New releases: Michael Finnissy – WAM

by 5:4

The other recent release dedicated to Michael Finnissy‘s music is the product of a collaboration between the composer and clarinettist Michael Norsworthy. WAM, released on US label New Focus Recordings, explores five works composed during the last 25 years, three of them written specifically for Norsworthy, and all but one of which are recorded here for the first time. The main theme, for want of a better word, running through the collection is an examination of what constitutes a meaningful musical ‘connection’ between discrete performers and types of material. With respect to individuated, partially- or wholly-asynchronous parts, this has been a recurring feature throughout Finnissy’s career (manifesting in many of the works covered in my recent Lent Series), and this disc clarifies the concomitant fact that sense and/or coherence become very much more subjective and potentially problematic within such a context.

This is especially apparent in L’Union Libre (1997), where busy piano and percussion lines are clearly independent to the point where they sound like two separate pieces simply being played simultaneously. A sense of connection between them is hard to discern, deliberately so (very occasional notes from a pair of bass drums seem entirely arbitrary), and it’s only towards the end—when the players together become sparse and quiet—that things seem finally to cohere. This slow, almost wilfully delayed bonding is interesting in itself, but there’s equally a veneer of frustration from the experience. More questions abound in title work WAM (1991), in which Finnissy repurposes material by Mozart in order “to explore the pitch-patterns and rhythmic-patterns differently, and take them on different adventures”. The piano takes centre stage throughout, flanked by a pair of obbligato instruments (clarinet and violin, Norsworthy joined by William Fedkenheuer), and immediately one’s forced to ponder both the relationship between the players, as well as Finnissy’s own relationship with Mozart. The latter’s presence is an oblique one, heard more in hauntingly fleeting glimpses of something that acts as a trigger to remembrance, yet where actual memories remain stubbornly on the tip of one’s hippocampus. To an extent this is reinforced by the tangential offerings from the obbligati, sometimes seemingly fuelling the piano part, other times wistfully ignoring it entirely, and later sounding from afar off, performed off-stage, lending their material a ghostly quality. It’s strange to be so engrossed and discomfited at the same time. In many ways, exactly the same thoughts and sensations arise from the splendidly-named Mike, Brian, Marilyn & the Cats (2004), a work that curiously foreshadows the Third String Quartet in its use of pre-recorded animal sounds, namely Michael Norsworthy’s feline pets. Again, clarinet and piano have independent parts (comprising six pages, each lasting a minute); the piano plays through in a fixed order, whereas the clarinet chooses its own order after the first page. In contrast to L’Union Libre, and to a lesser extent WAM, the sense here of connection, and beyond this, dialogue, is very much stronger (no doubt initially reinforced by that first page)—but what of the cats?! A recurring refrain of achingly cute mews and miaows, their first appearance seems to partially derail the clarinet part, making its quasi-diatonic material fall into microtonal ruts, but over time this ostensible cause-and-effect is proved merely coincidental, throwing into doubt the cats’ relevance beyond a rather charming and somewhat surreal intrusion into the ongoing conversation. Which, come to think about it, is precisely what cats do, all the time.

Composed in 2002, Giant Abstract Samba is a much more straightforward process of transition between extremely contrasting modes of expression. Aided by the forces of the NEC Wind Ensemble, conducted by Charles Peltz, they establish an infectiously boisterous samba that abruptly and repeatedly breaks down, tilt-shifts and jump-cuts into an altogether less incisive, threadbare environment that comes across almost like a fin-de-siècle doppelgänger. The process is gradual and over the course of its 13-minute duration increasingly immersive, particularly as the opening samba becomes a more and more remote memory (possibly glimpsed through ‘echoes’ or resonances of a distant consonance), and the work enters a quiet, introspective kind of lyricism that’s extremely lovely but, towards its close, startlingly strange. It’s a compellingly powerful piece. The disc’s opening work is also the longest and the most recent, Finnissy’s 2007 Clarinet Sonata.  On this occasion the composer borrows the right-hand from Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 31, each bar of which is reversed, “occasionally with some edits and substitutions”. Above this, the clarinet pursues a pensive, searching line, allowing its connection to the piano to remain entirely fluid. Although it follows the four-movement form of the Beethoven, Finnissy establishes in the opening section the general approach and atmosphere that pervades the work as a whole, which is soft, sedate, restrained (both instruments occupying for the most part the treble register) and above all unhurried. It’s so nice to spend nearly 20 minutes with music that doesn’t feel constantly urged and coerced the whole time; there’s a certain kind of aloofness in the work’s demeanour, but this arises more from the intensely intimate soundworld it inhabits than anything else.

These last two works perhaps speak with more immediacy as far as their connectivity and coherence are concerned, but the challenges posed by the other three works are never less than fascinating and thought-provoking. From time to time there’s something of the uncanny valley about them, but to what extent this is endemic in the music itself or the way one grapples to find or fabricate relationships within it, or both, is impossible to say. In their own way, they continue to do what Finnissy has always done best: fundamentally question aspects of music that we far too readily take for granted.

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