Etha Williams

Recurrences: Contemporary Music and the Question of Time


“Isn’t memory inseparable from the love which wants to preserve what nevertheless passes away?” – Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia

Music embeds itself in our memory: who has not found themselves humming a tune, often without even being consciously aware of the identity of the tune in question? (By contrast, if one were to say that a painting has been stuck in one’s head all day, or involuntarily mutter the words of a paragraph under one’s breath, one could expect, at best, a curious reception.) It is precisely in its material ephemerality, in its temporality, that music most urgently calls on our memory to preserve it. No sooner is a melody played, or a chord sounded, than it begins to fade away; and for such a gesture to have meaning beyond the immediate moment in which it is sounded, the listener must, on some level, hold it in place in his or her memory. The medium of music is time as much as it is sound; and it is through memory that the listener interacts with that medium. Though music and memory have long been closely linked, the particular way in which musical memory operates is in no way fixed and immutable. In the transition from Romanticism into modernity, composers’ attitudes towards listeners’ musical memory changed dramatically, shifting from one largely preoccupied with the concept of return, articulated through various formal conventions, to one which treated musical memory both more problematically and more flexibly.

In music of the common practice period (roughly from 1600 to 1900), the concept of return was central to listeners’ experiences of musical memory. This is typified in the concept of sonata form, in which a pair of themes is introduced (exposition), elaborated on (development), and then restated (recapitulation). The first movement of Haydn’s “Bear” symphony exemplifies this form: the exposition, which is repeated (a typical practice of the time), occupies 0:00-4:34; the development occupies 4:35-6:10; and the recapitulation occupies 6:11-8:13.

Sonata form, particularly as it was first conceived in the classical era by composers such as Haydn, was highly determined by tonality: the exposition would typically move from the home key for the first theme to a closely related key for the second theme; then travel through increasingly remote keys during the development; and finally return to the home key for both first and second theme in the recapitulation. In the recapitulation, the return of the second theme in particular (e.g., 7:08 in the “Bear” symphony) unites two aspects of musical memory that were tremendously important in common practice period music: memory of the theme and the memory of the over-arching key.

It is worth noting that throughout the common practice period there was considerable formal variability within sonata form. At times, composers would alter the two-theme structure in the exposition, variously by letting a single basic theme serve as both primary and secondary theme; by having no secondary theme at all; or by creating a false, early entrance of the secondary theme. Similarly, the recapitulation was often the site of formal deformations: here composers often employed techniques such as false recapitulations, in which an apparent return occurs prematurely. Indeed, many scholars prefer to use the plural “sonata forms” to suggest this variability. Nevertheless, sonata form(s), both as practiced by composers and as codified by their contemporary music theorists, did provide a general framework for listeners’ musical memory and expectation.

By the twentieth century, however, two developments had begun to make the established relationship between music and memory, embodied in the aesthetic of return, problematic. The first of these developments was the gradual expansion—and then decay—of tonality. As sonata form became increasingly focused on the harmonically adventurous development section (and the social ideals of subjective creative fantasy associated therewith), composers developed techniques of harmonic ambiguity to greater and greater extents. Yet these techniques ended up being their own undoing: as composers like Wagner and Liszt began to rely increasingly on the virtually unlimited possibilities tonal ambiguity offered to move to and from distantly related key areas, the very foundation of tonality—the idea of a home key to which the music had some internal obligation to return—became less and less assured; and because the structure of sonata form (as well as that of other common practice period forms) was so strongly based upon tonality, the loss of tonal certainty also meant the loss of relative formal certainty. Without the musical language which gave the return its sense of necessity, such returns increasingly began to appear contrived and imposed arbitrarily from outside.

