Lent Series

Michael Finnissy – John the Baptist (World Première)

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A great deal of Michael Finnissy‘s output is choral, encompassing the same broad range of expression as his instrumental music. John the Baptist, a short work composed in 2014, falls at the simpler, more immediate end of the continuum. Adapting words from the York Mystery Plays, Finnissy creates both a mouthpiece for the titular figure as well as something of a portrait of him. Two portions of the piece are bold and declamatory, full of confidence and heft but articulated in triple metre such that there’s a distinct element of dance. It’s a serious dance, through, the choir united in a punchy statement of both believe and intent, one that points the way to a greater power, “entire in fire”. But this bullish invocation of the trinity is also turned towards the absurdity of the idea of a deity requiring something its creation. It’s a line of uncertainty that emerges first in the other pair of sections, when pulse yields to a slow, soft form of introspection, laden with both awe and wonder as well as doubts, “I thank him ever, but am a-feared / I am not able to fulfil this deed.” Read more

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Michael Finnissy – Beat Generation Ballads (World Première)

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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. Read more

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Michael Finnissy – Judith Weir

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Michael Finnissy‘s chamber work Judith Weir was composed as a 50th birthday present for her in 2004. Back in 1985, Weir had written a short piano piece as a gift for Finnissy titled Michael’s Strathspey, an all-too-momentary dazzlement littered with ‘scotch snaps’, the familiar rhythmic device associated with that traditional Scottish dance tune. For his return gift, Finnissy too calls on the strathspey, exploring it in a way that offers something of a variation on the approach taken in in Viitasaari and A-lang Felton Lonnen. Read more

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Michael Finnissy – “above earth’s shadow…”

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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;

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Michael Finnissy – Viitasaari

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In 2009, Michael Finnissy was composer-in-residence at the annual ‘Time of Music’ contemporary music festival that takes place in the town of Viitasaari, in central Finland. Finnissy composed a short chamber work for the occasion, named after the town and including the kantele, a traditional Finnish string instrument similar to the hammered dulcimer. The work has similarities with a number of the works featured earlier in this Lent series, partly because of the relationship between the four players, which again is indeterminate, lacking specifics of vertical alignment, but more due to its relationship with folk music, which draws a direct comparison with his 2011 re-imagining of the folk tune ‘A-lang Felton Lonnen’. Read more

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Michael Finnissy – Back on Earth (World Première)

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In 2004, Michael Finnissy was invited to contribute to an edition of the journal The Liberal, specifically an issue devoted to the subject of outer space. Finnissy chose to adopt the journal’s title and apply the idea to perfomers responding “liberally to the score”, which comprised two pages of graphic notation, designed “to roughly convey an impression of Saturn’s rings”. The two pages are independent, performed simultaneously, one intended for single-stave instruments, the other for keyboards; the members of the ensemble, which is unspecified, make their own way through this material, guided both by the individual notes and phrases themselves as well as by the looming concentric rings that dominate the pages (see below). Read more

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Michael Finnissy – A-lang Felton Lonnen (World Première)

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An interesting, small-scale example of Michael Finnissy‘s take on folk music is his re-thinking of the Northumbrian tune ‘A-lang Felton Lonnen’ (“a long Felton lane”). Finnissy places the traditional Northumbrian pipes alongside piano, viola and cello, all of which initially sound saturated by the harmony, contours and the tone of the tune, which stands out in the foreground. The piano offers similarly decorative counterpoint, weaving around the pipes, while the strings lay down slow-moving sustained notes, effecting a kind of extension of the pipes’ drones. Read more

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Michael Finnissy – Aijal

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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’. Read more

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Michael Finnissy – Dust (World Première)

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Perhaps the key recurring characteristic of Michael Finnissy‘s music is an engagement with existing musical ideas, embracing (and that’s exactly the right word) folk and popular idioms. This engagement is nothing less than an audible wrangling with it from root to tip, as though Finnissy were handling it like plasticine, moulding it into new shapes while considering its constituent elements, in ways that are both analytic and playful. And, indeed, unpredictable, as is the case with his short work Dust, composed in 2008. Read more

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Michael Finnissy – Wild Flowers

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Michael Finnissy‘s musical output is dominated by his works for piano, which to date number around 200, most for solo piano plus others for piano duet and two pianos. For many people, Finnissy’s most well-known work continues to be his first great piano cycle English Country Tunes, a 40-minute, eight-movement journey through music inhabiting the extremes of rage and sublimity. (Coincidentally, today is the 30th anniversary of the première of the final version of that piece, given by Finnissy himself at the BMIC in London). Although indicative of all his music, Finnissy’s works for piano, no doubt due in part to it being the composer’s own instrument, seem to tap to a greater extent into the most intimate and heartfelt aspects of his outlook, somehow finding an expressive modus operandi that’s simultaneously elemental yet agonisingly personal. In Finnissy’s hands, the piano finds both pain and ecstasy. Read more

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Michael Finnissy – n

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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. Read more

