On a number of occasions, informed by periods of time spent in Australia (due to a paucity of work opportunities in the UK), Michael Finnissy has composed works inspired by Aboriginal culture. Most of these date from 1982–3, one of the earliest being Aijal for oboe, clarinet and percussion, the title of which is the Australian Aboriginal word for ‘sky’.
i don’t think it’s simplistic to make an overt connection between that title and the elemental quality that permeates Aijal. What Finnissy has created is something not so much ritualistic as a kind of ‘inscrutable cultural artefact’, instantly evoking place—Australia’s wide open spaces—and time, seemingly being heard out of prehistory. The winds become bird-like figures, calling and chirping from high in their registers; far below, extremely dry percussive timbres fire out a litany of elaborate rhythmic configurations into the air. To what extent the two directly influence each other is debatable (as it is in some of the other works already featured in this Lent Series), but there’s a distinct sense of interaction, or at least of mutual awareness, respect even, one breaking off at the appearance of the other, as well as following each other’s general dynamic trajectory. Both move away from their origins: the winds descend low, in the process becoming more elaborative, tracing long microtonal strands of melody; the percussion switches to splashy resonance, initially foregrounded but soon retreating to a distant silvery shimmer. And both return to their starting positions in the work’s abrupt, forceful conclusion, earth and sky, Man and the elements ultimately united.
There’s nothing remotely ersatz going on, yet Aijal somehow sounds like something that could date back thousands of years – a glorious duet of quasi-primitivism that packs a deeply sincere and surprisingly moving punch. Premièred in Melbourne in April 1982 by the rather wonderfully (and suitably) named Victoria Time Machine, this performance, in a version for flute, oboe and percussion, was given by members of the Australian ensemble Elision — Richard Craig (flute), Peter Veale (oboe) and Peter Neville (percussion) — at the 2011 City of London Festival.