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
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.