Michael Finnissy – Offshore

by 5:4

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.

The way in which these instrumental entities are employed is somewhat akin to organ stops, used independently, juxtaposed and, most often, layered on top of each other. Utilised in this way, Offshore doesn’t so much sound like music being ordered in real-time, but manipulated; there’s an overt, omnipresent sense of external control that, considering the emotional context within which the piece was composed, is perhaps understandable. In a nutshell, the orchestra, both at an individual level and en masse, is exceptionally malleable, pulled around seemingly on a whim; single and multiple layers of these entities stop and start, passing between extremes of dense frenetic splutterings and long drawn-out notes and chords, the latter of which sometimes take on an ominous lack of movement, motionless but glowering. In the same way, the music regularly falls in and out of focus, heightening the pervading sense of uncertainty and unpredictability, as well as varying markedly in its relative proximity, one moment in your face, the next distant and disinterested. It’s hard to keep track or even make sense of such wildly capricious activity, but then maybe that’s precisely the point. Either way, moving one’s attention away from the surface to its conduct over longer periods of time is both a more manageable way into the work and also more revealing generally; it isn’t the moment-by-moment tilt shifts that are most telling in Offshore, it’s the whimsical exertion of control that becomes overwhelmingly apparent over time. In a sense, it’s a romantic work, but channelled towards honesty above all else, with passion and pain discomfitingly intermingled. That’s relationships for you.

Finnissy had to wait six years for the first performance of Offshore, in September 1982 by the Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by Oliver Knussen, as part of their ‘Music of Today’ series. This performance took place at the 2014 Tectonics festival in Glasgow, given by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra directed by Ilan Volkov.

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