Michael Finnissy — an overview

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  • This article was downloaded by: [Eindhoven Technical University]On: 16 November 2014, At: 19:12Publisher: RoutledgeInforma Ltd Registered in England and Wales Registered Number: 1072954 Registered office: Mortimer House,37-41 Mortimer Street, London W1T 3JH, UK

    Contemporary Music ReviewPublication details, including instructions for authors and subscription information:http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/gcmr20

    Michael Finnissy an overviewRichard BarrettPublished online: 20 Aug 2009.

    To cite this article: Richard Barrett (1995) Michael Finnissy an overview, Contemporary Music Review, 13:1, 23-43

    To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/07494469500640271

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  • Contemporary Music Review, 1995, Vol. 13, Part 1, pp. 23-43 Reprints available directly from the publisher Photocopying permitted by license only

    9 1995 Harwood Academic Publishers GmbH Printed in Singapore

    Michael Finnissy- An Overview Richard Barrett

    A survey of the compositions of Michael Finnissy as a single whole, assessing their place in a wider cultural overview, with observations upon a selection of relevant headings.

    KEY WORDS Influences, parallels, intervals, instrumentation, texts, theatre, montage, notation.

    Introduction

    Michael Finnissy's oeuvre is exceptionally large and wide-ranging, and critical exegesis of it is at an early stage. So I have confined myself to presenting observations upon a selection of relevant subjects or issues, mentioning as many works as possible and as it were setting the ball rolling. This is not the place to begin an in-depth treatment of individual compositions, and it seemed more appropriate to attempt the task, however difficult, of taking the works as a single whole and assessing their place in a wider cultural overview.

    The ordering of the following sections is unimportant; it is impossible to work towards conclusions regarding a composer still in his mid-forties, and in Finnissy's case a chronological survey would almost certainly prove fruitless, as explained below. Also, I have thought it more important to relate some reasons why one should experience this music for oneself, and w h y Michael Finnissy's work is a singular and indispensable part of contemporary composition, than to cast a critical eye over it, in the hope that my own enthusiasm might prove infectious to those more able, qualified and inclined than I to take a more objective view.

    Neither is the object of this exercise to write a biography: but it is worth bearing in mind that Finnissy was born in London in 1946 - his Englishness is apparent in all he does, albeit in unexpected ways, notwithstanding the obvious cosmo- politan qualities of his work. We shall meet with a number of other such contradictions in the following pages - they are the inevitable paradoxes in a body of work at once all-embracing and utterly personal. Lastly, Finnissy's rate of stylistic transformation has often been so vertiginous as to render most generali- sations indefensible - the reader is asked to beware of what may seem like categorical statements.

    Musical influences and parallels

    Finnissy's musical personality has been individual from the outset: in his earliest acknowledged work, Le dormeur du val [1] (1963-68), many areas upon which he continues to expand were already in place, and to a great extent untouched by outside influence. However, influences and parallels are there to be sought out

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  • 24 g~Ba~e~

    and, characteristically, they stem from unlikely and idiosyncratic sources for the most part. The convergence between Finnissy and Bussotti is mentioned elsewhere in this essay; it is also possible to find echoes of a Boulezian sound-world in the use of three keyboard instruments producing diffuse washes of sound and occasional knotted outbursts in Le dormeur, also found later in World [15] (with harp and cimbalom furnishing further reminders of Eclat). In both cases, however, any direct influence has long since dissipated and plays little if any part in Finnissy's more recent work. Additionally, the influence seems never to have extended to actual formative techniques, be these serial procedures or statistical distributions. Finnissy has tended to create structures arising from the individual composition's internal dictates, rather than erecting (like Boulez or Xenakis or Stockhausen, in their various ways) a kind of general field theory of which the compositions are offshoots. No other composers of the 20th-century "mainstream" seem to have had appredable effects on Finnissy's development. This is interesting in itself: neither Stravinsky (for whom Finnissy wrote a short memorial piece in 1971 [7], adding viola and harp to a flute solo created for Stravinsky's 85th birthday four years earlier), the composers of the Second Viennese School nor any other of the venerated icons of the century have provided any discernible stimulus. This fact has no doubt contributed to the misunderstandings his work has often engendered in listeners, critics and other composers who search in vain for his work legilimising itself by appealing to the officially recognised pathways of musical history.

    On the other hand, a number of composers outside these narrowly-defined pathways are clearly recognisable (and acknowledged) as Finnissy's spiritual forebears. Three such musicians are celebrated in his triptych for piano Ives, Grainger, Nancarrow [24]. The visionary quality of Ives's work as well as his uncompromising style of keyboard composition have obvious parallels in Finnissy, whose Ives could almost, from time to time, have been written by its dedicatee, alongside the Studies and the Five Takeoffs. Finnissy's career as a pianist in fact virtually began with (and because of) Ives' Concord Sonata, which he admits to be a key work in his own development. Elements of Ivesian pianism most obviously influential for Finnissy include the stark juxtaposition and superimposition of "opposing" musics (compare the vertigo of the Concord's second movement with that, say, of Midsummer Morn from English Country-Tunes [37.2] whose initial stillness gradually accumulates momentum before reaching full-blown eruption), a virtuosity straining for the impossible, and the overstepping of clear harmony by saturation to transform the piano into a textural instrument (the quintessentially Ivesian gnarled chordal pileups to be found, for example, in the fourth movement of the First Sonata have close descendants in many of Finnissy's piano parts). The attraction to English folksong and to the art of piano transcription in Grainger may be found in Finnissy also (and perhaps a touch of Grainger's and Ives' homegrown experimentalism too), and Grainger was of course a celebrated and unorthodox piano virtuoso in his own right, as well as being a spare-time experimenter with electrical and mechanical means of producing music. Conlon Nancarrow's work, however, being totally unknown in Europe before the late seventies, cannot be counted as an influence but more as a felicitous discovery, an unsuspected parallel.

    A later pair of piano pieces, G.F.H./B.S. [117], refer to Bernard Stevens (Finnissy's first important composition teacher) and Handel, and both quote from

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  • Michael Finnissy - An Overview 25

    their dedicatees, though the quoted fragments are almost unrecognisably sub- merged in close-knit polyphonic webs (Figure 1). Giuseppe Verdi has also, of course, been the subject of a Finnissy tribute, although neither he nor Handel could be said to have contributed to the surface style of the music. Nevertheless, Busoni and Godowsky (two more masters of the piano transcription) crop up in Verdi Transcriptions [81] to provide the formal and gestural skeleton of the eighth piece and the inspiration for the left-hand arrangement in {he fifth. * Some kind of pattern may be dimly glimpsed here - a preference for lyricism and linearity over counterpoint a