed. Brian's teaching therefore has had a profound impact on composition pedagogy throughout the world, and his move to the United States has enriched our musical culture immeasurably. Through his own words, through his students, and through his music, that teaching will continue for many years.
Composers don't really ever retire, they just stop teaching. But in Brian's case he will never stop teaching. And by that I don't mean the occasional visiting lectureships or summer residencies. More than any other living composer I can think of, Brian teaches through his work. I learn something every time I hear a new piece of his or read something he has written. Just last May I heard the astonishingly inventive works of the Tye Cycle performed together for the first time in Witten. This is not the music of someone who is retiring.
Beyond listening, I have also had the good fortune to conduct Brian's music on a number of occasions, experiencing more directly how it inspires and teaches. Mastering the temporal matrix of these works - their constant meter and tempo changes - and embodying them sufficiently to be able to then listen, rehearse, and shape the music simultaneously, challenged me like no other works and gave me a new experience of the "tactility of time."
For me, the most exciting thing about performing, the thing I miss the most now that I have stopped conducting, is what happens in concert when you are performing a piece, and something emerges beyond the conscious execution of performative details – when perceptually everything slows down, and the performers connect with one another and the music in a profound and inexplicable way that enables a transcendent musical experience. This happened for me in extraordinary ways whenever I performed Brian's music.
Of course, conducting the second performance of Terrain with Irvin Arditti, whom I had not yet met, raised my pre-rehearsal terror threat level to vermilion, but once again, in the end; musical nirvana. It was also quite fascinating when some years later I conducted a portrait concert of his music in New York City with the Ensemble Sospeso. The individual performers were among the best musicians in the world, but most of them had never played his music before. Like everything else they played, they wanted to master this music, and they needed guidance. So there we were with Brian's music teaching Ray Mase, Steven Gosling, Lucy Shelton, and many others, bringing new dimensions to their performance practice.
It was an electrifying concert to a packed house. Many in the audience had not previously observed Ferneyhough's music being performed. What some imagined would be an abstract exercise in complexity was instead revealed to be a rich, poetic, multifaceted, visceral musical experience like no other.
These are the kinds of things I mean when I say that his music teaches, and will continue to do so. One thing we can say with rare certainty, is that more than any of his peers, Brian Ferneyhough has made an indelible contribution to the literature of western music.
Brian, on behalf of my colleagues, our students, our alumni, and the administrators and regents of the University of California, thank you from the bottom of our hearts for all of your extraordinary contributions to our institution, to our profession, to our lives. We remain extraordinarily proud of our association with you and still think of you as a valued colleague. For us, you will always be part of our community.
I quite like the title of Mat Kriesberg's 2002 New York Times article about Brian's music; A Music So Demanding That It Sets You Free. My wish for you Brian is that your retirement similarly sets you free – not only by freeing you from obligations, but by challenging you to cast off what is comfortable and familiar, to find in yourself new capacities you hadn’t anticipated, and new levels of inspiration, illumination, and joy. For that is what your music, and your presence, has provided for all of us.
Now it is my great pleasure to introduce four incredibly gifted performers who collectively form the JACK String Quartet. Through their deeply musical, intelligent, and masterful performances, and with their many premieres and commissions, they are making essential contributions to the evolution of the string quartet. They are among the most inspired performers of our time.
Please join me in welcoming the JACK Quartet!