Michael Finnissy @ HCMF 2016

Michael Finnissy has been on my personal radar since 1969 when I heard a short piano piece at a London concert. It was unlike anything I had heard before. Part of the memory included the fact the pianist restarted his performance, so I got to hear part of the work twice. It included a torrent of extraordinary chords in the very highest regions of the piano. That was the abiding memory – a glittering shower of sound played with a velocity and purpose. And, looking at the excellent monograph Uncommon Ground: the music of Michael Finnissy (sadly almost unobtainable – have you got £290 to spend on a used copy?), it seems the work I heard was likely to have been Autumnall. So I was pleased to be able to attend a Symposium to celebrate his 70th birthday year as part of this year’s Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. I was also to hear two concerts featuring his music throughout the festival.

Part of Piano Concerto No.4 by Michael Finnissy

Part of Piano Concerto No.4 by Michael Finnissy

Finnissy’s catalogue, up to the publication of Uncommon Ground in 1997, lists some two hundred and twenty works. So I expect by 2016 there’s three hundred at least. True, some pieces are tiny, minute long works for piano, but others extend to lasting an hour or more. The two pieces I heard at HCMF were of this duration.

For years I seem to have been aware of Finnissy’s work without really engaging in his music, except for his early Song 17 (1976) for solo guitar and more recently with the revised version (2002) of his 1982 Kurdish song of lament Nayise. I’ve also studied in some depth the composer’s String Trio thanks to a game-changing article and analysis by Richard Toop: Four Facets of The New Complexity. Meeting and hearing regularly the pianist Ian Pace has also contributed to my appreciation of Finnissy’s music.


Part of the original 1982 version of Nisaye for solo guitar composed for Gerald Garcia

Part of the original 1982 version of Nisaye for solo guitar composed      for Gerald Garcia

In studying (and playing) Nisaye the 1982 version had several passages where there was complex unsynchronization of voices that one rarely sees in guitar music, though very much the norm is some of Finnissy’s piano music (see the excerpt from Piano Concerto No.4). It’s interesting that in the revised version these complexities are swept aside in favour of a looser notation approach.

Part of the 2002 revised version of Nisaye

Part of the 2002 revised version of Nisaye

Finnissy’s influence on music world-wide has probably come as much through the activities of his students and associates as from performances of his music. In his introduction to the HCMF symposium Philip Thomas reckoned that almost every festival in the last 25 years had regularly featured music by Finnissy and his students. He has a very particular place in music in the UK, a fine pianist and educator who has become a lively presence across a wide spectrum of new concert and art music. The HCMF Symposium was helpful in highlighting the linkages that exist with his contemporaries (such as Judith Weir – the result of a long friendship) and some themes and preoccupations that are so much part of his output.

Some composers, and I’m certainly one, are keen to know what constitutes the essence of a particularly style or approach to composition. We want to know the how and the why. Finnissy has already been the subject of a fascinating ethnographic study focused on his Second String Quartet (2007) that has generated a wide range of multimedia materials presented on a CD titled Evolution and Collaboration by Amanda Bailey (Bath Spa University) and Michael Clarke (Huddersfield University).

So what are the recurring features of a Finnissy score? An early (and only recently acknowledged) composition by Judith Weir gives some useful clues. It is a piece for piano, for Finnissy himself to play, and I was able to view the autograph score with Finnissy’s performance markings at an exhibition the British Music Collection (BMC) hosted at the HMCF Symposium. Looking and listening later confirmed that Weir had written a music that deftly came alongside Finnissy’s own. An Mein Klavier takes its title from a song by Schubert (D 382). Whilst it contains many gestures and sequences that I’ve come to recognize as quintessentially Judith Weir’s, it does nevertheless have a quality that is distinctly Finnissy. At the level of form it is full of those changes and surprises that often mark out a Finnissy piece. At about six minutes into the piece we hear a passage that seems to come almost directly from Schubert – and, as so often in Finnissy’s music, it is completely appropriate and curiously cadential ; it make sense of so much that has come before. And what has come before has little (seemingly) to do with Schubert, and perhaps more with the words of the song transcribed into a new music for a contemporary pianist, a pianist who as a composer seems to speak so vividly through the instrument.  Weir’s An Mein Klavier carries an insistence and (generally) the upward trajectory that is present in the Schubert song. It uses the piano in all its registers and ‘voices’ – from the hard clusters of the left hand to light and high filigree of the right hand – and about 2 and a 1/2 minutes into the piece, both hands come together. The piece throughout is ‘full’ of notes, but there is a brief respite about 5 minutes in where some semblance of Schubertian usage of the piano can be heard, though it is soon taken over by clusters, tremolos and trilled passages.