The second development was technological: the invention and development of audio recording. Whereas music previously could only be mass-reproduced in the form of the soundless score, recordings made it possible for the first time to reproduce performances themselves; and whereas in the epoch before recording technology hearing a symphony was often a once-in-a-lifetime event, recording technology (and the concomitant recording industry) now permits people to hear the same symphony, often in numerous different performances, repeatedly. In this process much of memory’s subjectivity was externalized and became objectivity: musical moments were transferred from within the subject’s memory onto the groove of a wax cylinder or LP record, and so moments of return became less moments of subjective reconstruction within the listener’s mind than moments of objective recognition that could be externally verified. Composers have since responded to this by treating memory in ways that makes this moment of objective recognition problematic. Furthermore, as playback technology became more sophisticated, people became increasingly capable of manipulating their auditory experience of music, cuing forward and backward more as one’s gaze travels around a large painting than as the 19th-century listener would hear a work in the concert hall. The listener can now adopt a position of testing that goes beyond even what Walter Benjamin described in “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Mechanical Reproducibility.” It also creates the possibility for a less linear unfolding of music, as listeners (even when not actively using the options playback technology offers) can apprehend and remember works in a more flexible temporal structure.1

Illustration by Naomi Bardoff

With received ideas about musical memory and return cast so deeply into question, composers of the past century have explored and developed a vast wealth of new possibilities in the ways their music confronts memory, form, and time. Among recent composers, Brian Ferneyhough (1943-), Morton Feldman (1926-1987), and Helmut Lachenmann (1935-) all stand out for the unique ways in which they have explored the problems and possibilities of modern musical memory. The work of all three composers has at best a problematic relationship with concepts of formal return, instead building from within the piece formal structures which the listener must induce from the music itself rather than deduce from received forms. In Ferneyhough’s case, the juxtaposition of linear and non-linear musical thinking becomes a musical element in itself; and moreover, even as his music exploits the potential of recording technology to allow repeated, in-depth listening to his works, he also challenges its objectification of music by always presenting slightly too much, forcing the listener (as well as the performer) to make subjective choices about what and how to remember. If Ferneyhough’s music is concerned with mnemonic too-muchness, then, Feldman’s may be said to be concerned with not-enoughness. In presenting extraordinarily sparse music where repetition is used to disorient rather than orient, his music turns memory introspectively towards itself. Finally, in Lachenmann’s music, the very historically received forms that have become problematic are examined, defamiliarized, and transformed to create a viable new aesthetic.


Ferneyhough, a British composer whose early music education involved playing marching band music but whose own compositional interests lie very far afield from that tradition, belongs to a school often labeled “New Complexity.” It is perhaps a misleading moniker and incorporates a number of very different composers’ music; nevertheless, the phrase is somewhat suggestive of the tendency Ferneyhough’s work frequently shows towards simultaneously occurring, overlapping threads of development, and with that a flow of musical input that seems to both exceed and stimulate the listener’s ability to remember, process, and “keep up” with the music.

Responding to a question about the relationship of simplicity and complexity, the composer gave a concise description of the aim of his “complex” music:

Simplicity seems to me to be characterized by its PASSIVE ambiguity of import (which is not intended as any form of value judgment on my part); complex structures, on the other hand, tend towards an ACTIVE projection of multiplicity (in the sense of incorporating alternative and competing trajectories as constituent contradictions making out an essential element of their expressive substance).
In his use of musical complexity, Ferneyhough weaves together multiple competing threads of musical expectation and memory, and in so doing shifts the listener’s focus away from a single musical object to which the music might be expected to return and onto the question of how these “alternative and competing trajectories” establish and change their relations with one another; and on further listenings, the listener’s perception of these relationships is likely to change.

The two movements of Ferneyhough’s Third String Quartet (1987) provide interesting case studies of Ferneyhough’s approach to musical structure and memory. He describes the two movements as “negatively mirrored” in their opposition between the non-linear structure of the first movement and the linear structure of the second.

In the following discussion, I will highlight the recurrence, combination, and transformation of a few aspects of the movements’ musical material; of course, there are many other things which one might remember and recognize. What is salient in a given piece depends on some combination of the composer’s own foregrounding and backgrounding of various elements, the performers’ priorities in realizing the various elements, and the listener’s particular concerns and attitudes. This multi-faceted, constantly shifting interplay of priorities is in fact one of the reasons Ferneyhough favors the complex style he does: rather than fixing memory in received forms or allowing it to be packaged into single, standardized, reproducible packages, his work demands a dialectic between the “too-muchness” of the objective material presented on the one hand, and the subjective memories of the performers and listeners on the other.

