Skip to content

How Stephanie Aston learns music by Ferneyhough

On February 27, WasteLAnd presents a concert titled Terrain at ArtShare. It’s a heavy-duty program of music by Brian Ferneyhough, Elizabeth Lutyens, and Brian Griffeath-Loeb, featuring Mark Menzies as violin soloist on Ferneyhough’s Terrain (see concert title) and soprano Stephanie Aston singing Etudes Transcendantales. I was lucky to be invited to a rehearsal, and the ensemble (which also includes Rachel Beetz, Ashley Walters, Richard Valitutto, and Paul Sherman, conducted by Nick Deyoe), let me film a few snippets of them preparing.

Nick had an extra copy of the score for me. If you’ve never seen Ferneyhough’s music, well, here’s a photo I took:

One measure of Ferneyhough's Etudes Transcendentales

One measure of Ferneyhough’s Etudes Transcendentales

The whole score – all of his scores, really – is similarly difficult. I asked Stephanie how she approaches music like this (in this case, the measure above) and her answer was enlightening:

Here’s a copy of the same section, this time with Stephanie’s markings:


And now the part you’ve all been waiting for, this excerpt with the ensemble. The measure in question hits at 0:06:

Want to hear to the rest? Come to the concert at ArtShare on February 27. Details are available at


  1. Skim on 07/29/2016 at 10:52 PM

    Personally I dislike his pretentious unfounded alien-styled inhumane chaotic pseudo-random material, which exists only for it’s own sake and creates sensory responses that are not of the composer’s intention, but just happen to occur.
    Make no mistake: Ferneyhough is no real composer; and the fact that this has never been accordingly stated or criticized shows the times in which we live: Feed the people any rubbish, with just a hint of added intellectual superiority and they’ll believe it and worship you ‘message’.

    … Ferneyhough… the charlatan king of pretentious wishful implication

    • Nick Norton on 08/01/2016 at 9:46 AM

      You’re of course free to your opinion, and I’ve heard many people who dislike Ferneyhough or don’t buy the whole new-complexity aesthetic or think it was an overly intellectual misstep, but I do have to wonder what your definition of a “real composer” is. The guy writes music that I sometimes like quite a lot, and I rather think that counts for something very real. And even when I don’t like it, I still find many of his ideas and techniques compelling. Perhaps “composer I don’t like or agree with” is more accurate than “non-real”?

  2. Michael on 09/04/2016 at 4:14 PM

    It seems like the elephant in the room is, with how much precision is the performer expected to execute what’s actually written, and is the struggle part of the aesthetic à la Zen Buddhism, where concentration on a rationally unsolvable riddle (koan) is a means to a spiritual/artistic end? I’m not extensively familiar with the New Complexity movement, but I can’t seem to wrap my head around why it’s even as prevalent as has been. Is the philosophy supposed to be more important than the end result? I feel like I read somewhere that Stravinsky sometimes wrote things that he considered so complex that he only expected a reasonable approximation of the rhythms. Of course, today the norm for technical ability has greatly increased to where it’s not too unusual for youth orchestras to perform Rite of Spring. What are some exemplary NC pieces you would recommend for the skeptic or uninitiated?

    • Nick Norton on 09/08/2016 at 2:28 PM

      I’m a big fan of Ferneyhough’s Terrain, and La chute d’Icare. James Dillon’s The Soadie Waste, while not unbelievably complex, might be a really nice entry point. It’s an awesome piece. Also check out Richard Barrett’s work. Flechtwerk might be a good place to start there.

    • Goeff on 09/19/2016 at 11:46 AM

      New Complexity.

      Which part of “pretentious” did you not understand?

      • Nick Norton on 09/27/2016 at 9:22 PM

        Careful with that word – it applies equally well, and often better, to being dismissive of a style or idea when it doesn’t fit your personal standards or taste.

%d bloggers like this: