i learned a few minutes ago that one of my PhD colleagues at the Birmingham Conservatoire, composer Stuart Stevens, has died of a heart attack. From a personal perspective, this is obviously extremely sad news; PhDs can be strange, remote, disheartening and somewhat alienating beasts, and Stuart was someone who was able consistently to inject huge amounts of lightness and hilarity, leaving one feeling not just cheered but remarkably encouraged. In the last few years, as he was based in Suffolk my encounters with Stuart were more occasional and fleeting—i think the last time was a chance crossing paths at an HCMF concert at Huddersfield Town Hall—and i only wish we’d had a lot more time and opportunities to talk. From a wider perspective, Stuart’s passing is a real loss; his primary area of interest was in exploring new articulations (what he referred to as the “emancipation”) of microtonality, to some extent building on the legacy of Harry Partch but equally trying to forge a new outlook on an area that remains at the fringes of contemporary musical development. His energy and enthusiasm for the subject were utterly convincing and contagious, every conversation peppered with extensive descriptions of the methods and devices he had been exploring or was intending to utilise in future projects. Some of Stuart’s music can be found on his YouTube channel, while his website has further audio examples plus extensive information about his work with microtonality.
Stuart Stevens’ entire attitude to composition was one of the most admirable and inspiring i’ve ever come across, and it’s a really terrible shame that he’s no longer with us. My most heartfelt condolences go out to his partner Gordon; Stuart will be very deeply missed.
The most recent pair of new releases from the always excellent Spanish label Neu Records are particularly interesting, both on their own terms as well as in the marked way they contrast with each other in compositional outlook and intent. Neu has particularly championed the music of Bernat Vivancos; 2011 brought Blanc, a double album of vivid, gently experimental choral works, and this has now been followed with another 2-disc set, featuring Vivancos’ large-scale Requiem. It’s a work that will, on the one hand, appeal to those who like their choral music with the kind of harmonic simplicity and clarity associated with composers like Arvo Pärt and Morten Lauridsen. On the other hand, in his Requiem—a 98-minute work for choir, soloists, solo cello and cello quartet, accordion and percussion—Vivancos has to some extent sought to distance himself from conventional models, rejecting entirely the traditional text in favour of proverbs and poetry, together with Biblical excerpts and theological/philosophical musings. As such, and in the context of a requiem this is rather fascinating, the work becomes an infusion of both emotion and intellect, spirituality and science comingling in an act of expression that goes beyond mere grief into something altogether more complex, and which is all the more moving as a result. Read more
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
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
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
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
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