/modern archeological practice — part 2

On December 5, wasteLAnd presents “Terrain,” featuring music by Brian Ferneyhough, Elisabeth Lutyens, and Brian Griffeath-Loeb.  The event begins at 8pm at ArtShare LA — tickets are $10.  

/modern archeological practice-part 1 on Pierluigi Billone’s 1 +1=1


Moving from the dig-site to the museum is an act of appropriation.  The museum exists to appropriate and to cater to those who, themselves, also appropriate.  In practice — in digging — art-making is isolated: constrained, roped-off to an area of intensive focus.  In experience, art-making is opened, displayed.  Art-experience is the untying of the rope that cordoned off the dig-site, that annexes the dig-site into another distinct territory.

Though we perform art-experience internally, in psychic isolation much in the same way it was created, the dualism of art-maker and art-taker is ingrained within art-experience.  The art-maker makes an offering; the art-taker appropriates parts of this offering .  This symbiosis exists between the artist and his or her audience, a coexistence of bringing-forth and taking-in — a taking-in of those qualities that are apparent and able to be accessed.

So, then, we move from the sun-lit lands of excavation to the track-lit rooms of exhibition.  We venerate the art object by ensconcing it within the museum — its new resting place.  Still, we encounter more rope that cordons us off from the art-object: now, the curatorial rope, a rope that demarcates the viewing-territory, a rope that surrounds the pedestal upon which we place our objects of affection.  We recognize the need to civilly keep our distance from the pedestal, to not smudge the glass viewing case.  Peering through the glass that separates us, we can only ever take small components of the art-object with us; we can only ever gaze, listen, ponder from those angles deemed fit by the curators — the museum’s keepers.

Those objects that garner the most affection — the most power to affect — are those that only ever leave us with bits-and-pieces: those that we can never fully wrap ourselves around.  In practice, this could be any art-object, since we are never able to reach beyond the rope or through the glass case.  If before, in the dig-site, we were inside the cordoned-off territory, now we are outside looking in.

Whether through clever simplicity or overwhelming complexity, we are a people infatuated with mystery, with paradox, with intrigue.  In effect, we become lost as art-experiencers.  We seek out the museum to become lost — temporally, culturally, historically.  …to make us ponder and (re)collect: to appropriate little pieces of the vases, the paintings — whatever — that we assemble into jumbled heaps of the worlds we inhabit.

Any art-object that allows us to become lost is an object of affection and worthy of meditation.  The artist has encoded their art-object with wrong turns and dead-ends to construct little self-contained mazes.  We walk these mazes not for answers or meaning, no; we wander to find the exact opposite — questions that fuel an ever-present curiosity that has led us to seek out the museum and its treasures.  We — the museum-goers — are art-pilgrims.

When we finally look up, we will always find ourselves in good company: surrounded by other wandering pilgrims.  There, too, are the stalwart monks who attempt to parse their ways through the labyrinths, to decode the labyrinths.

The art-maker, then, constructs tiny labyrinths.  The art-taker walks these tunnels and collects — appropriates — the trails of breadcrumbs that the art-maker has left behind.  Some may backtrack to find their way out of the labyrinth; others come to realize that the breadcrumbs never lead us back home.


Brian Ferneyhough, himself, is paradox incarnate.  Both at once: a radical, fervid visionary and a hardened, illustrious academic.  European through-and-through — replete with the historical consciousness that seemingly comes attached with all composers of this ilk — despite calling America home for over a quarter century.  The apotheosis of an already-lofty Modernism, and an apparent by-the-book Romantic (we need not dig deep to unearth Ferneyhough’s Romantic roots: awe, dread, sublime overwhelming of the senses, and the artist as singular genius).

Ferneyhough’s ability to simultaneously occupy two sides of the same coin — his paradoxical nature — is the very thing that makes him such a seminal figure.  It is the reason that so many have flocked to his side as disciples.  Many can (and routinelydo) lay claim to his music and thoughts, which, alone, is an act of appropriation that even precedes any consideration of his music.

