Etha Williams

The Specter of Repetition: Uncanniness and (Anti-)Narrative in Brian Ferneyhough's Allgebrah

Midway through Brian Ferneyhough's Allgebrah, something distinctly unsettling—indeed, uncanny—occurs: relatively brief but clearly audible ‘ostinati’ surface and become increasingly prominent in dynamics and register, eventually reaching a climax that seems to owe its effect more to Stravinsky than to the serial and post-serial composers to whom Ferneyhough's lineage is more frequently traced. These repetitive figurations register as markedly transgressive in the context of Ferneyhough's normative style, yet close analytical examination reveals that they had been ominously foreshadowed in the music preceding this ‘uncanny episode’—and that they continue to haunt the music that follows it.
To understand this strange episode and its place within Allgebrah's larger trajectory, I combine the concept of the uncanny—which Sigmund Freud theorized as “something repressed which recurs”—with Almén and Klein's recent work on musical narrative. I propose a reading of Allgebrah in terms of the return of the repressed—the uncanny ‘ostinati’—and the subsequent attempts of the protagonist (the solo oboe) to negotiate this threat. Ultimately, however, I argue that Ferneyhough's music thwarts our narrative expectations, neither affirming the oboe's mastery nor its defeat but veering instead towards anti-narrative. In so doing, Allgebrah provides an immanent critique of our attempts, as listeners and analysts, to grasp and master the uncanny. Following my analysis, I briefly consider how this reading relates to Ferneyhough's compositional methods, examining in particular his deployment of the software PatchWork to generate rhythmic material.
In putting forth such a reading, I seek to move beyond tired notions of ‘complexity’ in order to argue for a more nuanced, hermeneutically-informed understanding of Ferneyhough's music. Indeed, Ferneyhough has explicitly called for attention to questions of meaning in his music. Burgeoning theoretical interest in questions of musical narrative in post-tonal music suggests ideal analytical means through which to answer this call.