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
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
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
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