Likewise, these paradoxes are etched into his music.  Take, for instance, Terrain: a genre-conscious riff on the “Concerto,” as presented by mixed chamber ensemble (read: the modern non-orchestra) where even accompanimental roles demand the most stringent virtuosity.  Or, better yet, Ferneyhough’s Etudes Transcendantales, a historically-unhinged work that is, at once, a set of rigorous systems-play-studies featuring odd instrumental bedfellows (one need only see harpsichord listed in the instrumental arsenal…) within a fully-realized song cycle — a cycle that sets a mottled Modernist text, itself preoccupied with that most Romantic of themes: death.


Perhaps Ferneyhough’s career (or, at least, our superficial perception of his career) is a fitting metaphor for the very place we find ourselves musically in this new century.  We have made it past the fracture — a chasm that opened and spread in the aftershock of the Avant-Garde — and here we are now in the labyrinth.  Each twist and turn opens a new set of possibilities that must be figured against the last, a paradox of reality where, before long, our navigational logic leads us astray.  The labyrinth itself is fixed; there is a way out, we just can’t — or consciously won’t — find it.

And this is, after all, the point.  We want to be lost.  We still strive for a sense of escape: from what?…maybe the even larger labyrinth in which we exist.  It is our desire to dig, to exhume, to uncover, that allows us to be lost.  One will find no answers in attempting to decode Ferneyhough’s music, just as those who attempt to find our place in this universe — in neatly organizing our reality into constituent parts — reveal nothing more than an ever-expanding labyrinth.

Still, this truth (about ourselves or about Ferneyhough’s music) has never seemed to stop any of us from attempting to decode those things that perplex us.  And why should it stop us?  We often forget that Science — the most highly-venerated form of logic and reason in our modern-day society — is itself a practice of disproval, not the opposite. . .of opening doors and trying to find our way forward given those paths we know don’t lead us home.

And this is the true essence of Brian Ferneyhough’s music: its power to perplex, its power to confound, its power to affect through its puzzling appearance — be it as a performer or a listener.  Sure, we can revel in the music’s lavish complexity, a complexity so studiously carved into its façade; many simply never make it past this quality alone.  Some root around deeper and delight themselves in uncovering those tiny systems and parametric microcosms living deep within the labyrinth.  But these pastimes are only ever a fraction of the picture that Ferneyhough attempts to paint.  Whether the wide-eyed pilgrim or the devoted monk, we are all the same: lost within something larger than ourselves.

The danger, of course, is that Ferneyhough’s intricate and intertwining systems of order can lead us to only see the forest for the trees.  But, his work is neither the holy, sublime creed of a deity nor the methodical discipline of a scientist — no parts ever sum to a complete “whole,” no individual components can be projected onto anything larger than themselves.

No, Ferneyhough’s work consists of discrete facets of an impossibly-cut stone — each facet able to be realized and analyzed, but never quite geometrically-congruous with the rest.  His work operates within a larger dimension of irreducibility that compels us to wander aimlessly in search of his Theory of Everything.  If we are smart, we can take in the scenery as we go.


If there even are solutions to Ferneyhough’s puzzles — ones that lead to an answer or overarching principle — we are not privy to them…would we even want to be?  …would we keep asking questions if we knew the answers?  We are intentionally left to meander and gaze.  Despite working our way through the labyrinth, we are always at a distance, never in possession of the labyrinth’s blueprints — still we wander…

We are, after all, the receptive party within the art-maker/art-taker duality.  We are not the owners of those objects we admire, we are the takers of that which has been made available to us — those tunnels of the labyrinth that have been opened and may be accessed.  In the museum, we can only ever get so close.  But, there we are: pressing our noses against the glass.


Kurt Isaacson is a Los Angeles-based composer.  For more information on his music, please visit his website or his SoundCloud.