BBC MUSIC MAGAZINE:
You might think a piano cycle lasting more than five hours is asking too much. But when the music is as endlessly fascinating, engaging, challenging puzzling, beautiful, thought-provoking and charming as Finnissy's, it is not a hardship. Written between 1997 and 2000, The History of Photography in Sound presents 11 ‘chapters' exploring notions of memory and the way in which our perspective on the past changes over time, among other complex ideas.
Although it includes an abundance of found materials, the chapters are not pictorial in the manner of, say, Pictures at an Exhibition . Nonetheless they do explore various subjects, as is clear from titles such as ‘North American Spirituals'. My parents' generation thought war meant something' or the scintillating final chapter, ‘Etched bright with sunlight'. These richly coloured tapestries last around 30 minutes, though the study in transcription and virtuousity of ‘Alkan-Paganini' is much shorter, while ‘Kapitalistisch realisme' lasts more than an hour. On disc the work will inevitably be sampled in chunks, but listening to the entire cycle with just a couple of breaks, as at the premiere, enriches the experience.
In addition to the premier, Ian Pace has given many complete performances, so this extraordinary work could scarcely be better served. Pace provides an extensive and informative set of booklet essays detailing the work's genesis and performance issues as well as a detailed commentary on each chapter. His intimate acquaintance with the totality of History is apparent in his commanding performance. Pace's continuity within overlapping fragments of ‘Eadweard Muybridge', for example, is striking, and his control of the gradual buildup in the first section of ‘Unsere Afrikareise' is masterly. This is a magnificent achievement for both composer and performer.
Both composer and executant here are truly prodigious figures. Finnissy's 5½-hour cycle of piano pieces is a vast compendium of virtuoso-pianistic and world-historical thought, but Pace not only has the physical/intellectual stamina to perform the work in concert and record it on five CDs, but to explain it in such detail that his 98-page booklet essay isn't enough. (It will be "greatly extended" in a free online PDF file.) It is hardly possible to comment significantly on such a phenomenon in a capsule review, but I heartily recommend this profoundly dedicated undertaking as a source of stimulus and as something to live with.
INTERNATIONAL RECORD REVIEW:
Attempting to do justice to Ian Pace's recording of Michael Finnissy's The History of Photography in Sound in a round-up of this nature would be foolhardy, so I'll have to ask you to settle for barely articulate admiration. I'll excuse this on the grounds that the 100-page book accompanying the discs contains a wealth of critical insight from Pace himself, long associated with the composer's music and rightly praised for his previous Finnissy recordings. An expanded version of the text can be downloaded from the Metier website with no purchase necessary, which is a good way of discovering what you'll be letting yourself in for.
Dating from 2001, this cycle of 11 solo piano pieces hangs all manner of considerations onto its theme, dealing with aesthetics, semiology and the composer's life experiences in a musical quasi-narrative (don't look here for the banalities of programme music) that places Finnissy's complex personal style alongside excursions into other musical territories altogether. The cycle was originally conceived as being performable either in its entirety or as extracts, but I recommend adopting the former approach, and listening to the whole ‘meta-piece' in one sitting, partly to allow the musical arguments to unfold in their own context but also because our individual experience of time then becomes an aspect of the work itself.
This is a rare musical proposition which surely deserves to stand as one of the great pianistic statements of this or any age.
The music of English composer Michael Finnissy (b. 1946) is difficult to categorize. It is exceptionally multifaceted in both its surface and substance. It is music that is filled with its own original ideas (and textures that sound like nobody else), but at the same time it is constantly making explicit references to other music. His music's difficulty ranges from nearly unplayable fiendish complexity to exceptional plainchant-like simplicity, frequently within the same piece. Finnissy's notation is likewise extremely varied, and almost all his scores exist in his astounding calligraphy.
The History of Photography in Sound (1995-2001) is Finnissy's largest piano work at nearly 5.5 hours in length. Any attempt to summarize the piece in a brief review will fall significantly short of pointing out even a fraction of its facets. The pianist Ian Pace has been associated with Finnissy's music since he (Pace) was in school, and he recorded this work shortly after its complete premiere about decade ago. For whatever reason, it is only now appearing on CD, but its release is a major event for those interested in Finnissy's work or significant piano literature. Many of the individual movements/sections were composed as separate projects/commissions and premiered by different pianists. This excellently-produced CD box set also includes an extensive set of booklet essays by Pace (who is also a musicologist), and an even more extended version filled with musical examples is available online. In addition to his concert career (as a new music specialist), Pace is a very outspoken and caustic critic of academic musicology, and in recent years has become a very public advocate for investigation into the many sexual abuse scandals in British music schools.
