“Invisible Colors”: Ferneyhough, Carter, Wolpe

Invisible Colors cover







My new album on Urlicht Audiovisual is titled “Invisible Colors” after Brian Ferneyhough’s piece “Unsichtbare Farben”. (Sounds more evocative than titling the album “Piece in Two Parts” or “Intermedio”.) If you google “unsichtbare farben”, you’ll see websites of German companies selling glow-in-the-dark paint. I applied some photo filters to the album cover to give the picture that sort of effect.

The album features five solo violin pieces by three composers: Ferneyhough, Elliott Carter and Stefan Wolpe. It will be released digitally on March 31, and available as CD. I’m playing a concert to celebrate the release on April 5, 7pm at National Sawdust, where the album was recorded. Hope you can come.

Liner notes I wrote for the album are below. Ferneyhough’s pieces often involve such complicated textures, rhythms and pitch contours that players, myself very much included, flail at executing them and this is part of the drama of the piece. My liner notes may shed some light on my choice to play, and invest a lot of care and practice time in, a particularly pristine interpretation of Ferneyhough’s untypically spare, linear and exquisite “Unsichtbare Farben”. I’ve played a great amount of Carter’s music, from the Duo and the Violin Concerto to the Triple Duo, “Canon for 4” and various other chamber pieces. I love the “character study” quality of the “Four Lauds” and I’m especially drawn to the taut tension and unfolding of his intervals/harmonies, the long dramatic phrases, and the back-and-forth between the gruff and volatile and the sweet and singing. Wolpe is a composer who had a major following and a wide influence, and whose remarkable music (see note below) should be played more nowadays. I had a fantastic time performing these Wolpe pieces on a several-days festival of his music presented by the Wolpe Society in New York a few years ago.

Listen to the album on good speakers. 🙂  Mine are Audioengine 2+.


As a musician who enjoys experiencing art in its many forms, I am often drawn to works that involve a shift in perception of basic elements: time, space, sequence, continuity. This sort of inventiveness appeals to me in the art of all eras, in ways subtle or radical. It could be Mozart toying with phrase lengths to keep the music freshly suspenseful, or Brahms creating unsettling tension and opposition with his polyrhythms, or Debussy suspending the sense of time through his use of harmony. Certain artistic innovations involve such radical changes of paradigm that they provoke a conscious adjustment of thinking on the part of both performer and listener, a realization of the creator’s objectives. As satisfying as that can be in itself, rethinking often provides new possibilities of visceral experience and spontaneous response to the artwork, a new experience of human expression on a reordered canvas. 

The music of composers Brian Ferneyhough (born in 1943), Elliott Carter (1908-2012) and Stefan Wolpe (1902-72) prompts such shifts in experience. Deep musical thinkers as well as expressive artists, sought after as teachers and studied by other composers, each of them has had tremendous influence on classical music over recent decades. Here I play five solo violin pieces: Unsichtbare Farben and Intermedio alla ciaconna by Ferneyhough, Four Lauds by Carter, and Piece in Two Parts and Second Piece for Violin Alone by Wolpe.

Ferneyhough’s music is dense and intricate, with flamboyant gestures skittering across registral expanses and calling for vigorous physical choreography from performers. While the surface activity of the music is often fast-moving, the underlying pulse, as notated in the time signature and metronome marking, is often very broad. Ferneyhough has described this as a “tension-field between tempo and meter”. His music is extremely layered and detailed, with complex polyrhythms nestled within polyrhythms (for instance, a 25:24 within a 13:10), microtonal pitches and brisk alternations between extended techniques. While Ferneyhough’s notation has become notorious for its degree of specificity and the arithmetical demands imposed by his polyrhythms, the notated information suggests, as in any written music, essentially a way of shaping the passing of time, of thinking about the sounds to be produced and the expression thereof. Furthermore, his manner of signifying simultaneous fields of activity, abstract as it may be, also expresses a quality of tension and flux to be conveyed in performance.

He wrote about Unsichtbare Farben (1999):
“According to one of Marcel Duchamp’s most celebrated pronouncements, the title of a painting…assumes the status of an “invisible colour”, that of the imagination, amplifying and enriching our subliminally speculative perceptions somewhere beyond the limits of the ocularly accessible spectrum…Unsichtbare Farben might be seen as the “tip of the iceberg”, to the extent that the vast preponderance of materials that went into its preparation appears nowhere in the musical phenomenon itself, having been suppressed by a formal filtering operation selecting and interleaving structurally equivalent elements from a relatively large number of through-composed layers.”

Whereas Ferneyhough’s chamber works bristle and teem with strata of lines and rhythms, Unsichtbare Farben is spare, with mostly single lines and occasional double-stops or chords. After an insistent, declarative opening, the music takes on a conversational quality, proceeding in undulating waves. Brief gestures and fragments are strung together into long phrases like beads in a necklace. There are jarring, shard-like eruptions, but the more pervasive mood is gentle, dreamy, at times scherzando, drifting into passages of feathery lightness.

Ferneyhough’s works show a notable range of emotive affect. Unlike the meandering pensiveness of Unsichtbare Farben, Intermedio alla ciaconna (1986) is more compact and extroverted, brazenly virtuosic, with mercurial flourishes and violent exclamations. A languidly sighing central interlude builds to high glissandos and a jagged, spastic climax, after which the material splinters into sparse utterances and weighty sliding tones. The “tension-field” in this piece is anchored by Ferneyhough’s use of a chaconne underpinning the music, presented at the outset as loud double-stops. These are derived from the series of chords upon which Ferneyhough based his Carceri d’invenzione, a group of seven compositions, including Intermedio alla ciaconna, that were inspired by the etchings of Piranesi.

