Michael Finnissy

February/March 2017 listenings

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Of the music that’s been making a special impact on me in the last couple of months, i particularly want to flag up various albums of piano music. Peter Hill‘s renowned three-disc recording of Olivier Messiaen‘s epic cycle Catalogue d’Oiseaux has been reissued under license from Unicorn by Treasure Island Music. i honestly wonder whether this may be the most wholly immersive recording of piano music that i’ve ever heard. This is partly due to Messiaen’s intricately worked out sense of narrative, occupying an imaginary day listening to the birds around him, each movement focusing on a different creature. Extreme contrasts and shifts of character and attitude occur constantly throughout, Messiaen capturing the various behaviours and mannerisms of these birds in different contexts (Book 4, devoted to the Reed Warbler, being one of the most radical in its variety). But the depth of immersion comes just as much from Peter Hill’s staggeringly virtuosic and transparent performance (the recording quality is simply immaculate). Every note and chord is positioned and aligned with utmost precision yet, paradoxically, at the same time seems to be the product of raw improvisatory élan, as though the music were emerging from Messiaen’s mind in real time. Read more

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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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HCMF 2016: Mark Knoop + Juliet Fraser

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My final concert at HCMF 2016 was in St Paul’s Hall in the company of pianist Mark Knoop and soprano Juliet Fraser, who presented the UK premières of two song cycles, Michael Finnissy‘s Andersen-Leiderkreis and Bernhard Lang‘s The Cold Trip, part 2. Despite the fact that some of the Finnissy was not in English, it was unfortunate that we were not given the texts for either piece, as it was often unclear precisely what was being sung (more to do with St Paul’s Hall than with Juliet Fraser), a real shame considering the fact that these were both substantial vocal works. Regardless of this, though, The Cold Trip, part 2 made its intentions really very clear within the first few minutes: using Schubert’s Winterreise as its inspiration (in this case, being ‘part 2’, focussing on the latter half of that cycle), Lang’s text comprises cut-up minute quotations, allusions and references to the Schubert in conjunction with a live piano part and piano samples executed by a laptop. This, Lang contends, creates a ‘meta-composition’ in which the sampled elements establish a palimpsest of the Schubert. It really and truly does not. Read more

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A mass of miniature miracles: Alba New Music 2016

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A couple of miles out of the centre of Edinburgh, emblazoned in brightly-lit capital letters, is a stark, startling sentence: THERE WILL BE NO MIRACLES HERE. Created by Nathan Coley in 2009, and situated outside the Modern Two gallery, the unequivocal message of this bold piece of art rang entirely false in the wake of last weekend’s inaugural Alba New Music Festival. Located in St Giles’ Cathedral, close to the centre of the city’s bustling Royal Mile, the focus of the festival’s main trio of concerts—a stimulating contrast to the hordes of people streaming around outside—was on works for solo instruments, an intense and intimate prospect.

Diego Castro Magas‘ Friday evening recital expanded the guitar by means of both live and fixed electronics (courtesy of Aaron Cassidy). But not in the world première of Wieland Hoban‘s Knokler, a work for acoustic guitar that the composer put on the shelf back in 2009 before returning to complete it this year. Hoban sets up a soundworld of contrasts, alternating between great delicacy and violence, the former characterised by subtle microtonal similarities, the latter by wild percussive bangs and crashes. There’s something definitely ‘magical’ about it, a sonic entity seemingly from the past and the future, speaking with a distinct authority. To behold a single instrument, often played achingly softly, suddenly making the entire cathedral space resonate was impressive to say the least. Was it perhaps a trifle overlong? Maybe, but it seems churlish to say that in the company of such an enchanted stream of ideas. It was a piece in which, at times, its actions literally spoke louder than its notes, and this would turn out to be almost a secondary theme running through the festival. Nowhere more so than in Aaron Cassidy‘s The Pleats of Matter, where it is the physical actions of the performer that are prescribed in the score, not their specific aural result; so, as Cassidy puts it, “while the physical component of the work is entirely repeatable and vaguely predictable, the sonic and timbral component is open to dramatic and indeterminate variation from performance to performance…”. What shocked me—and it’s the first time this particular kind of musical recollection has happened to me—was that, having seen the piece premièred in 2015, i found myself remembering certain collections of actions, and even aspects of their continuity—yet i would struggle to say to what (if any) extent what i heard on Friday night resembled what i’d heard 18 months ago. i was certainly seeing the same piece, but was i hearing the same piece? Yet again, Cassidy’s work repeatedly pulls the rug out from under our notions of what constitutes musical material. As i’ve opined before, i think it’s an approach potentially with inherent limitations, but all the same, witnessing again Magas’ guitar being transfigured into something that, aurally, defies timbral categorisation, was hugely enjoyable. It sets up a complex dialogue where the visual disconnect between actions and sounds throws emphasis directly onto those sounds, making us wonder entirely what they are, how they were made, where they’re going: in short, forcing us to engage with them on their own terms. Yet everything, on paper, is about action! It’s a tension that never ceases to fascinate. 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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New releases: Michael Finnissy – WAM

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The other recent release dedicated to Michael Finnissy‘s music is the product of a collaboration between the composer and clarinettist Michael Norsworthy. WAM, released on US label New Focus Recordings, explores five works composed during the last 25 years, three of them written specifically for Norsworthy, and all but one of which are recorded here for the first time. The main theme, for want of a better word, running through the collection is an examination of what constitutes a meaningful musical ‘connection’ between discrete performers and types of material. With respect to individuated, partially- or wholly-asynchronous parts, this has been a recurring feature throughout Finnissy’s career (manifesting in many of the works covered in my recent Lent Series), and this disc clarifies the concomitant fact that sense and/or coherence become very much more subjective and potentially problematic within such a context. Read more

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