Finnissy is himself a pianist, and his large catalog is dominated by works for the instrument. For him it has clearly been a source of continual musical inspiration, and the role of the piano in even his non-solo works is also extremely significant, even including an opera where the "orchestra" is simply a single virtuoso pianist. Each of the 11 sections of The History bear a descriptive name, ranging from "North American Spirituals" to "My parents' generation thought War meant something" to "Kapitalistisch Realisme (met Sizilianische Mannerakte en Bachsche Nachdichtungen)." As is nealy always the case in Finnissy's work, the piece abounds with references and quotations to other music: from Bach to 19th-century music hall songs, and from Berlioz to Inuit traditional music. Sometimes these references are very explicit, but often there is simply a fragment of a melody embedded within the "tenor line" of a larger texture; these would certainly go unnoticed were it not for the composer's trademark arrows carefully identifying the sources in the score. One of the booklet essays specifically addresses the quotations, and it challenges —in a typically Pace-ian confrontational style—the general critical response to these myriad references as nothing more than a sort of "found object tourism." Pace breaks down all the different types of quotations into various categories, examining how each category of material is "weighted" in different ways throughout the sections of the work. The external references made in The History are not purely musical, either; literature and philosophy also make appearances. The sixth section, "Seven Immortal Homosexual Poets," is conceived as a musical version of a poetry anthology, and each poet is treated in turn, wordlessly.
The composer has given Pace's performances and this recording his enthusiastic recommendation, so it is to be assumed that the performance is definitive. No other pianist (aside from the composer himself) has been more closely associated with Finnissy's music, and thus Pace brings to the project a true mastery of the composer's interpretative challenges. Like many of Finnissy's pieces, there is enough content in The History to keep one engaged through a near lifetime of listens. Certainly there are precedents for large-scale piano works of this scope, or even significantly longer ones: including numerous work by Sorabji and Frederic Rzewski's "novel for piano," The Road. In most cases of such large scale works, the pieces end up being quite representative of their composer's preoccupations and principal artistic concerns. The History is no exception, and thus stands as a major work of a major composer. For those who are completely unfamiliar with Finnissy, they may wish to start with shorter works, almost all of which have been recorded. However, for those who wish to take an unforgettable journey, this is a work, like much great art, that embraces everything and, in the process, tells us something about ourselves.
Music often seems to occupy a space and time of its own. Michael Finnissy's piano cycle The History Of Photography In Sound, stretching across five and a half hours, may appear superficially to exist in that kind of monumental isolation. Yet in practice this complex and stimulating work is embedded within a range of discursive contexts that actively run counter to any sense of a detached magnum opus.
Ian Pace, who gave the first complete performance at London's Royal Academy of Music in January 2001, supplies nearly 100 pages of commentary in the accompanying booklet, and a greatly extended version of his text is available online. Finnissy derived particular compositional impetus from the writings on photography of Walter Benjamin, Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag, and the 11 chapters of this substantial addition to piano literature offer illumination comparable to those essays.
Interpreted by Pace with superb dedication, Finnissy's musical montage mixes autobiography with philosophical reflection and critique, quotation, sharp observation and personal conviction. Commenting self-reflexively upon the language of the piano, this intricately allusive music issues a committed challenge to our own responsiveness and literacy.
This superb five-CD 'luxury' set of Finnissy's colossal piano work is the tenth release in Métier's series devoted to the works of this British composer. It's a major achievement and one that should appeal strongly to lovers of contemporary and piano music alike.
Lasting five and a half hours, The History of Photography in Sound is a unified piano cycle. In ways that may remind us of Cardew's The Great Learning it actively comments on the nature of music itself and its relationships with our perception of it.
'History' because of humans' predisposition to record and forget, and remember. 'Photography' because such recording aims to capture what is - as it is. 'Sound' in the first place because that's Finnissy's and our love. It's Photography in Sound also because metaphor, the standing in of one medium, idea, object, milieu for another is an indispensable tool with which to think.
There are various aspects of this project that will strike those unfamiliar with it as remarkable. That impression can, for some, arise from the fact that the eleven individual pieces are approachable despite their length; only a couple last much under half an hour; Kapitalistich Realisme well over. The very accessibility of the project as a whole is also remarkable.
It would be somewhat naïve to assume that most readers of this review will routinely, or regularly, devote over five hours to (repeated) listening of The History of Photography in Sound . It's thus to Ian Pace's great credit that he both respects and honours Finnissy's intentions. At the same time, for each moment that you devote to listening to it, he renders the music approachable. This can really only come from great familiarity and empathy with the music and indeed with Finnissy and his preoccupations and world. The experience is as fulfilling as it is stimulating.