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Rebecca Saunders – Void (World Première)

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To bring my Lent Series to an end, i’ve chosen a work rather fitting to the general atmosphere of Easter Eve, Rebecca SaundersVoid, for two percussionists and chamber orchestra. Saunders was recently awarded the 2015 Mauricio Kagel Music Prize, for composers who, among other things, “are forever in search of new forms of artistic expression and explore new aspects of musical reception”; it’s a description that aptly summarises Saunders’ music in general, and Void in particular. The work bears a few familiar hallmarks, beginning with a typically allusive single-word title, allusions that once again find the beginnings of their articulation in the writings of Samuel Beckett. On this occasion, Saunders’ inspiration comes from the last of Beckett’s tortuous Texts for Nothing; the text doesn’t actually include the word ‘void’, although it would seem to be an implicit omnipresence behind the breathless monologue, which, in reference to a ‘voice’, bears resonances with Saunders’ earlier work, not least her 2006 ensemble work a visible trace:

A trace, it wants to leave a trace, yes, like air leaves among the leaves, among the grass, among the sand, it’s with that it would make a life, but soon it will be the end, it won’t be long now, there won’t be any life, there won’t have been any life, there will be silence, the air quite still that trembled once an instant, the tiny flurry of dust quite settled.

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Arne Nordheim – Spur

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For the penultimate work in my Lent Series exploring concertos, i’m turning to the innovative Norwegian composer Arne Nordheim, who died in 2010. He composed Spur for accordion and orchestra 40 years ago; the title is a German word meaning ‘track’ or ‘(foot)print’, which here, in part, relates to the sociological connotations that the concerto has for Nordheim:

The history of the concerto as a medium of communication is without any doubt closely interlinked with its role as intermediary between social convention and individual freedom and the process through which individual creativity is absorbed to become common property, leaving behind footprints and signposts in culture.

The programme note also alludes to the footprints made by the soloist on the rest of the players. And this, i think, is what projects most immediately, as the accordion’s very particular timbral qualities—which consistently blur the distinction between acoustic and electronic—make an instant impression on the orchestra, befuddling and inspiring it in equal measure. Low undulating buzzes, eerily static high pitches, wild dissonant scrunches, angular acrobatic leaps, each of these appear in the soloist’s music within minutes and, although they will eventually form the blueprint for most of their activities, the orchestral reaction initially seems not to have a clue what to do in response. They emit a huge burp, but then opt, via the strings, for an ethereal collection of slow-moving lines, providing the context for the soloist to quieten and become pensive. That gear-change was instigated by the orchestra, and as if reflecting on that point, the accordion becomes more forceful, resembling a surly, pocket-sized brass/wind section. Read more

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Pierre Boulez – Domaines

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Joyeux anniversaire, Pierre!

Today’s the day, the 90th birthday of Pierre Boulez, and, continuing the concerto theme, the piece with which i’d like to celebrate the occasion is Domaines, for clarinet and orchestra, completed in 1969. Typically, the piece began life a decade earlier (early sketches pertaining to it, tentatively titled ‘Labyrinthe’, date back to April 1959), and also typically evolved via the material for other compositions. During the 1960s Boulez was working on a cantata for baritone and ensemble, setting texts by E. E. Cummings; this would ultimately lead, in 1970, to cummings ist der dichter, but a couple of years prior to that Boulez took material from the nascent work, together with ideas for an opera (never completed) and refashioned it into Domaines, both as a solo work as well as one involving six instrumental groups, with a gradually increasing number of players:

  1. bass clarinet
  2. marimba, contrabass
  3. oboe, horn, guitar (amplified)
  4. alto trombone, 2 tenor trombones, bass trombone
  5. flute, alto saxophone, bassoon, C trumpet, harp
  6. 2 violins, 2 violas, 2 cellos

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Pierre Boulez – Messagesquisse

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The second concerto-esque work by Pierre Boulez that i want to explore this week is Messagesquisse for cello solo and six cellos. The gestation of this piece was very much more straightforward than that of Mémoriale, being composed in 1976 as a 70th birthday present for that great champion of so much contemporary music, Paul Sacher (Boulez’s Sur incises would be another birthday present for Sacher 20 years later). The title overlaps the words ‘messages’ and ‘sketch’ at the letters “es”, being both the first letter of Sacher’s surname and the German term for the pitch E-flat. This is indicative of the kind of thing Boulez gets up to in Messagesquisse, where Sacher’s entire surname is translated into musical pitches—E♭, A, C, B♭ (H in German), E, D (presumably from the solfège Re)—forming a hexachord that is subjected to considerable serial and motivic treatment. Sixes occur elsewhere too: as well as the ensemble group of cellos, the work is structured with this many sections. Read more

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Pierre Boulez – Mémoriale (…explosante-fixe… Originel)