The first movement is comprised of a series of perceptibly separated phrases in which various types of gestures, sounds, and techniques are combined in constantly changing ways—a bit like the process of looking through a kaleidoscope. Describing the process of writing this composition, Ferneyhough identifies the movement as being “composed of some 23 ‘types’ of activity”; while the listener may not be able to consciously identify all 23, it is my experience that the recurrence of various gestures lends the otherwise fragmentary piece a sense of very audible unity. The movement opens with a striking gesture (0:05-0:08) that pervades the rest of the movement in at least two respects: as a glissando (sliding up or down the string, e.g. at 1:13-1:15 or 1:49-1:53) and as a crescendo (e.g. at 0:25-0:30, 0:49-1:03, and 5:10-5:12); the crescendo in particular often acts as a sort of impetus to begin a new phrase. Another notable recurring gesture is a fragmentary melody first heard at 1:05-1:10. It reappears in other guises at 2:33-2:37 (plucked) and 4:06-4:22 (in the violin’s high register); most striking, though, is its appearance at 8:39-8:48, where the violinist plays it very quietly, with a somewhat hesitant rhythm, and with a faint, breathy timbre—as if evoking a distantly recalled memory.

On a larger scale, as the movement progresses, Ferneyhough’s combinatorial strategies change, generating an overall structure that can be roughly divided into two parts. In the first part of the quartet, the various elements are combined in elaborately overlapping ways; seldom do two instruments begin to play at the same precise moment. This often produces seemingly unitary sonic objects that actually arise out of the interactions of two or more instruments. On a melodic level, the brief arpeggio-like figure at 1:22-1:24, created through the interaction of three separate instrumental lines, exemplifies this; on a harmonic level, the recurring slowly built chords (e.g., 0:11-0:24) fulfill a similar function To my ear, this technique reaches its formal and expressive apotheosis in the music at 3:57-4:35, in which Ferneyhough combines seamlessly many of the apparently contradictory elements heard elsewhere in the piece.

But in the music that follows, this combinatorial perfection begins to crack, and the musical surface has changed inexorably by the phrase beginning at 5:59. The music becomes more united (particularly rhythmically) and, perhaps counterintuitively, this greater “togetherness” of the instruments is actually quite unsettling; the seamless flow of the first section is gone and replaced by brutal unisons (e.g., in the passages at 6:42-6:47 or 7:05-7:17). Though present in the earlier section, such unisons now nearly obliterate all other possibilities; likewise, while polyphonic moments such as the staggered sustained chords do still occur, they are less frequent and are put in a problematic light by the totalizing effect of the unisons. In many respects, the second section, the one in unison, seems to undo, or at least make problematic, the work done in the first. This structural aesthetic—an ending which makes the preceding material more, not less, problematic—is a fairly common one for Ferneyhough,2 and is in fact at work in the second movement of the quartet as well.

In contrast to the combinatorially structured first movement, the second movement of this quartet unfolds more or less linearly; but even as it does so, it refuses to simply affirm the conventional expectations such structural procedures create. While its structure bears some similarities to sonata form in that it presents unitary material which is developed and, in some sense, returns at the movement’s end, Ferneyhough realizes this structure in a way that makes its suppositions problematic. The movement’s linear impetus is immediately evident from the opening material (0:00-1:14). An extended violin solo that seamlessly turns into a violin duo, this unitary material is almost disturbing in its forward-moving self-assurance (particularly in its contrast with what we just heard in the first movement). In the subsequent “development” of this material, Ferneyhough plays on many of the same issues present in the first movement, particularly the issue of polyphony (e.g. at 1:14-2:03) vs. unison (e.g. at 3:42-3:48). Following this quasi-development, the second movement ends, like the first, not with affirmation but with uncertainty: starting at 5:37 the viola plays a solo that is replete with pauses which interrupt and fragment the same material that had been played so self-assuredly by the violin. In some respects this ending can be interpreted as a return—we come back to the opening’s solo instrumentation (albeit in a lower-register instrument) and hear material recognizably similar to that with which the piece began—but the fragmentation makes this return problematic. (Contrast this with a common technique employed in the common practice period, in which material is fragmented over the course of its development, but then affirmatively returns in its unitary form at the movement’s end.) Thus, while retaining an essentially linear narrative structure, Ferneyhough refuses to affirm memory as a fixed thing: on the return to the object, it is not intact (as it would be in common practice sonata form, or as it is on a recording), but rather fragmented and uncertain.

