In a little over a month’s time, it will be the 70th birthday of British composer Michael Finnissy, and so this year’s 5:4 Lent Series is dedicated to a celebratory exploration of some of his work. Despite his pre-eminence in many compositional circles, Finnissy remains a distinctly neglected figure, rarely heard at the UK’s more prominent music festivals and stubbornly absent from the repertoire of most of our orchestras and ensembles. He continues to be represented best by the collection of independent groups and ensembles that have always recognised the imagination and radical outlook that epitomise his work, though this inevitably means his music remains unknown to the vast majority of the concert-going public. Over the next few weeks, i hope to shed a little light on the diversity of his output, and in the process perhaps challenge some of the misconceptions—usually concerned with excessive difficulty—that have ignorantly dogged his work. i should point out that i am by no means an expert in Finnissy’s music; it has simply fascinated and moved me repeatedly throughout the last twenty-or-so years since i first encountered it. In addition to the Lent Series, i’ll also be exploring the current catalogue of recordings available of Finnissy’s music, and all being well we’ll be recording a Dialogue together later in the year. Anyone wanting to get a good introduction and overview of the composer’s musical life can find a nicely succinct biography on Finnissy’s own website.
To begin then, a work from 1969 enigmatically titled n. Finnissy has throughout his life written music for indeterminate forces, and n is just such a piece, the simple instruction being for “1–4 players, different ranges”. It was composed while Finnissy was working as a pianist accompanying dance classes, specifically those of the Nederlands Dans Theatre when they performed at Sadlers Wells (n is dedicated to two dancers from the company, Jaap Flier and Willy de la Bije, who were particularly interested in music). The first performance took place at a MacNaghten concert on 19 March 1970 at the Cockpit Theatre in London, given by students of the Royal College of Music (Finnissy states the performance was reviewed by none other than Vogue magazine!). The piece was subsequently shortened in 1972, and re-premièred on 10 April 1978 at the Wigmore Hall by members of the Peregrine Quintet—about whom practically no information seems to exist—and this remains the definitive version of the piece.
The indeterminacy extends to the material itself, with all four parts independent of each other. However, Finnissy’s compositional approach was to map out an overall design of “relative ‘high-spots’ and relative ‘inactivity'” as a general guide, before writing each part separately. This results in a curious kind of counterpoint halfway between free indeterminacy—with echoes of improvisation—and the ‘asynchronicity’ currently being explored by Marc Yeats, with elements of both predictability and surprise. In part, the inspiration is mathematical, ‘n’ being an archetypal indefinite quantity, which itself alludes to the indeterminate aspects of the piece, but it can also be seen as representative of Finnissy’s use of random number tables as the basis for pitch decisions (beyond this, Finnissy has spoken of the difficulty of finding an appropriate title in pieces lacking an obvious dramatic thrust; ‘n’ rather nicely obviates the problem). Pragmatism also played its part; in keeping with every contemporary composer’s experience, the amount of rehearsal time available was extremely limited, so keeping the parts independent enabled each player to practice alone.
In contrast to the instrumental homogeneity of the 1978 première—flute, oboe, clarinet, horn—this performance, given by Plus-Minus at a concert at the Warehouse in September 2006 (celebrating Finnissy’s 60th birthday) interestingly opts for more diverse timbres, utilising clarinet, violin, electric guitar and accordion. That Finnissy has an overall plan is aurally very obvious. In fact, it’s tempting to imagine the titular ‘n’ as the coefficient in an algorithm, pivotal in determining the work’s overall trajectory and behaviour. Overall, n could be heard as the elaborate aftermath of an impact, from which sharp ripples emerge and gradually subside. The counterpoint is brusque, busy and decidedly angular at the start, but very soon becomes more expansive, slowing and softening, more overtly consonant, and there’s an increased sense of the instruments working together, even passing notes between one another, due to the similarities in their demeanour and material. A few minutes in, and by now notes have become considerably drawn out, coalescing into a sheet of near-stasis, upon which localised areas of detail sit in relief, the effect of which is akin to moving around a surface with abrupt shifts in speed. Having practically petered out, less than a minute before the end, the violin—already established here as perhaps the most prominent part—lets fly an assertive high E, leading to a wild, unexpected valedictory burst from the accordion.