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This week marks the 90th birthday of Pierre Boulez, and to mark the occasion i’m going to explore three of his concerto-esque works, beginning with Mémoriale, composed in 1985. Well, that’s not strictly accurate; one of the characteristic traits of Boulez’s output is an ongoing tendency to rethink and recompose previous work. It all began in 1971 with the death of Igor Stravinsky, when Tempo magazine invited various composers to contribute short pieces for a commemorative issue, published late that year. Boulez demured (the request was for canonic works, which he found both a strange and unappealing idea), but it began a thought process that would lead to the first incarnation, in 1972, of a work for three instruments titled …explosante-fixe…. It was soon replaced with another version for flute, clarinet, trumpet, three strings, harp and electronics, but Boulez was dissatisfied with this version too due to complexities with controlling the technology (involving an evidently cumbersome and fragile device called the Halaphone). Some years passed before, in the early 1980s, Boulez began working towards a new version, now collaborating closely with Ensemble InterContemporain’s principal flautist Lawrence Beauregard. When Beauregard died in 1985, Boulez decided to take some of the material from …explosante-fixe… and rework it into a tribute, which became Mémoriale (…explosante-fixe… Originel) for flute and eight instruments.
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György Kurtág – …quasi una fantasia…

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It was many, many years ago (at the 1993 Meltdown Festival, in fact) that i first encountered the music of Romanian composer György Kurtág and became instantly entranced by it. Like Webern, Kurtág is drawn to expressing himself in tiny, fleeting musical acts for modestly-sized instrumental groupings, but unlike Webern there’s usually a powerful emotional current obviously flowing through them (that’s not to suggest Webern’s music isn’t emotional; Kurtág’s is simply more demonstrative). During the 1980s, he was commissioned to write a work for large forces for the Berlin Festival, which caused Kurtág difficulties that were only surmounted when he explored the Philharmonie’s chamber music hall, at the time still being built. This led to a realisation that he could preserve his outlook and approach by writing for a number of small groups spatially arranged around the hall; the result, premièred in October 1988, was …quasi una fantasia…, a small-scale concerto for piano and “instruments dispersed in space”.
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Brett Dean – The Siduri Dances (World Première)

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From the recorder to the flute, and a typically dramatic concerto for the instrument by Australian composer Brett Dean. Composed in 2007, The Siduri Dances, for flute and string orchestra, began life three years earlier in Dean’s work for solo flute Demons. The inspirational scope here is broader, drawing on the mythological goddess Siduri who lives by the sea and, in the eponymous epic, gives advice to Gilgamesh, attempting to make him rethink the necessity of his quest for immortality and focus instead on the here and now:

Gilgamesh, where are you hurrying to?
You will never find that life for which you are looking.
When the gods created man they allotted to him death,
but life they retained in their own keeping.
As for you, Gilgamesh, fill your belly with good things;
day and night, night and day, dance and be merry, feast and rejoice.

Dean’s intention seems to be to tap into the spirit of Siduri’s admonition. Read more

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Dai Fujikura – Recorder Concerto

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A general shift in register now, from low to high, and to a pair of concertos using a reduced orchestra comprising just strings. Dai Fujikura seems to have written his Recorder Concerto despite himself, describing his initial view of the instrument as a pretty negative one. What makes the piece so interesting, i think, is the way Fujikura seems to have overcome that rather awkward starting position. It’s a little hard to articulate, but one’s attention is drawn not so much to the material he has composed for the instrument but to the instrument itself and the way it is behaving. In other words, it feels more a concerto about the recorder than what the recorder is playing. Sort of.

In terms of what actually happens, the setup is pretty simple, with the soloist taking the lead, their articulations serving as a model for the strings. Fujikura makes that very clear at the outset, low flutterings on the recorder translating into tremolandi in the strings; the recorder progresses to a melody made up of fragmented moments, and the strings’ material is equally fractured. Fujikura allows this kind of thing to play out at various points throughout the piece for minutes at a time, enabling two things to happen. Read more

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Iancu Dumitrescu – Élan and Permanence (World Première)

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From the cello to the electric guitar, and a curiously strange concerto by Romanian composer Iancu Dumitrescu (husband of Ana-Maria Avram, featured on 5:4 last year). Particularly well-known (and self-described) as a composer with ‘spectralist’ leanings—but not, according to Dumitrescu, in the same way as the French spectralists—his guitar concerto Élan and Permanence seems almost to go out of its way to reduce or at least radically rethink the role of the soloist. Even describing the guitar as a soloist is stretching a point.

Uncertainty reigns throughout the piece, both in terms of the way material is articulated as well as the material itself. Utmost abstract, much of the music takes place as if from a distance which, considering how much energy is regularly displayed, makes for a decidedly weird listening experience. The energy bubbles up to the surface of seething textural masses, punching outwards in the form of brass reports, coagulating into clouds of string tremolandi and unleashing wild percussive outbursts that have a distinctly Varèsian sense of autonomy. This orchestral behaviour, which subsides into glades of middlegrounded repose as much as it lets rip, is curious enough, but the way the guitar interacts with it—if ‘interacts’ is the right word (i don’t think it is)—is downright odd. Read more

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