Pace's own commitment and skills here go a long way towards making such fulfilment. Further, this enterprise may appear to be too abstract a premise for music of any compositional validity to emerge. But, no: Finnissy's superb grasp of what constitutes integrity in both listenership and listening ensures that doesn't happen. At the same time, it's the very intensity of the performer's and the listener's engagement with this astonishing work to which this set appeals; as well, one supposes, as the faith that each will be rewarded.
The appeal works. For Pace understands Finnissy, his world and his idiom extremely well. He writes, "For a period of over 20 years prior to writing both the programme notes for my CD of The History of Photography in Sound … Michael Finnissy's music has played a prominent role in my own life; its presence has sometimes been dangerously close to overwhelming, and my attempts to maintain my own distinct identity and priorities both when playing and writing about it have often been fraught, sometimes to the point of exasperation."
To help digest this you might want to speculate on such other single instrument works - admittedly nowhere near so substantial in length - as the Goldberg and Diabelli Variations. Perhaps Finnissy's conception isn't so alien after all. In some ways Bach and Beethoven were examining the limits of melody, rhythmic variation and invention. Pace again: "… Finnissy and Brian Ferneyhough … [are] two composers whose work operated on the boundaries of pianistic possibility, this very fact being tied into the nature of the musical experience."
The final remarkable notion must be that Pace can manage so successfully in this mammoth recording to present music in a holistic way: Finnissy's music - then his own interpretation of Finnissy's music … in that order. He is a fervent enthusiast, an unashamed advocate, Pace began to play the composer's piano output in the late 1990s, tackling its entirety in six long recitals in 1996 in London. A research fellowship from the Arts & Humanities Research Council made possible the series of recordings constituting the present CDs at Southampton University almost ten years later. Pace is also quick to acknowledge the involvement and support of many others in contemporary music, without whom the project would have been the poorer.
What you will hear as you steadily take in the music on these five CDs is music of great variety, penetration, breadth, wit and originality. First conceived in 1995, work on The History of Photography in Sound began in 1997. Pace speculates that there was maybe a connection between Finnissy hearing the totality of his piano music performed in the aforementioned recital series in 1996, and his desire to reflect on its boundaries in order to extend them. The eventual structure of the work grew from nine to eleven individual components, though always in the originally-planned five books.
In part the variety originates in the breadth of Finnissy's philosophical and musical conception. It's also a product of specific technical strictures - register, for instance. Each piece can be discerned to emphasise a different register. Le demon , for example: central registers, but ending in the bass; Awakening : central, expanding to the whole compass of keyboard in the centre; Muybridge-Munch : low treble, whole treble, central; Etched : high treble, treble, low bass, central, whole keyboard, and so on.
Similarly, dynamics are carefully constructed … both My parents' generation and Unsere Afrikareise have extended extremely quiet periods. Indeed the whole work begins that way. Although employing fewer textural extremes than he does in some of his other piano works, Finnissy again matches density, compression, monophony and so on to changing circumstance and underpinning requirement. The History of Photography in Sound flows from tonality to atonality. Flux is more central to Finnissy here than is either state.
Indeed, sounds beyond, but conveyed by, the piano are as central to the work as are the technicalities and particularities of pianism itself. Again, that is not to say that Finnissy attempts to 'paint' with the keyboard. Rather, as the work's very title suggests, he describes sound by appropriating it, capturing, it - as with the subject of a photograph. Quotation is one way; evocation another; reference, allusion, hint. Yet it's structure that also prevents the cycle from becoming pastiche - even very abstruse pastiche. Perhaps the fact that the enormous pianistic virtuosity that it calls for - and which Pace delivers admirably - is never gratuitous; always in the service of the music's inner logic.
It would be wrong to assume that The History of Photography in Sound is predicated exclusively on a concept. Rather, it illustrates, evokes, advocates, befriends music and sound, the paradigms of composition and the nature of listening. Yet in so doing, the cycle calls on sources such as Bach, Beethoven, Paganini, Berlioz, Alkan, Meyerbeer, Fe´licien David, Bruckner, Wagner, Busoni and Debussy, 1940s popular song, music hall songs, hymns from Britain and America, war songs from several countries, African-American spirituals, folk music from England, Ireland, Norway, Spain, Sardinia, Sicily, Crete, Tunisia, Ethiopia, the Transvaal, Native Americans and the Inuit. At the same time, it's by no means a collage or mélange. Pace understands and conveys, the extent to which Finnissy integrates his starting points with the work as composed.
