Captivating and intriguing by turn, was how I first described listening to the music of Edmund Finnis. Nearly two years later I’m returning to write a little more about his music having recently heard his latest orchestral work, Air, Turning played by the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ilan Volcov.
When I first heard Finnis speak on BBC Radio 3’s Here and Now he was discussing Seeing is Flux, a work commissioned by the London Sinfonietta. His starting point had been seeing the exquisite draftwomanship of Nasreen Mohamedi. I visited her exhibition at Tate Liverpool and came away feeling I’d stepped into a private world away from all current preoccupations, something out of time (and later wrote Three Canonic Quartets for 4 violins). So it was good to be led again by Edmund Finnis to a poet this time, Robin Robertson, whose poem Finding the Keys provided a background to his new orchestral piece Air, Turning.
Since visiting Scotland for the first time six years ago I have begun a quiet love affair with what I find is a world apart. Although my visits have been to the West Highlands and Islands, with last summer to the Hebridean Islands of North and South Uist, I have read widely, and several Scottish authors have become important. Of these Kathleen Jamie. Peter Davison and the astonishing Nan Shepherd, all carry with them something charmed. It is of the landscape and the light; the mountains, the islands, the coastline, the lochans, all these things and more have cast their spell. I’ve yet to dare to take even something of this charmed nature into my own music, but I have a feeling Finnis has: in another recent piece, a violin concerto called Shades Lengthen.
I heard this enchanting music at the back end (as they say north of the border) of 2015 broadcast in a concert on Radio 3. It badly deserves another hearing. And here I seemed to have anticipated Finnis composition by reading books by Peter Davidson, The Last of the Light, and Distance and Memory. In the second much of it describes the aspect of seasonal light in the far north east of Scotland, an area I have yet to visit.
So I’m discussing here two new works from a composer who, to my ears, is able to cast musical spells. And I’m careful not to say sonic spells because, for me, it is the elements of his musical working that affect me. That is not to say his music does not sound well. It’s so like well-written poetry that manages to marry sound with structure, as the poetry of Robin Robertson certainly does.
Being ‘of poetry’ is something that is certainly common to Finnis two recent orchestral pieces. Looking at and listening to the scores they both carry similarities in textural devices and approaches to scoring. Air, Turning is a single movement lasting under ten minutes. Predominantly in a slow tempo it begins with an underlying 16th note pulsating figure that comes directly from the second movement of Shades Lengthen.
This is a musical sleight of hand that features string harmonics. In Air, Turning this figure changes in pulsing divisi figures that lends the piece a not unwelcome Shaker Loops moment. But in Air, Turning we are without the continuo piano, which has been such a part of my own favourite Finnis music. In Shades Lengthen the opening takes a falling piano sequence that, for me, is the spell-making ingredient, harmonically edging and inflecting the texture with light and colour. I first encountered this pianistic approach in his 4 Duets for clarinet and piano, a work that is for me quintessential Finnis (if I could only have one of his works to hear it certainly would be this). Sadly there’s no recording of it, so the nearest I can come to, to illustrate this fairy-tale like piano writing, is the piano’s role in In Situ II (after Locke).
I am always a little sad when a reviewer makes a description of a new piece ‘sounding like’ a composer or work that is well-known. In the case of Air, Turning there are several moments when the ache of the Pastoral Symphony (No.3) and the Tallis Variations by Vaughan-Williams swim across my subconscious. I think it is the measured pace of harmonic change, the oft’ used falling melodic lines, the folk-like melodic turns of phrase, the general lack of any extremes in compass or tessitura (except for the second movement of Shades Lengthen where the solo violin enters the stratosphere and piano mines the depths – simultaneously). These belong somewhere, and perhaps, like the wonderful appropriations of Orlando Gibbons by Nico Muhly, that somewhere is the English Tudor Choral Tradition, which I gather Finnis has, like myself, experienced at first hand as a boy chorister. I would so love to hear his only acknowledged vocal work, a setting of Verbo Domini composed for the choir of New College Oxford.