Like Ferneyhough, Elliott Carter is particularly known for his rhythmic innovations: for eliminating the paradigm of a uniform rhythmic framework and introducing the principle of metric modulation to create the visceral sense of different speeds happening simultaneously. Celebrated as one of the great artists of modern times, he was also one of the era’s great musical citizens: an avid concert-goer and listener throughout his life and a keen writer about other artists’ work. His Four Lauds for violin exemplifies that spirit, sounding absolutely Carter-esque while brilliantly encapsulating the personalities of the four dedicatees. Composed between 1988 and 2000, these character pieces were written separately but eventually brought together for publication as Four Lauds, with fond dedications by the composer.

“Statement – Remembering Aaron” honors what Carter recalls as the “warmth” and “nobility” of Copland, with spaciously unfolding lines, open fifths and fourths, and jaunty strummed pizzicati evoking the ukelele. “Riconscenza per Goffredo Petrassi” spins arcs of lyrical elegance, punctuated by brusque interruptions and still oases in which double-stops are like hushed tones on an organ. “Rhapsodic Musings” was composed for my teacher Robert Mann (who invited Carter to listen to me play his Violin Concerto – a treasured memory). The piece is based on Mann’s initials R.M. (re-mi or D-E), and captures his gruff gutsiness as well as his disarming moments of tender sweetness. “Fantasy – Remembering Roger” takes on aspects of Roger Sessions’ florid style, its surges of passagework combining angular ruggedness and playful jocularity.

In these solo pieces, the multidimensionality of Carter’s polyphonic writing is distilled into concentrated monologues. His deft manipulation of time manifests in his use of varied note values which, along with rhythmic ties, blur the sense of pulse and suggest a feeling of suspension. Carter’s cantabile lines swoop across registers. His intervals make idiomatic and expressive use of the violin’s sonorities, relishing the ferocity and jolt of dissonances and drawing resonance and release from consonant intervals, both melodically and harmonically.

Slightly older than Carter, Stefan Wolpe emigrated in 1938 to New York from Germany via Palestine. He became a fixture of New York’s concert scene and a visionary figure to students who gathered to work with him. An independent thinker and an outsider vis-a-vis the contemporary styles both in Berlin and the United States, he fascinated an array of artists including composers Morton Feldman and Ralph Shapey (whose violin music I have recorded on two albums), and jazz musicians John Carisi and George Russell.

Wolpe’s main impetus was to deal with music’s essentials and to realize fully the powerful energies between these – its shapes, intervals, durations. Elliott Carter said of Wolpe:
“…sitting at the piano, he was caught up in a meditation on how wonderful these primary materials, intervals, were, playing each over and over again…As he led us from the smallest one, a minor second, to the largest, a major seventh–which took all afternoon–music was reborn, new light dawned, we all knew we would never again listen to music as we had. Stefan had made each of us experience very directly the living power of these primary elements. From then on indifference was impossible.”

Wolpe treated pitches and motivic ideas as distinct, mobile “objects”, rotating and rearranging them within a flexible expanse of musical space and time. In his music, the silences and the distances between pitches become animated fields of relationships, successive events often taking on unpredictable meanings. He frequently composed without time signatures, but sometimes placed bar lines that may or may not suggest rhythmic emphases or phrasing.

Wolpe’s socialist views had led him in the 1930s to write numerous work songs and popular songs for amateur choruses, unions and theater groups in both Berlin and Palestine. The interplay between the vernacular and the abstract, and between tonal and atonal or twelve-tone writing, continued throughout his work. His later compositions at times use fragments of familiar forms such as waltzes and marches, imbuing the music with jollity and good humor. Untethered, however, to regular meter or conventional counterpoint, the harmonies and rhythmic traits of these genres are implied or outlined, rather than linearly developed.

Wolpe’s violin works Piece in Two Parts and Second Piece for Violin Alone are from 1964 and 1966. The much longer Piece in Two Parts is in two movements, the first movement beginning with a hearty dotted-rhythm idea that recurs later on. In this movement, Wolpe keeps switching among ideas or motives, each associated with a somewhat different tempo. The music is kept in flux and has a quizzical character. With lilting rhythms and legato gestures, the material as a whole has a Schoenbergian Viennese flavor. In contrast, the exuberant second movement is in one tempo throughout. Its violin writing displays boisterous pizzicatos and playful loud-soft, hide-and-seek dynamics.

The graceful Second Piece for Violin Alone is in a similar vein, but its miniature scope belies the adventurousness of Wolpe’s overall aims. He wrote about the piece:
“Three notes found in the major scale–G, A, B–and played simply on the lowest string. Classical music, folk music, how many pieces start that way! How many pieces start that way and then take you on a musical journey, like a symphony, down the great Mississippi River from one state to another, from one region to another–levels, motion, development–how many! And then again, afterwards, how not to do it! How not to take that trip! Suppose you have a steady state in which you can elect to remain, but a state the parts of which can be rearranged endlessly, kaleidoscopically. Now let’s start again! Take these three notes G, A, and B, play them five times and then stop! And then…”

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