The History of Photography in Sound is much more assiduously worked than that. A useful analogy would be the way in which the poetry of T.S. Eliot alludes to and draws on sources. In the end, however, it is its own work; more, perhaps, than can perhaps be claimed for that of Ezra Pound. After all, many of the references in The History of Photography in Sound remain oblique, frequently obscured almost completely. Nor does Pace have to work at all to dispel any notion that Finnissy is using music as a phenomenon, or as a vehicle for prolix or prosaic musings. He folds everything in on itself and - like a well kneaded form of dough - it's a delectable and palatable whole.
Only two of the components of the cycle are otherwise available on CD: North American Spirituals and Eadweard Muybridge . It should be obvious that students or admirers of Finnissy in particular, and those interested in contemporary music in general, will want to get this full cycle … and it's reasonably-priced. It's hard to see how a more suitable and sympathetic performer could be involved. The acoustic is sympathetic and neither adds nor takes away anything from our necessary concentration on the music.
The booklet that comes with the CD is substantial at nearly 100 pages of annotated text printed in a relatively small font. Yet there is more: a separate PDF, which is nearly 300 pages long (70 MB), is downloadable from the Divine Arts website.
This is a major release of a major project and one which should be investigated by as wide an audience as possible. Execution and presentation are as excellent as the music is compelling.
Michael Finnissy completed The History of Photography in Sound, his thematically interlinked cycle of 11 solo piano pieces, with a combined duration of over five hours when played back-to-back, in 2000. I was present at Ian Pace's 2001 premiere of the complete cycle and my thoughts 12 years on are that our brains would have seriously flipped had we known then what we know now about photography was about to be revolutionised by embedding cameras into mobile phones, and that manipulating images was but the right piece of computer software away.
But perhaps by 2001 I did have a camera on my phone? I honestly can't remember. And that's history as Finnissy understands the term. Events forgotten, muddled, misremembered, dredged up suddenly, for better and/or worse, as events impinge upon our consciousness. Photography as a retrospective score of our lives; but scores are open to interpretation and wilful manipulation.
And the rest is noise, music buckling under the weight of association, sounds swirling everywhere. Finnissy keeps his cultural aperture forever wide-angled, ideas and sounds papped ferociously. Ives began his Concord Sonata with a snapshot of the opening motif of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. Finnissy begins the first chapter, ‘Le démon de l'analogie', by reshooting that Beethoven/Ives sonic image from a radically detached angle: other lighting, different perspectives. And, believe me, if you could see Finnissy's score – chapters tagged with titles ranging from the plain-speaking such as ‘North American Spirituals', 'Seventeen Immortal Homosexual Poets', ‘Alkan- Paganini', ‘ Unsere Afrikareise' to the more poetic ‘Le réveil de l'intraitable réalité' and ‘Etched bright with sunlight', references to Bach, Sullivan, ragtime, Debussy, Berlioz, Beethoven, Meyerbeer and Offenbach et al written between the staves, his sources all named and framed - you'd grasp the scope of the enterprise.
But unless you chose to seek the scores out, HoPiS must ultimately stand up as a compositional object, a thing designed to make sound. Ian Pace is Finnissy's David Bailey, each note shaded to perfection, structures translucently and sharply lit, defining sonic images of our time. In ‘North American Spirituals', references to Tippett leap out like online pop-ups. But ‘Unsere Afrikareise' fesses up that dealing with ‘trophies' from indigenous African music is a problem for any Western composer. Your photograph of your Auntie Pat is never going to mean as much to me as my photograph of my Auntie Pat. Made as powerfully by environment and emotional context as by pianos and cameras, sounds and images can never be neutral.
Clocking in at well over three hundred minutes in duration, Michael Finnissy's eleven-movement cycle for solo piano The History of Photography in Sound (composed 1997-2000) is a gargantuan effort for both composer and performer. Ian Pace is the foremost advocate for and interpreter of Finnissy's piano music – over the past two decades, he has performed all of it and is presently writing a monograph about the composer. One cannot imagine a more heartfelt nor technically skilful performance of this work.
From a composer with a more directly programmatic bent, a work titled “North American Spirituals,” as is this piece's third movement, would sound very different. But Finnissy's musical language revels in a complex interplay of far flung reference points, ample virtuosity, and a penchant for pungent, dense harmonies and a coruscating rhythmic grid. Thus, musical program can sometimes be integrated in earnest or with a measure of critical distance – oftentimes, both aspects of dealing with narrative are at least somewhat present. The past, especially past music, can sometimes seem to be a far-off memory distantly evoked; it can also seem to be lampooned in over-the-top fashion.
Finnissy has been called a “New Complexity” composer, and late modernism is merely one strain of his work. While Ives's sense of collage and quotation certainly is a touchstone, so too are Scriabin, Schoenberg, Liszt, folksong, pop standards, and, yes, Ferneyhough. Also present are a variety of recurring themes – homosexuality, freedom, violence, sensuality, Christianity, community, literature, poetics – the list goes on.
