Retrospectives

Michael Finnissy at 70: A Metier Retrospective – Part 3. Piano music

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It’s only a few days until Michael Finnissy‘s 70th birthday year comes to an end, so in the nick of time, here’s the final part of my retrospective of his music released by his most loyal label, Metier. In turning to the piano music, i’m conscious that, to some extent, i’m setting myself up for failure. The piano is of such massive, fundamental significance to Finnissy – his website lists 172 works for the instrument, more than half his entire output – that to engage with this music meaningfully would require many more thousands of words than i can devote to them on this occasion. By my own admission, then, never will a surface have been so barely scratched. But it doesn’t take much more than a scratch to start uncovering a wealth of inspirations – musical, philosophical, political, sexual, ideological, technical – teeming within these works to an extent that, even for Finnissy, is startlingly extensive. There is, initially at least, something overwhelmingly daunting about this, yet it would be a mistake to regard Finnissy’s piano output as so many multi-faceted puzzles that can only be ‘got’ once all of their extrinsic influences have been grasped, parsed and assimilated. Nothing, i would venture, could be further from the truth: without wishing to put words into the composer’s mouth, i have little doubt that the notion of his music as some kind of ‘test’ would be completely anathema to Finnissy. Besides, all of them – without fail – communicate themselves with an immediacy and power that sets them apart both within his own output as well as from the majority of 20th and 21st century piano-writing. They can be enjoyed at surface level and also in the rich, subterranean layers of inspiration that lie beneath. To me, Finnissy’s piano music seems not unlike a kind of archaeological artefact: the more one goes digging, the more unexpected delights are to be discovered.

Metier has released four albums of the piano works, which doesn’t sound like a lot but they nonetheless constitute over ten hours of music, including some of Finnissy’s most important works for the instrument. Released over a period of fifteen years, these releases successively grow in terms of both scope and duration. All but one of them are performed by arguably the composer’s most definitive interpreter, pianist Ian Pace. Read more

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Michael Finnissy at 70: A Metier Retrospective – Part 2. Chamber music

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As with his vocal works, Michael Finnissy‘s chamber music is represented on four Metier discs, comprising around twenty pieces composed across three decades, from 1977 to 2007. This is only a miniscule proportion of Finnissy’s vast quantity of chamber music, but it nonetheless provides a valuable demonstration of various aspects of his compositional language. Above all, his omnipresent engagement with existing musical materials, which while often manifested in Finnissy’s music to varying degrees of convolution and obfuscation, could hardly be more overwhelmingly obvious in Metier’s 2013 CD featuring two works for piano quintet. Read more

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Michael Finnissy at 70: A Metier Retrospective – Part 1. Vocal music

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Composers habitually form relationships with performers and ensembles, but less often with record labels. And while various labels have put out one or two releases featuring the music of Michael Finnissy, only one, Metier, part of the multi-faceted Divine Art Recordings Group, has shown substantial long-term commitment to his output. To date, Metier has devoted no fewer than 12 albums to Finnissy, comprising a whopping 18 hours of his music, the earliest, Folklore, released in 1998, the most recent, Singular Voices, earlier this year. So to continue my celebrations of Finnissy’s 70th birthday, over the next few months i’m going to take a look back at this diverse collection of discs, beginning with those featuring his vocal music.

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30 years on: Frankie Goes To Hollywood – Welcome to the Pleasuredome

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For reasons as much to do with priorities as anything stylistic or aesthetic, pop music doesn’t get featured on 5:4 very often. But it would be remiss of me not to make some mention of today’s 30th anniversary of one of the most exhilarating debut albums ever made, Frankie Goes To Hollywood‘s Welcome to the Pleasuredome, originally released on 29 October 1984. i was 11 at the time, and discovered the album among the record collection of my best friend’s mother (i encountered Thriller the same way). First contact was more to do with the packaging than anything else; two vinyl records in a gatefold sleeve covered with wonderfully bizarre, perverse paintings imitative of Picasso, featuring imagined beasts engaging in a Dionysian orgy and entering two-by-two into the head of a giant phallus (see below). What 11-year old boy could resist the temptation to go further and hear what sounds had been married to these outlandish images?
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20 years on: The Orb – Blue Room

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Twenty years ago today, The Orb released one of their finest and most legendary creations, the single Blue Room. It became famous immediately due to its length; at 39’58”, it was tantalisingly close to the durational limit set by Gallup, who ran the UK charts, which classified anything of 40 minutes or more as an album. Not surprisingly, therefore, Blue Room instantly became the longest single in UK chart history, which it remains to this day. But Blue Room deserves to be remembered and celebrated most for its embodiment of The Orb’s unique approach to music-making, seamlessly integrating the ostensibly incongruous and hitherto distant idioms of dub and ambient, garnished with elements of minimalism, house and psychedelia.

