It’s abundantly clear in the works explored so far in this Lent Series that Michael Finnissy has a keen interest in melody. The ways in which he presents, transforms and contextualises melody are often startlingly simple, but in the case of “above earth’s shadow…”, for solo violin and ensemble, it’s handled in a more complex way. Composed in 1985, the piece takes its title from William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, specifically a passage from one of the work’s later ‘Memorable Fancies’ in which a visionary encounter with an angel takes place. It’s not without a certain degree of extreme surreal imagery, even by Blake’s standards (including vast spiders revolving on fiery tracks around a “black but shining” sun within an “infinite abyss”; you get the idea); the encounter is somewhat confrontational, culminating in the narrator grabbing the angel:
I by force suddenly caught him in my arms, & flew westerly thro’ the night, till we were elevated above the earth’s shadow; then I flung myself with him directly into the body of the sun;
To what extent this imagery permates Finnissy’s musical response is difficult to discern or qualify. Alongside the solo violin, the ensemble comprises six players—flute (doubling piccolo), clarinet, violin, viola, cello and double bass—and throughout, the general tone of the entire septet is a tremulous one. Which is not to imply anything like timidity; rather the material is restive, fidgety, articulated via extended trills and tremolandi. The idea of melody would seem to be in total contrast to this, yet it appears first as a presence emerging from these tremolos, sharp microtonal pitches protruding outwards. Finnissy yanks everything back to pianissimo, the shivering whole now resembling the quivering ghost of a hymn, but texture has a tendency to swamp proceedings here, either via a wholesale shivering or outbursts of disconnected pizzicato notes. In time, the solo violin is established as an unequivocal point of contrast, an element that moves between middle- and foreground, providing a roaming focus in front of a distant ongoing trembling now combined with sustained notes. Unexpectedly, they swap, soloist becoming wavering instead, and in response there’s a brutally sharp outburst from the piccolo, restoring things to how they were. The piece then switches to an ominous sequence in which scales slowly approach each other from opposite pitch registers; but they don’t meet exactly, Finnissy instead ushering in a lengthy and rather beautiful episode where melody extends everywhere, creating complex counterpoint. The complexity isn’t just vertical but also horizontal; the counterpoint over time comes to sound paradoxically textural, arriving at a kind of stasis, transfixed but bristling with energy—which Finnissy detonates at the very end.
“above earth’s shadow…” received its world première at the 1985 Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, by none other than Irvine Arditti with the ensemble Spectrum. This performance took place 17 years later in 2002 as part of the BMIC’s ‘Cutting Edge’ season, given by Ensemble Exposé directed by Roger Redgate. A further 14 years on, there’s an opportunity to hear the piece live next month as part of the Kammer Klang series at Cafe Oto; Perks Ensemble will be performing it in a concert also featuring John Wall, an event not to be missed. Otherwise, based on these statistics, you may have to wait until approximately 2030.