After broadcasting the premiere of Air, Turning the BBC played during the concert interval the fourth movement of Brother for violin and viola. This short work carries so much of the essence of Finnis. Here he is never far away from the open string sounds of the instruments, their natural harmonics, almost blues-like slow glissandi, the edgy very-close-to-the-bridge, hardly-on-the-string bowing (a truly ethereal sound), and very occasional shades of chromatic inflection. And yet, on paper, it looks . . . well it looks so simple, you ask ‘what is this?’ Howard Skempton for strings? Echoes of Lou Harrison maybe? Definitely not. This is music that has a continuum of subtle movement and a graceful feel for stringed instruments. The score was a real surprise when I saw it . . . I thought it must be more complex than it is.
Writing for strings has certainly become a hallmark of Finnis work. There are several works for string ensemble including a recent septet Relative Colour (again, think of the original version of Adams’ Shaker Loops), but so, so different – even though it begins with that 16th note figure discussed earlier.
The first work I was able to see and hear after Seeing is Flux was Veneer for solo viola (with optional reverb). Played by the amazing Paul Silverthorne of the London Sinfonietta, it remains one of only two works currently available on YouTube, and originally the score was downloadable from the Sinfonietta’s website – from where my copy comes (and the example below). In technical terms this work goes way beyond the devices I’ve already mentioned to include scordatura (also used in Relative Colour) and artificial harmonics and an instruction marked ESP (extreme sul pont).
I’ve found scordatura to work well with string ensembles, provided the ensemble are not playing anything else (or an interval occurs after a performance). I’ve used it in a mini-double-concerto for violins and strings titled To the Dark Unseen as part of the Shoals: Sons de Mars sequence of student pieces that surround my Cultural Olympiad work Sounding the Deep.
In reviewing again the musical world according to Finnis I find myself a little troubled. Is this music too far from the reality of contemporary music now? Could it be a little too poetic for its own good? Listening just this morning to a webcast of Ed Bennett’s Psychedelia I heard the premiere of an orchestral work from a composer who, like Finnis, might be said to be ‘emerging’, a composer ready to take on serious commissioned work. It was so wholly and rightly different; full of hard edges, abrasive textures, intense repetitions, a monolithic music vividly imagined – but from what? I lived through the psychedelic era and if that what it was supposed to relate to, then I clearly missed the experience, had received a different message. If it had a poetry to it, I felt I didn’t want to read it. The music was clearly situated in what might be called ‘a real world’ of culture now, which I don’t think is very comfortable. An introduction given by the composer was thoughtful and persuasive. But the music, for me, was not, even to someone who has practiced listening – as the composer suggested a listener needs to do to appreciate an eighteen-minute work.
The music of Edmund Finnis seems to come alongside the poetry, literature and visual art that reference the natural world. It is a music to linger over, and come to know, and the structure and ‘way’ of the music allows that to happen. As in the natural world, things happen gradually and in never quite the same way twice. Yet it is not a soundtrack to any particular visual form, landscape or literary source. It carries its own very individual presence that (perhaps) has an affinity to certain aspects of fine art craft, perhaps even the culture of slow, a culture that I seek to express in my own music for the improvising pianist Matt Robinson – Fifteen Images and Gifts from the Pavement. Things made for their intrinsic beauty, but also ‘found’ things, objects collected, curated and crafted with and onto. And perhaps this is why the scores of Edmund Finnis speak to me, with the music rich in expressive markings: longingly, air swirling, background shimmering. evaporating, extremely tender. I see and hear one of his scores and I feel it as something delicate, finely crafted, from a world of imaginary thought and background relationships that are there in the day to day if only we were to stop and quietly observe the phenomena behind all the noise and anxiety.
My present work-in-progress is for wind quintet, taking as my theme David Hockney’s intense viewing of the Arrival of Spring to a lane in the Yorkshire Wolds – as presented in 52 iPad paintings brought together as large prints to fill a vast gallery space in a former mill in Saltaire. This art work, divided into months from January to June, occupies something of what Finnis has aptly has described in his program note to Shades Lengthen, that of thinking about foreground and background and planes in between, and considering how different elements within a piece may be made to interact, overlap and sit alongside one another.