The question many listeners inevitably will have, particularly with the prospect of 5 ½ hours of Finnissy's music ahead, is how to make heads or tails of an overarching message or narrative: it would seem to elude one's grasp. And that's because, as far as this writer can tell, there isn't a single idée fixe to be had: that's not the reason for this cycle's existence. We may like to think that a monumental and cyclic composition must have a single thread for us to wend our way through it – even the twists and turns of the Ring Cycle have a mythological framework for us (tenuously) to grip. Pace has written often of Finnissy's generous spirit, and if there is a through line to be found in The History of Photography in Sound, it is that spirit of generosity bestowing upon us all the many musical ideas Finnissy has to offer: and that's quite a lot. So, don't worry about “getting it” on first hearing: that's not the point either. Instead, revel; wallow even, in the embarrassment of riches and abundant virtuosity on display here. Then, listen again, gradually peeling away successive layers to find your favorite bits.
Caution: The History of Photography in Sound is a heavy dose for a single sitting, much like watching a season of Breaking Bad in a single weekend: binge at your own risk! Still, this is a boxed set that is wholeheartedly recommended.
Christian B. Carey
Pianist Ian Pace has recorded Michael Finnissy's epic The History of Photography in Sound in a superb interpretation on the Métier label. In the admirably comprehensive sleeve notes for the new release Ian Pace quotes Susan Sontag as saying:
“To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge - and, therefore, like power... Photographed images do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it, miniatures of reality that anyone can make or acquire.”
Elsewhere in his notes Ian Pace describes how:
“Finnissy's work investigates quite exhaustively the possibility of removing something from a unique existence in a particular context; his musical materials become flexible 'texts' which assume different meanings depending on the circumstances in which they are presented.”
The History of Photography in Sound's preoccupation with appropriation and changed contexts resonates with its composer's "who the hell cares" attitude towards friends, followers and commercial success. While immersed in Ian Pace's persuasive advocacy of Michael Finnissy's pioneering but always human music I was reminded of these thoughts from new media maven Jason Calacanis:
“We're harvesting our lives and putting them online. We're addicted to gaining followers and friends ... and reading comments we get in return. As we look for validation and our daily 15 minutes of fame, we do so at the cost of our humanity”.
Finnissy's huge and nigh impenetrable opus suggests that music may comment only upon itself. Despite the Romantic age's after-effects, music is just notes – intent and understanding are transient, perhaps irrelevant. A photograph purports to be a fixed moment in time, whereas Errol Morris' recent essays explain that some photos are anything but factual. Performed music spans time. Upon reflection, one realizes how strange it is that we routinely accept something written days, months or years ago as timely. In other words, attend to Finnissy's gigantic opus (49:11 + 59:32 + 74:18 + 67:42 + 76:18) with an open mind.
To best get into the work start at the beginning. Le démon de l'analogie (28:29) and Le réveil de l'intraitable réalité (20:39) function as a prelude. Both titles derive from writings by Roland Barthes. Movements titled in English, French, Flemish, etc., are just one of the methods Finnissy employs to create an air of impenetrability. Le démon 's half-hour is unexpectedly plain. Le réveil winds up a bit more, just barely. The pace is slowed and the ears should be open. There are short, tightly controlled phrases or gestures to which Pace provides value.
The meat of the work starts with North American Spirituals (23:41), a mammoth ramble through folk tunes and their impressions. There are moments when the music stops and prompts uncertain glances at the player. Complexity gears up in My parents' generation thought War meant something (35:49).
Entering the third disc with Alkan-Paganini (13:37), Seventeen Immortal Homosexual Poets (34:11) and Eadweard Muybridge-Edvard Munch (26:29), we are in the thick of complex, spluttering difficulty. This is where Pace's 90-plus-page essay helps, if only to suggest the signs we should be looking for. I find it agreeable to consider the process much like watching someone flip through an album: It unites photography with the suggestion that Pace is merely perusing pages of an anthology. Some of Finnissy's techniques (inversions, reversals) suggest browsing, especially as pages may be read backwards or upside down, with notes printed on the other side perhaps bleeding through.
The biggest chapter, the 67:42 Kapitalistisch Realisme (met Sizilianische Männerakte en Bachsche Nachdichtungen) , occupies the fourth disc's entirety. Despite its unwieldy size, it is not difficult to navigate. From the outset we anticipate that Finnissy will appropriate Beethoven. The opening Fate gesture recalls the Fifth as well as Ives.