In both of these movements, we see a persistent concern—expressed through two opposing formal techniques—with pushing the boundaries of listeners’ memory and, in so doing, creating music whose expressive power derives from this challenge. In the first movement, various types of musical material are non-linearly combined and recombined in ever-changing configurations, revealing conflicts between the materials as much as concords; in the second, a single piece of musical material is developed, ultimately fragmenting into a problematic return.


If you play Morton Feldman’s Triadic Memories immediately after having heard the Ferneyhough, you’re likely to find the contrast between the two composers’ works quite jarring.

In contrast to Ferneyhough’s manipulation of dense layers of musical activity, in Feldman’s music it is the very sparseness of musical material that causes the listener to lose his or her mnemonic bearings. While Ferneyhough explores how the simultaneous presence of multiple possible interpretations of musical material problematizes the listener’s experience of musical memory, Feldman explores how the absence of a clear interpretation does the same.

The hour-long work was written at a time late in Feldman’s life when the composer was experimenting with pieces of extended duration, the most extreme example of which is surely his 1983 String Quartet II, lasting over six hours in one performance. As its title suggests, Triadic Memories is a piece in which Feldman’s preoccupation with the problems of memory come to the fore. Feldman explained the piece—and one section, from 46:25-53:45 in particular—thus:

What Western musical forms have become is a paraphrase of memory. But memory could operate otherwise as well. In Triadic Memories, a new piano work of mine, there is a section of different types of chords where each chord is slowly repeated. One chord might be repeated three times, another, seven or eight—depending on how long I felt it should go on. Quite soon into a new chord I would forget the reiterated chord before it. I then reconstructed the entire section: rearranging its earlier progression and changing the number of times a particular chord was repeated. This way of working was a conscious attempt at ‘formalizing’ a disorientation of memory. Chords are heard repeated without any discernible pattern. In this regularity (though there are slight gradations of tempo) there is a suggestion that what we hear is functional and directional, but we soon realize that this is an illusion; a bit like walking the streets of Berlin, where all the buildings look alike, even if they’re not.
Despite the composer’s own somewhat nebulously subjective description of his criterion for how often to repeat a chord (“depending on how long I felt it should go on,”) one can detect a definite strategy at play in trying to effect the listener’s mnemonic disorientation—namely, an oscillation between “regular” even-number repetition amounts and “irregular” odd-number repetition amounts, with the odd-numbered repetitions destabilizing the neatly-divided symmetry of the even ones. In addition, a gradual general decrease in average number of repetitions—without ever actually coming to anything resembling a formal “arrival”—helps to achieve the illusory sense of functionality and directionality Feldman seeks.

This interest in irregular repetition, change, and the disorientation of memory is evident throughout the piece. For instance, in the opening section (up to 2:56), the same sequence of pitch classes, in a subtly shifting rhythmic configuration, is heard repeatedly. As this opening section progresses, Feldman alters the register in which the pitch sequence is played: it begins, quite strikingly, with half the material in the piano’s lowest register and the other half in the piano’s highest; then gradually draws into the piano’s middle register, culminating when the two parts overlap at 1:36; and finally moves away back into the more extreme registers, this time with the high and low parts reversed. These registral changes have the effect of a sonic focusing in and out on the material, as the pitch content becomes much more clear and identifiable when the music moves away from the extreme high/low registers and into the middle register. In addition, the quantity of time, and number of repetitions, spent in a given register varies so as to make the registral shifts impossible to predict. In its joining of simplicity with unpredictability, and of stasis with change, the material provokes the listener’s faculties of memory and pattern recognition even as it disorients and exposes the inadequacies of those faculties.

