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
Continuing with Scandinavian new releases, a new disc from Bis featuring four works by Anders Hillborg is a real treat. It’s a generalisation, of course, but the focus of Hillborg’s music tends to be on the surface, and this understandably polarises listeners. Usually, the successes of this approach come out on top, and it’s therefore a genuine surprise to hear the main work on the disc, Sirens, not just falling short, but entirely failing. Using a text drawn from Homer, Hillborg’s setting utilises two soprano soloists, mixed choir and orchestra, and you’d be forgiven through the opening minutes for thinking that the most remarkable mise-en-scène was being established. It is unquestionably striking, but once the choir has entered, and a few minutes later the soloists, it soon becomes clear that nothing is being set up, we’re there already—were there, in fact, at the very start. In a way that directly parallels John Tavener, Hillborg is seeking a 33-minute orgasmic wave, but despite moments of utter beauty, the piece is simply so caught up in the attempt to relay its never-ending ecstatic allure that it becomes overwhelmingly cloying and dumbfounded. The harmonic proximity to the (dis-)likes of Eric Whitacre don’t exactly help. But it’s the odd one out on a disc that is otherwise nothing but a delight. Read more
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
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
What leaps out immediately on Snowbells, a new collection of choral works by Bent Sørensen, and constantly throughout, is the composer’s deep, thoughtful engagement with intense emotion, particularly the themes of life, love and death. Words, and the layers of connotation and meaning encapsulated within them, are clearly not just important to Sørensen, they’re everything. The ways in which he expresses them involve a telling contemporary engagement with archetypes, sounding at once embedded in history—not just of music, but of humanity itself—yet also squarely at the forefront of present-day thought and feeling. Sørensen frequently draws on the language and demeanour of traditional music in his settings, four-square structures articulated through rich consonance, as in Sneeklokken (‘snowbell’) for solo voice and the short choral hymn Havet står så blankt og stille (‘The sea stands so still and shining’), the pair of works that book-end the disc. Some like to describe this kind of simplicity with words like ‘courageous’ or even ‘defiant’; Sørensen just sounds authentic, and it’s an authenticity that proves increasingly moving as he leads us into more obviously modern soundworlds. The Snowbells cycle (originally composed as part of an art installation) utilises the melody from its solo precedent as both a starting point and something of a refrain, now exploring each stanza separately. Familiarity permeates its every moment, though often through a filter of smears and smudges; and a pair of the movements where Sørensen ignores text and switches to soft humming is one of the album’s most exquisite episodes, as though the choir were inwardly ruminating on the music in an act of communal contemplation. Read more
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;
Three recent releases on Wergo have stayed true to the German label’s tendency to go above and beyond one’s expectations. It’s hard to say which is more remarkable, John Cage or percussionist Matthias Kaul, on Cage After Cage, an album featuring renditions of six of the composer’s works for percussion, dating from as far back as 1956 to as recent as 1990. In many respects, the collection as a whole can be heard as tapping (literally) into the very essence of what percussion is, namely the banging, scraping and rubbing of objects. The range of sounds and timbres captured here borders on the encyclopaedic, even in otherwise modest contexts, such as Kaul’s version of Composed Improvisation (1990) for solo snare drum. i’m not sure i actually heard anything approximating to a snare anywhere in the piece; instead, following a collection of friction noises with light ricochets, comes a high chord(!), perfectly in tune, spacially-separated hocketing impacts, and a descending Shepard tone-like sequence of strikes. In other words, sounds that defy one’s understanding of a snare drum, articulated and excited via an assortment of unconventional triggers (including, by the sound of things, an ebow). Read more