Creating new music from the traces, memories, and resonances of previous musics, older or from other cultures, is a very distinctive part of Finnissy’s approach. In this, as a pianist-composer, he has acknowledged inspiration from Busoni whose essay in defence of Liszt’s transcriptions begins: Notation is in itself a transcription of an abstract idea (The Essence of Music and Other Papers). Finnissy’s music is so often written with an empathy towards an existing music, be it from the Classical or popular or world-music traditions. And this results sometimes in the adoption of formal structures associated with a particular piece, for example the adoption of the section structure (and its expressive titles) of the first movement of Mahler’s 9th Symphony. This huge formal scheme of some 35 minutes permeates Finnissy’s String Trio (1986).

A brief look through Finnisy’s oeuvre you will soon discover works that empathise with Mozart, Handel, Schumann, Grieg, Verdi, Alkan, Ives, Grainger and Cage. This is not a post-modernism run riot. Finnissy speaks of ‘the on-going process of taking something and treating it, via the realm of one’s inner experience. It’s a means of highlighting another composer’s process.’

But where, one wonders, do the often myriads (often dislocated) pitches come from? Well, one place Finnissy does acknowledge is, like Harrison Birtwistle, from tables of Random Numbers. Ian Pace highlights this usage in his analysis of the vast piano sequence Folklore (a huge ‘trip’ around sources and styles described as ‘an infinity of traces’ that historical processes leave on ‘the self’) to Julian Anderson’s fascinating exposé of the orchestral work Eph-phatha. Both such analysis are found within the monograph Uncommon Ground.

What isn’t quite so obvious in Weir’s An Mein Klavier is Finnissy’s predilection for composing  ‘lines’ of melody rather than background or explicit harmony. It was interesting that during the symposium this lack of pre-prepared harmonic thinking was debunked by several of those participating. However, Finnissy himself owns to this way of thinking and working, and this is shown in so many works that have seemingly independent and unsynchronised  ‘lines’ of music. But harmony (or to use Sam Richard’s term ‘when things happen together’) is nowhere more wonderfully demonstrated in his Plain Harmony. This was originally a work in five voices for variable instrumentation and then arranged later for string quartet. I find this conception particularly interesting because as a statement of musical democracy it aligns with my own Metanoia for variable ensemble (in 4 parts, but its final section expanding to 16). If there was ever a clue to Finnissy’s harmonic thinking (via independent lines) Plain Harmony 1 & 2 demonstrate this.

Part of Metanoia by Nigel Morgan for variable ensemble

Part of Metanoia by Nigel Morgan for variable ensemble

Now to discuss the experience of hearing two large-scale works presented at HCMF 2016. As a lunchtime intermission at the Finnissy Symposium oboist Christopher Redgate and pianist Philip Thomas performed Âwâz-e Niyâz or Songs from Mysterious Necessity’. Philip Clark in his review of the first recording in The Gramophone writes that the ‘title suggests that the practice of Persian improvised song mirrors his (Finnissy’s) own compositional methodology of intuitively shunting archetypal melodic fragments around the staves. ‘These fragments are then rendered specific in pitch and rhythm,’ Finnissy says, ‘the outcome of which provides ongoing impetus and narrative.’ None of which really tells us how he came to write this 55-minute odyssey for oboe (doubling lupophon) and piano. It has a ritualistic, meditative quality reminding you that Finnissy mentions that ‘niyâz’ can also translate as ‘prayerfulness’, and that he is keen to stress his structure as ‘impulsive’. During the opening minutes, with the oboe moving across melodic patterns like a Spirograph, lines jaywalking back through themselves, reels rather than clean-cut ‘Western’ phrasing, it’s as if Finnissy is sending a postcard from a souk. And then suddenly you fall deep into his fantasy; melodic utterances push against structural constraints to yank open the space, you lose your place and realise how liberating that is, syntactical alignment between piano and oboe falls apart and intrigue mounts as you wonder just how Finnissy can reintroduce the oboe after a piano cadenza that feels entirely self-contained.’ Although the work is commercially recorded there is video documentation of the full performance available from the School for Advanced Study, University of London.

