Happy 70th Birthday, Michael!
To celebrate his birthday, it seems appropriate to revisit Michael Finnissy‘s most recent large-scale composition, the piano cycle Beat Generation Ballads, premièred at the 2014 Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. The work comprises five movements, the first four of which are very short, only two or three minutes each, followed by a long finale lasting well over half an hour. As usual for Finnissy, the piece is an engagement with music and events from the past:
…everything I do is nostalgic, because it’s all about memory, the distortions of memory; also, as I get older, I get closer to death, and it’s changed the way I think about my life a lot […] we live in a multi-stranded world, I’ve always loved a lot of other types of music, and it’s been something of a mission to bring all of these musics together, whether they’re supposed to be brought together or not […] Beat Generation Ballads is another episode of that.
“Brought together”, of course, means articulated through the interpretative gauze of Finnissy’s personal response to them, a process that in all of his output leads to complex results that evoke, allude and pay homage while simultaneously spiralling off into Finnissy’s own internal reveries launched from these inspirational starting points.
The first movement, ‘Lost But Not Lost’, has its roots in music Finnissy composed as a teenager for a friend’s porn movie, which may account in part for its progression from hesitance to more demonstrative ejaculatory outbursts. The title of the second, ‘naked original skin beneath our dreams & robes of thought’, is taken from Allen Ginsberg’s Fragment 1956; it invokes Beethoven’s string quartets through an unusual counterpoint that becomes completely unravelled into solitary pitches. What makes third movement ‘Lonely Banna Strand’ so striking is that, despite its inspirational associations with the IRA, Finnissy eschews violence in the music; admittedly, it introduces a forcefulness unheard thus far, but it’s channelled and controlled. Based on the rebel protest song of the same name, the music delights in traces of melodic filigree in between the muted explosions, like nature gently reclaiming a shellshocked environment. ‘Evans, Harry, Scott, hearts foolish’ draws on the piano playing of Bill Evans and bassist Scott LaFaro; Finnissy here creates a warm wash, as though its sound materials were floating within a viscous fluid, with lengthy suspended chords.
Most of these disparate ideas find themselves examined anew in the final movement, ‘Veränderungen’, which is as complex and difficult as it is huge. What makes it so challenging, even problematic, is the overtly pensive tone permeating both the music itself as well as its general demeanour. Webern is in there, as are Beethoven and Bach (specifically the Goldberg Variations), and the sense that Finnissy is scrutinising these and other materials and deliberating on them at length is overwhelming. There’s an improvisatory quality to it, bespeaking an intimacy that works both ways, achingly personal yet at the same time, from a listener’s perspective, rather insular, even indifferent. Put another way, we can literally hear Finnissy picking up morsels of material and examining them, regarding them from a number of angles, pulling them apart and looking at their components, or reconstructing them in a new way, and then either putting back down whatever he’s ended up with or placing it in juxtaposition to something else. Put yet another way, ideas come, ideas go, and unless one is prepared primarily to engage with ‘Veränderungen’ at this surface level of whimsical investigation, the experience will prove frustrating. As it is, there are times when it takes a bit of a leap of faith to believe the movement truly hangs together; the vagaries of Finnissy’s musical roaming regularly pause and halt, filling the duration with a large number of hiatuses that reinforce the air of contemplation that dominates not just this movement but Beat Generation Ballads as a whole. Some sound like necessary spaces in the argument; others become moments to regroup before a new attempt at discourse; still others remain inscrutable. It’s all far from impenetrable, yet the various points of purchase that Finnissy makes available don’t necessarily make ‘Veränderungen’ any easier to follow or understand, yet that can’t prevent it from attaining heights of exquisite romanticism, and beautifully tender poignancy.
The world première of Beat Generation Ballads was given by Philip Thomas at St Paul’s Hall in Huddersfield.