The track took five months to create, The Orb’s Alex Paterson and Thrash joined by the renowned Steve Hillage and Jah Wobble, whose guitar and bass contributions sat alongside synth from Miquette Giraudy (Hillage’s partner and bandmate from their days as Gong), and a vocal riff by Aisha, sampled from her 1986 track ‘The Creator’. Combined with the ambient dub electronics of Paterson and Thrash, these were the raw elements from which Blue Room was created. The track’s title, incidentally, is a reference to a hangar located at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, which certain conspiracy theorists have convinced themselves houses “extraterrestrial spacecraft and bodies“; this theme would be taken further on The Orb’s second album, U.F.Orb, which includes a drastically shortened version of Blue Room. Read more

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Kraftwerk: a remastered retrospective

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Of all words associated with the digital era, there’s one that is ubiquitous like no other: ‘remastered’. It has become tantamount to a religious dogma, that the works we have known and loved from our analogue heritage are holy treasures, deserving nothing less than to be preserved in æternum, and to that end dusted and polished into a shiny, technicolour, everlasting digital form. Like all religions, though, it is capable of havoc carried out in its name; most conspicuous in recent times is the egregious and shamefully unmusical use of—among other things—compression in the vain attempt at making the sound ‘stand out’ (the so-called ‘loudness war’). This kind of treatment, under the banner of ‘remastering’, is to music what George Lucas has become to his own Star Wars trilogy; something that obfuscates, even dirties, the original, under the illusion that in so doing, one is capturing with greater fidelity the ‘original vision’. Back in 2004, Kraftwerk began their own equivalent mission, returning to the ageing tapes of their earlier albums, cleaning them up and remastering them for posterity. Titled The Catalogue, an eight-disc box set comprising each of their albums in its new digitally remastered form, the release ultimately proved to be stillborn, and the few promotional copies that existed quickly found their way, depending on your preference, either to eBay for a ridiculous sum of money, or to torrent sites for a ridiculous number of leechers. It has taken a further five years for the definitive, further remastered versions of these albums to be released, finally seeing light of day last month.

In both its manifestations, i have approached The Catalogue with the utmost trepidation, as, i imagine, have many fans whose appreciation—and, let’s face it, love—of Kraftwerk’s output goes both very deep and back many years. But before one even gets to the music, certain things immediately start to become clear. Highly conspicuous by their absence are Kraftwerk’s first three albums, Kraftwerk 1, Kraftwerk 2 and Ralf and Florian; there’s a clear view being expressed here that only these eight albums, from Autobahn to Tour de France Soundtracks, form the official Kraftwerk oeuvre. It’s a significant disappointment for those, including myself, who descry in those first three albums (particularly Ralf and Florian) much that prefigures what would follow in the years ahead; the bootleg CDs of those albums will have to continue to suffice for the time being. As far as Ralf Hütter is concerned, the mature life of Kraftwerk begins in 1974, with the noise of a car door slamming. Read more

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Respectable anarchy: Operator Please

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Ok, let’s get things going again with a band i’ve been meaning to write about for a long while. i’m assuming Operator Please will be well-known to many, but i’m not sure that would have been the case, say, 9 months ago, as their profile seems to have increased significantly this year. Teenage rock bands don’t exactly have an illustrious lineage, but Operator Please—perhaps due to being Australian, which often seems to inject something ‘quirky’ (i.e. non-British) into the mix—stands apart from the posturing, arrogance and emotional tedium that drench and encapsulate the usual adolescent twaddle. It’s not just their antipodean credential though; the band is an interesting mixture, including a violinist, which has helped to cultivate an individual sound. There’s a certain amount of confusion that surrounds their releases, due to differences between Australian and British versions; this has been compounded by the very peculiar way these releases have been made available on the iTunes Store. Read more

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