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’, focusing 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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New releases: Michael Finnissy – Singular Voices

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What with 2016 being Michael Finnissy‘s 70th year, it’s heartening to see some new releases celebrating his work. Throughout his career, no label has done more to champion Finnissy than Metier, whose latest CD Singular Voices, released yesterday, is their twelfth devoted to Finnissy’s music (i’ll be exploring the rest in future articles). Recorded over a decade ago, the disc features a variety of works for soprano with and without clarinet and/or piano, performed by Clare Lesser, Carl Rosman and David Lesser respectively. The works date from a wide period of time, the earliest from a collection of 18 songs composed from 1966–78, the most recent from 1990, but a sense of both consistency and even continuity can be perceived throughout. This is clearly all music by the same composer. Read more

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Michael Finnissy – Offshore

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To conclude my Lent Series celebrating the work of Michael Finnissy, i’m turning to the composer’s first orchestral score, Offshore, written 40 years ago in 1976. It was composed in the aftermath of a traumatic relationship break-up, which no doubt accounts for a lot of things, not least the work’s title and particularly its surprisingly strange general demeanour. Offshore can prove disarmingly difficult to connect with on a first listening (i can recall my own initial attempt, which was an almost complete failure), in no small part due to the way that Finnissy works with the orchestra by fragmenting it into a collection of distinct sonic entities, united by gestural, behavioural, timbral and registral characteristics. Read more

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Michael Finnissy – John the Baptist (World Première)

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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

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Michael Finnissy – Beat Generation Ballads (World Première)

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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

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Michael Finnissy – Judith Weir

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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

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Michael Finnissy – “above earth’s shadow…”

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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;

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Michael Finnissy – Viitasaari

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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

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Michael Finnissy – Back on Earth (World Première)

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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

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Michael Finnissy – A-lang Felton Lonnen (World Première)

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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

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Michael Finnissy – Aijal

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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

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Michael Finnissy – Dust (World Première)

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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

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Michael Finnissy – Wild Flowers

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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

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Michael Finnissy – n

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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

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