For me the highlight of my recent Finnissy listening and exploring was attending the UK premiere of his Andersen-LiederKreis, a song cycle for voice and piano. This hour-long cycle is an entirely convincing journey into the very particular world of the Romantic imagination. I wonder how many musical listeners knew of the presence of Hans Christian Andersen in the songs of both Schumann and Grieg. Both composers actually met the writer and were affected and inspired by his work, particularly those ‘tales’ that have become a kind of contemporary and perennial folk-lore. Think of The Little Match Girl (wonderfully realized afresh by Lachenmann and David Lang), The Little Mermaid (by Hans Abrahamsen), and to Finnissy who brings alive The Emperor’s New Clothes as well as revisiting texts of Andersen actually set by Schumann (op.40) and Grieg (op.4). I was entranced by this cyclic collection and its fine performance by soprano Juliet Fraser and pianist Mark Knoop.

From Andersen-Liederkreis by Michael Finnissy

From Andersen-Liederkreis by Michael Finnissy

There are fascinating northern echoes within the cycle, not least the setting of The Carrot Wedding with its hardanger fiddle like treatment realized in the spirit of Grieg’s references to this instrument in his Violin Sonatas. In setting the texts Finnissy blends languages, Danish, German and English, often within a single song, so the listener has the best of both worlds. I was quite rapt throughout this wholly fascinating reimagining of Andersen’s texts within a contemporary rethinking of possible music. Many passages had within their accompaniments the very rhythmic and registral movements of the hands found in songs from Schubert to Grieg, but the lines and harmonies were radically different. It was sometimes as if a new music had been poured into a once-loved and well-known mould. I have tried this myself, and to some effect in the conclusion to my Schumann-inspired cycle The White Light of Wonder where in Der Dichter Spricht new music populates the rhythmic placing Schumann’s original pitches.

from Nigel Morgan's The White Light of Wonder

from Nigel Morgan’s The White Light of Wonder

Of Finnissy’s existing vocal repertoire on CD there is one fine yet challenging work for Baritone and piano trio, Unknown Ground. Although this is a quite different work in spirit and content from the new Andersen-Liederkreis, it does demonstrate how purposefully Finnissy’s musical imagination tackles a selection of diverse texts. I listened to this first without any preparatory knowledge of its content, and was very moved by the directness and simplicity of the settings – of three early 20C Russian poets and a group of interviews about  living and dying with AIDS with anonymous contemporary voices. The text have a plainness, a directness that, as Christopher Fox reminds us, in his fine analysis in Uncommon Ground, of similar usage of texts by Christian Wolf and Harry Partch. Fox comments that this work is unlikely to become a favourite on the chamber music concert circuit being ‘too raw’ and ‘political’. But there is a fine and affecting recording by Richard Jackson and the New Music Players.

I’ve been little over a fortnight focused on a small part of Finnissy’s output, but taking the occasional brief excursion into a network of other music that is available in commercial recordings. Of these I can only say that if I could just pick one to take to my virtual desert island it would be the NMC’s Michael Finnissy plays Weir, Skempton, Newman and Finnissy.

Finally, in a recent interview with Jack Sheen Finnissy provided a striking resume of his career as a composer.  Either through stubbornness, ignorance or stupidity I’ve only ever been able to write one sort of music. It might have been more primitive and clumsy when I was younger, it might still seem primitive and clumsy now – but for different reasons. My first public performance (1965) was of a 7- minute setting of Rimbaud’s ‘Le Dormeur du Val’, for voice, three keyboards and string quartet. It has most of my preoccupations: mixing microtonality, atonality and tonality; a tension in the structure between a ‘legible’ ABA format and cinematic ‘narrative’; using texture to define sectionality; expressively nuanced gestures; intricately detailed and virtuosic instrumental writing. (only) Folk-music is noticeably missing from the mix.’


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