In Triadic Memories and Feldman’s later work more generally, memory, rather than mediating musical experience, is the object of musical experience; the listener experiences a reversal of the traditional relationship of musical memory and musical material. Rather than memory being placed in the service of material (either for the sake of recognizing a moment of return, or even for the sake of recognizing changing and competing relationships), material is placed in the service of memory—to make the listener more aware of the processes, often unconscious, through which memory works. In doing this Feldman’s music also resists the objectification of memory, but in a quite distinct way from the way that Ferneyhough resists it: in creating music that uses memory as an agent of illusion (“…all the buildings look alike, even if they’re not…”), Feldman’s music simultaneously negates memory’s claim to represent and interpret objective phenomena, and makes the listener aware of the subjective means by which memory attempts to do so.


While in both Ferneyhough and Feldman’s work, memory acts primarily within the individual pieces, relating various elements of the particular work with one another, Helmut Lachenmann’s work takes as a prominent reference point various external forms, conventions, and even melodies drawn from received musical traditions. At the same time, the purpose of this is not to provide the listener with a comfortable point of recognition, nor to create a diverting musical version of “Where’s Waldo?” for the listener to play. Rather, it serves as a structural foundation and source for various expressive elements which Lachenmann isolates, deconstructs, and recasts in new contexts.

One example of Lachenmann’s approach to musical tradition and memory can be heard in his Tanzsuite mit Deutschlandlied (1979-80), whose title gives an indication of some of the musical-historical concerns with which the piece occupies itself.

The other three parts follow on YouTube.

The “tanzsuite” (German for “dance suite”) was a musical form favored by composers of the Baroque era; it consisted of forms derived from social dances, such as the allemande, sarabande, gigue (jig), and minuet. In the suite context, these forms often ended up quite distant from any kind of danceability (imagine, for instance, attempting to dance a jig to this gigue from Bach’s first keyboard partita).

Lachenmann’s take on this tradition consists of a dizzying array of dance- and opera-inspired movements in which he isolates, exaggerates, and transforms single aspects of the genres in question. The range of dance types he draws on far exceeds what would be available to the Baroque dance suite composer—in addition to typically Baroque genres such as the gigue, aria, and capriccio, it also includes dance forms such as the waltz, tarantella, and polka, which gained their compositional popularity in the Romantic era—a cross-historical juxtaposition by no means unfamiliar to the modern listener, who might find himself shuffling from a Bach gigue straight to a Chopin waltz on iTunes.

The work, while meant to be played continuously, is divided up as follows (YouTube part and time cues in parentheses):

Section I: Preambule (Part 1 0:00-3:31)
Section I: Intro (Part 1 3:32-3:41)
Section I: Valse (Part 1 3:42-4:00)
Section I: Marche (Part 1 4:01-4:40)
Section I: Transition (Part 1 4:41-5:50)
Section II: Sicilienne (Part 1 5:51-end)
Section II: Capriccio (Part 2 0:00-2:26)
Section II: Valse Lente (Part 2 2:27-4:56
Section III: Transition (Part 2 4:57-6:37)
Section III: Gigue (Part 2 6:38-end)
Section III: Tarentelle (Part 3 0:00-0:55)
Section III: Transition (Part 3 0:56-1:37)
Section IV: Aria I (Part 3 1:38-3:16)
At this point in the YouTube video there is a silence from 3:17-7:26 that is not supposed to be there.
Section IV: Polka (Part 3 7:27-end)
Section IV: Aria II (Part 4 0:00-1:24)
Section V: Intro (Part 4 1:25-1:39)
Section V: Galop (Part 4 1:40-4:53)
Section V: Coda (Aria III) (Part 4 4:54-end)
In his treatment of these genres Lachenmann frequently draws on the contrast between melodic lyricism and “unpitched” rhythmic gestures. (There is not really such a thing as an “unpitched” sound; however, various means can be used to make pitch a less salient category.) A particularly striking example of the pitched/unpitched dialectic is heard in Lachenmann’s take on the sicilienne genre, heard from 5:51 to the end of the first part of the piece’s YouTube video. (An example of the sicilienne genre can be heard in the sinfonia of Bach’s Weihnachtsoratorium, a movement from which Lachenmann drew some of the material used in Tanzsuite; note especially the lilting rhythm typical of the sicilienne). As Lachenmann’s sicilienne progresses, the characteristic lilting rhythm becomes more and more pronounced. A climax of sorts is heard from 7:12-7:27, where Lachenmann presents a brief phrase of lyrical, pitched material that refuses integration into the rhythmic scheme of the section. Shortly after this we hear a percussion solo (beginning at 7:57) which, to my ears, is the most expressive moment in the “movement.” Similar juxtapositions and productive conflicts between lyricism and rhythm occur in many other parts of the work. In drawing attention to the rhythmic content of the music, particularly in its (often stark) contrast to the pitched content, Lachenmann directs the listener’s attention to many of the common practice forms’ estranged roots in dance—dance being, after all, an art concerned less with pitch and lyrical singing than with rhythm and movement. Furthermore, these moments of the piece are startlingly expressive, particularly in the context of a musical tradition in which expressivity tends to be associated with clearly pitched melody rather than rhythm.