Similarly, Wachtend op de volgende uitbarsting van repressie en censuur (17:01), halting at first, makes sense as a reflection, with its recurring fade-in, fade-out or crescendo-diminuendo from nothing, sounding a bit like someone fussing with the volume when in fact Pace amplifies gestures only to suddenly back away. Here too the analogy with album browsing seems appropriate.
The sources and methods of Unsere Afrikareise (30:35) aren't markedly different from the North American visit. The 11th and final movement, Etched bright with sunlight (28:40), opens with glittering activity. The movement and entire cycle end without even a modest flourish; nearly half an hour of complex activity suddenly breaks off.
Pace's longer 291-page illustrated book on the opus can be downloaded here. His insight and devotion serve to make the work as much his own as Finnissy's.
Grant Chu Covell
Der 1946 geborene Michael Finnissy ist ein Komponist, der sich als Vertreter der ‚new complexity‘ bewusst gegen einfache Einordnungen sperrt, der durch die stark intellektuelle Ausprägung seiner Musik andererseits auch nicht selten der schriftlichen Erläuterung bedarf. So fällt bei der hier vorliegenden Produktion zuallererst in sehr umfangreiches Booklet (100 Seiten!, alle auf Englisch) auf, in dem auf Seite 4 vermerkt ist, dass eine stark erweiterte Fassung der Texte auf der Website des Labels métier zu finden ist (das seit langem Finnissys Schaffen pflegt). Dennoch erfährt man über den Komponisten Finnissy, sein persönliches Leben jenseits der beruflichen Laufbahn (aus dem er weitgehend ein großes Geheimnis zu machen bestrebt ist), auf all diesen Seiten allenthalben indirekt etwas.
Dabei scheint es bei einem derart bekenntnishaften Werk wie der hier vorgelegten fünfeinviertelstündigen 'History of Photography in Sound' (1995-2002) mehr als geboten, auch den Menschen Finnissy vorzustellen. Der Pianist Ian Pace, der sich seit mehr als zwanzig Jahren mit Finnissys Musik auseinandersetzt, bietet im Booklet, trotz des Bemühens, intellektuell umfassend in die Komposition einzuführen, durchaus eine subjektive Perspektive, die den uninformierten Leser mit diversen zentralen Fragen alleine lässt. Da wäre zunächst einmal die Frage nach dem Titel der Komposition: Hier geht es keineswegs um eine (auch nur übertragen zu verstehende) musikalische Umsetzung einer Geschichte der Fotografie – die merkwürdigerweise im gesamten Booklet nur sehr punktuell erwähnt wird (meines Erachtens wäre der Titel des Gesamtwerkes schlüssiger, hätte Finnissy den indefiniten Artikel ‚A‘ durch das subjektive ‚My‘ genutzt). Vielmehr geht es um Aspekte der ästhetischen Wertung von Fotografie als reproduzierbares, die Aura des Einzelnen Reduzierenden oder Zerbrechenden (was jeder Fotografiehistoriker zumindest diskutieren würde, Zeiten der Digitalfotografie vielleicht ausgenommen, die aber wiederum durchaus andere, künstlerisch ebenfalls wertvolle Komponenten aufbieten kann).
So problematisch Finnissys Perspektive auf die Welt für manchen Leser im allgemeinen scheinen kann, noch problematischer wird sie, weil viele der Titel der elf Einzelstücke der Komposition unerläutert bleiben. Was soll man sich unter 'Kapitalistich Realisme (met Sizilianische Männerakte en Bachsche Nachdichtungen)' vorstellen, unter 'Unsere Afrikareise' oder 'Wachtend op de volgende uitbarsting van repressie en censuur'? Die ersten beiden Stücke bauen zum Teil auf philosophische Gedanken Roland Barthes‘ auf.
Dieser kurze rein äußerliche Abriss zeigt auch bereits die Gesamtproblematik der Komposition auf: Durch die ideologische oder bekenntnishafte Überfrachtung (die aber nicht durch schlüssige Erläuterungen präzisiert wird) wird eine Intellektualisierung der Komposition vorgespiegelt, die dem Werk nicht nur nicht gut tut, sondern das Verständnis eher beeinträchtigt. Bewusst hatte Kaikhosru Sorabji bei vergleichbaren Kompositionen auf eine metamusikalische Überlagerung weitgehend verzichtet, um beispielsweise das Strukturelle stärker im Vordergrund stehen zu haben. Die Ausführungen von Ian Pace befassen sich fast ausschließlich mit den anzutreffenden kompositionstechnischen Makro- und Mikroebenen, die vom Komponisten vorgegebenen programmatischen Implikationen bleiben weitgehend unerläutert. Finnissys eigene Ausführungen zu der Komposition werden nur in kleinsten Auszügen wiedergegeben.
