Being Intrigued by the Music of Edmund Finnis

My composing life has been blessed by occasional moments of musical illumination and surprise. A list of such moments is not a long one, perhaps a dozen, maybe twenty if I think hard. You hear a piece of music and that moment of hearing remains ever clear in the memory. And, if you’re curious like me, you’ll then start to explore the work of the composer responsible.

I was so fortunate as a teenager to have access at school to a record library where almost every disc (vinyl then) had an accompanying score. I was also taken to concerts regularly in London, and often to hear new work. I remember hearing Stockhausen’s Gruppen, Ives’ Decoration Day, Bartok’s Sonata for two pianos and percussion (performances then were very rare), Meridian by Birtwistle, Monteverdi Madrigals, and all within the space of 6 months. Usually, a little after these often perplexing but powerful experiences, scores would appear on the Recent Additions shelf (Monteverdi and Stockhausen). With such support how could I as a fledgling composer not take such music seriously? I was so fortunate.

But times have changed, and although it’s possible to see some scores through the new PDF preview systems some publishers are at last adopting (Boosey & Hawkes and Universal Edition), many publishers deny browsing students (I reckon I’m still a browsing student!) the opportunity to look over the ‘text’ of a composition. Buy the score? – very expensive now. Go to a library? You must be joking. Even supposedly good university libraries often have appalling collections of recent music. I have three such libraries within easy travelling distance and their ‘record’ on new music score purchase is sad to say the least. The only saving grace here is the British Music Information Centre at nearby Huddersfield University. But remember that is only for works by British composers.

When I hear something by a composer who is not yet represented by a major publisher I have no hesitation in emailing to ask if I can see a PDF of a representative score. I’ll certainly buy one if necessary. Most composers are usually pleased to respond, and in a positive way. But some are not, and usually ignore the email request. These are composers who are appalled that I make my own scores (and parts) available for study and workshop sessions freely available. I get regular performances this way, and world-wide, particularly by student performers. I am planning though to make most of my catalogue available as e-publications through Amazon, but that’s another story.

I’ve been emailing regularly a composer I’ve discovered in my irregular listening to new work. I really wanted to get to know his music better. There’s only one score available on line, courtesy of an orchestra this composer has been connected with. Fine, I’ve got something. But, try as I might, although the composer says his scores and parts are available by request, I’ve not been able to get any response – to my requests.

Edmund Finnis is a fine composer whose music I find intriguing and captivating by turn. I’m sure a major publisher will snap him up soon, but in the meantime I’d love to know more about what makes his work what it is, and to do that it helps to have the notes. I’d like to ‘get my hands on the music.’ But alas, this isn’t to be. In a way it does makes me listen harder, and I try to make shorthand sketches of his work.

A shorthand sketch is something I’ve developed over the years to capture hearing a new work, usually when broadcast. I want to give a new piece my 100% attention, and I find drawing and writing a kind of graphic score is a brilliant way to achieve this. Whenever someone says to me: how do I listen to a new piece? I share this approach with them. The physical business of doing this sketching glues your attention to the listening experience. I have whole notebooks full of ‘first listenings’, and now we have iPlayer formats (and I use the excellent SoundTap to reinforce capturing internet broadcasts to MP3) I can study new work as it appears – but, I’d prefer to have access to the score.

Why does the music of Finnis intrigue and captivate me? It has a quality that draws me in as a listener. There are qualities of Morton Feldman’s music present; it has contemplative nature and there is a certain understatement alongside a continuum of joined up thought and action. But there’s so much more. His scores by ear make a lot of sense as there’s never too much to take in. One score in particular, Seeing is Flux , has fascinated me, and partly because it has a kind of background programme – the art and life of Nasreen Mohammedi. I went to see a recent exhibition of this artist at the Tate Liverpool last summer (as a result of hearing Finnis’ piece for chamber orchestra), and I came away feeling I’d experienced something precious and challenging. I’ve even drafted a piece of my own based on a text formula about the properties of ‘Form’ that I copied from one of her notebooks at the Tate show. I think it may end up as a piece for four equal instruments, but unlike Beethoven who was happy to work on three pieces at once, I’ve never been able to do this! Finnis’ piece really captured something that was quite beyond Mohammedi’s work, but held something of its essence, and I’m still trying to work out quite what that is! I feel a full-score would really help . . . but it seems not to be. So more careful listening . . . But I will include a little of this work and the composer’s introduction just to wet the appetite.

On a not unrelated matter, I hear that some composers are disappointed that I don’t make the Opusmodus code I use in my own compositions copiable directly from the instalments of my new on-line book Composing How and Why. I’m a great believer in active learning, so just going to Copy and Paste I feel stops that engagement with ‘the text’. If you do have to copy and type then you get closer to the text. You could say it’s a device to encourage slower and deeper learning, which seems to be currently fashionable with academics now as much as skateboarders.

You can hear just two live performances of music by Finnis on YouTube:

After that there are a few SoundCloud recordings and this one score and recording Veneer for solo viola available from The London Sinfonietta website. You’ll also find him part of Totally Enormous Extinct Dinosaurs…

… featured variously on YouTube, but that’s a different world.

Both Quartet and Duo make rich use of timbre and microtonal inflections. In the Duo ‘Brother’ the contrapuntal writing is decidedly curious, but for me compelling, in rather the same way that Avro Part’s music was until I worked out that tintinnabulation device he uses. There’s clearly some canonic writing going on, but it contains these twists and turns of timbre and microtonality. With the Quartet it’s the piano writing that I find quite mesmerising. It uses an approach to rhythmic displacement that makes the music feel momentarily asynchronous, only to miraculously find its way back to rhythmic order at particular cadential points, although these are not cadences as one knows them. I can imagine already that Delta time featured in Opusmodus could well be the route towards such asynchronous effects, but I’ve yet to experiment. If you’ve not met this function look at length-delta-map and Stages 29.

I think I described the music of Edmund Finnis as intriguing and captivating. Definitely.

See on the PDF (and hear on the MP3) my own take on the music of Edmund Finnis in a fragment from my piece FORM for four equal instruments – here a guitar quartet.

Postlude: since publishing this blog Edmund Finnis has kindly written to give me this link to his Seeing is Flux - AND I’m glad to say it’s programmed for the 2015 Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival (23 November) played by the London Sinfonietta!

Leave a Reply