Another aspect of Lachenmann’s approach towards musical history and tradition is evident in his treatment of the Deutschlandlied, or the melody of the German national anthem. Originally composed by Franz Joseph Haydn as the slow movement to his string quartet Op 76/3, it carries strong associations with cultural nationalism and evokes the difficulty many have felt in reconciling Germany’s tradition of high culture with the legacy of the Second World War. The Deutschlandlied’s presence in this work is largely subcutaneous, only remotely coming to the surface at one moment towards the end of the piece (1:25 in Part 4—and even here it is quite distorted). Lachenmann describes his approach thus:

I wouldn’t call that ‘quotation.’ I see a big difference. Quotation is the Marseillaise fragment in Debussy’s Feux d’artifice, for example, or the anthems in Beethoven’s Wellington Symphony. It means evoking the familiar fascination of something that everybody already knows […] I don’t think you can call it quotation if a more or less well-known melody is hidden somewhere in the musical structure. When I take the German national anthem in Tanzsuite, it’s like a skeleton that now serves to help me articulate a characteristic time grid […] So the fascination of the object is perhaps not destroyed, but it is suspended.
In suspending this fascination Lachenmann refuses to treat this cultural symbol unproblematically, instead building out of it, sometimes as if by force, new and often radically different forms of expression.

Finally, the Tanzsuite’s instrumentation, juxtaposing a string quartet against an orchestra, also draws on and confronts historical tradition. While not completely unprecedented, it is nevertheless a quite unconventional choice that, particularly in the context of Lachenmann’s wider aesthetic, is rife with historical connotations and tensions. The string quartet and the orchestra respectively embody the private sphere of chamber music and the public sphere of symphonic music, the intimacy of the salon and the expansiveness of the concert hall; in combining the two in a single work, Lachenmann places the tensions between these two traditions in sharp relief. Moreover, in largely rejecting the historically and technologically objectified conventional uses of the instruments in favor of exploiting a wider range of their sonic possibilities (a technique that has been dubbed “musique concrète instrumentale”), Lachenmann does not merely negate traditional uses of the instruments, but also creates out of them new expressive possibilities; what may sound at first merely like extremely strange sounds become the building blocks of a new kind of musical expressiveness.

Ultimately, perhaps none of these three composers’ approaches “solves” any of the problems of musical memory that have arisen in the last century, but each confronts and illuminates the problems in a unique way. This happens through the density of juxtaposition and development in Ferneyhough’s music, in which the memory struggles to keep up as what seemed self-evident is altered and often becomes problematic in the larger structural framework of the piece; through the apparent simplicity of Feldman’s work, which brings the listener to a more distinct awareness of the workings and limitations of musical memory; or through the historical engagement of Lachenmann’s, which simultaneously critiques and draws creative energy from a tradition whose very existence has seemed suspect. In listening to the music we not only can take in an interesting sonic landscape; we also are given an opportunity to examine, question, and expand the ways in which we ourselves perceive and interact with the temporal phenomena that are made manifest in music.

1 This is not entirely unprecedented—there is a strong argument to be made that many common practice period forms relied in part on retrospective reinterpretations of previously heard material—but, I believe, it is a problem that came much more to the fore with the more sophisticated forms of non-linear listening that became possible with the development of increasingly advanced technology.

2 Another instance of such a problematic ending can be heard in Ferneyhough’s piano piece Lemma Icon Epigram, for instance.