Nun aber zur Musik selbst, die in tadelloser Aufnahmetechnik vorgestellt wird (die Aufnahme erfolgte zwischen Juni 2004 und Februar 2006 an der Universität Southampton, die Veröffentlichung wurde u.a. durch die City University London unterstützt). Finnissy ist ein in den Kreisen der Neuen Musik hochrenommierter Vertreter, und rein musikalisch ist seine Musik hochinteressant. Aus der nach-Schönberg‘schen Musik entwickelte Techniken hat er um Aspekte der Stille erweitert. Zentrale Formstrukturen sind lineare, akkordische und gestische, zentrale Techniken Montage, Umkehrung, Fragmentierung (häufig von Material, das anderen Kompositionen unterschiedlichster Art entnommen ist, vom populären Lied und Bach-Chorälen über den Bass einer Mozart-Komposition bis hin zu Alkan-Fugen, dem nicht ausgeführten zweiten Klavierkonzert Edvard Griegs, Berlioz‘ 'Roméo et Juliette', Debussys 'Berceuse héroïque' oder verschiedenen Werken von Beethoven) und Kombination. Nun könnte man diese Strukturen und Techniken sowie Finnissys und Paces Ausführungen zu diesen bis weit in die Vergangenheit zurückleiten und sagen, dass kaum einer der Klänge oder Klangkonzepte, die in 'The History of Photography in Sound' Verwendung finden, nicht auch schon zuvor häufig genutzt wurde, Finnissys Musik damit zwar komplex, aber im Grunde nicht wirklich modern zu nennen ist.
Die elf 'The History' konstituierenden Stücke haben Einzellängen zwischen 13 und 68 Minuten; die meisten haben Längen von rund zwanzig bis 35 Minuten. Die Struktur dieser Einzelstücke ist teilweise ausgesprochen schwer zu durchschauen, doch gibt es immer wieder Momente großer Eindringlichkeit und Tiefe; von besonderer Delikatesse sind u.a. 'Le réveil de l‘intraitable réalité', der Beginn von 'Eadweard Muybridge – Edvard Munch', die ersten zwei Drittel von 'Wachtend op de volgende uitbarsting van repressie en censuur' sowie der Beginn von 'Unsere Afrikareise'. In einem Abschnitt von 'North American Spirituals' ehrt Finnissy Henry Cowell, in einem anderen Conlon Nancarrow.
Von besonderer musikalischer Dichte und persönlicher Bekenntnishaftigkeit sind drei der fünf innersten Stücke der Komposition, 'My parents‘ generation thought War meant something' (mit zahlreichen Scheinkadenzen durchbrochen), 'Seventeen Immortal Homosexual Poets' und 'Kapitalistich Realisme' (letzteres der längste Satz der Komposition) – unterbrochen durch zwei ‚künstlerisch inspirierte‘ Sätze 'Alkan-Paganini' und 'Eadweard Muybridge – Edvard Munch'. In Muybridge haben wir nun endlich einmal einen Fotografen (auch Munch war Besitzer einer Kamera), und in 'My parents‘ generation' ist eine Fotografie von Finnissys Mutter in Kindesjahren von großer Bedeutung. Mit seiner Komplexität der Klangstrukturen ist 'Seventeen Immortal Homosexual Poets' (von denen im deutschsprachigen Sprachraum diverse völlig der Vergessenheit anheimgefallen sind, die Finnissy aber durch das 'Penguin Book of Homosexual Verse' kennt; andere in Deutschland berühmte homosexuelle Dichter wie August von Platen oder John Henry Mackay fehlen bei Finnissy) eindeutig der Kern der Komposition.
Pace liebt hörbar die Musik und kennt sie intensiv; selbst eher banale Akkordballungen oder komplexe, aber auch bei Kindergeklimper ablauschbare Rhythmen versucht er logisch in die Gesamtstruktur zu integrieren. Es muss diskutiert werden dürfen, ob Finnissys Komposition von durchgängig gleicher Qualität ist, auf jeden Fall spannt er eine ganz eigene Welt auf, in die man ihm folgen mag oder auch nicht.
Michael Finnissy's music has been appearing on the Métier label for some time now. Piano Concertos was also performed by Ian Pace. Lost Lands and The Church [sic - it's 'This Church'] are also among a few of the titles which have appeared. To gain a little of the flavour of The History of Photography in Sound there is a Seen and Heard report here of its performance in 2001. The term ‘long awaited' applied to this nicely presented release seems entirely applicable.
The online blurb on the Métier site also suggests that this is “a very accessible piece”, but even for someone like me with a lifetime's experience of listening to and performing contemporary music, I doubt the word “accessible” would be the first to spring to mind.
What is The History of Photography in Sound ?
