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.
The source is a certain skiffle song from the later 1950s concerned with one’s father being a refuse collector, a song Finnissy remembered from his teenage years. Here it has been repurposed for voices, clarinet, electric guitar, accordion and piano, the text put through various permutations, initially sounding vaguely familiar yet becoming increasingly disoriented, descending into phonemes and consonants. Although not using household implements typical of skiffle, Finnissy has retained its highly rhythmic soundworld; none of the instruments have melodic material, everything is rhythmic, consisting of patterns and sustained pitches, and while the piece lacks a score, Finnissy has (in a way not dissimilar to n) considered and mapped out the vertical implications in advance. The result is on the one hand intricate, clearly far from straightforward to perform, yet on the other hand uproariously chaotic, reinforced by the voices not so much singing as wildly exclaiming the text. Until, that is, they fizzle out in a shower of ‘t’s, leaving the instruments to saunter off jauntily into the distance.
The work was commissioned by Matthew Shlomowitz for the Rational Rec ‘A Night at the Music Hall’ event that took place on 7 June 2008 at Wilton’s Music Hall. The world première – and the only performance to date – was given by Vicky Wright (clarinet), Tom Pauwels (electric guitar), Mark Knoop (accordion) and Roderick Chadwick (piano); the four shouting voices came courtesy of Adam De La Cour, Matthew Shlomowitz, Andrew Toovey and Alex Waterman.