This is hard to sum up, even while attempting to find answers from the chunky 100 page booklet. “The title remains enigmatic and polysemic”, we are told, and hope begins to wither. If we can't even clarify the title where do we even start with the music? There are extensive notes by pianist Ian Pace, and information about the gestation of the work and challenges in its performance is useful and interesting. The notes go into very detailed analysis and this is not the place to attempt any kind of synopsis. It should suffice to say that there is a great deal going on here, though it will inevitably take numerous listening sessions to get to grips with the many references and their manifestations in Finnissy's music.
So, are we up for a challenge?
I will admit to finding this review one of the more daunting prospects I've faced in many years. I've always liked the idea of large-scale works for solo instruments, and piano works from the likes of Messiaen, Rzewski and Stevenson count among some of my favourites. The reality when it comes to well-known examples such as Sorabji's Opus Clavicembalisticum is however in my case more often than not one of regret. I regret raising my expectations, and embarking on inhabiting a world of expression which demands respect and admiration both in terms of creation and performance. Actually it results in friction-burns; rubbing against something which communicates vast intellect and incredible achievements, but is actually pretty horrible to have to listen to for a very long time.
Such feelings are entirely subjective. I will take my rap on the knuckles from everyone out there who will disagree with me and regard me as a cultural barbarian. The admission I have to make from the outset is that, even after numerous listening sessions and a good deal of inner searching, I don't like this piece or set of pieces.
The History of Photography in Sound is an appealing title and drew me in, but much of the actual music works on my soul like water droplets bouncing off something super hydrophobic. It seems I have The History of Photography in Sound- phobia.
Frank Zappa once said, “Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible.”With this I am in total agreement. Michael Finnissy's scores are challenging to the eye let alone to the technique of the aspirant performer. Deviation from the norm is very much the order of the day if your norm is Bach, Mozart and the younger Beethoven. Ian Pace's remarkable, superhuman skill in getting around the notes of these pieces and the stamina required to perform work of such range and duration is phenomenal. Listening again to the strangeness, deliberately inexpressive open intervals and angular lines of Le demon de l'analogie I can't escape imagery of a musician gone mad: one who has lost his way entirely, and who seeks but cannot find comfort in the sound of the piano and its infinite cosmos of note-combinations, any note-combinations. Moments of clarity and quasi-beauty occur as if by accident, as do outbursts of frustration. Simple naivety rubs shoulders with filigrees of intense sophistication, structure with a sense of random chaos. Thoughts scatter as soon as opportunities for logic are offered, and sickness reigns, and goes on... and on… and on… for hours… and hours.
‘Deviation from the norm' is relative, and if your line of appreciation runs from, say, Charles Ives through Henry Cowell to perhaps someone like Iannis Xenakis or Brian Ferneyhough then the world of Michael Finnissy will be nothing hugely out of the ordinary. I have no particular difficulty with music of any specific genre, but The History of Photography in Sound leaves me with the impression of a work of art preserved and held up for its perceived cultural significance rather than something which delivers a moving legacy of the times in which it was written or the immutable will of the composer to deliver a message of incredible power and emotional impact. Another composer quote, this time from Detlev Glanert, says that music “must tell you something about your life and something about what you are … If it does not, it will die.” The huge booklet for The History of Photography in Sound tells us a great deal about what we are being told, why and how. While I am a fan of analysis and a staunch enemy of anti-intellectual standpoints, I am also in this age of music streaming and downloads a sceptic of compositions which demand volumes of explanatory text - frequently absent in these forms of listening - for the delivery of a rounded appreciation of their content. The background and literature of The History of Photography in Sound gives us all plenty to get our intellectual and imaginative teeth into, but the music remains what it is - seemingly endless reams of relentless meandering “till the heart is sick and the brain benumbed, As well as the weary hand.”
There are differences between the movements. Le demon de l'analogie put me in a bad mood at the outset, but the expressive time-tripping world created in aspects of My parents' generation thought War meant something make it one of the more involving pieces. Granitic darkness turn some of the Seventeen Immortal Homosexual Poets into impressively powerful figures in the earliest of the eleven pieces to be composed. The sparing lines and sustained contrasting shape of Eadweard Muybridge - Edvard Munch is an interesting juxtaposition identified with shifting perspectives and intriguing vanishing points.
Occupying a single disc, Kapitalistisch Realisme would be an incredible statement in its own right, let alone just one part of an entire cycle. This is summed up as “three large sections connected by two interludes [with] symphonic dimensions and grandiosity of conception” with heroic threads of Beethoven, Bach and Busoni throughout. More introverted but also troubled spheres are developed in Wachtend op de volgende uitbarsting van repressie en censuur , which translates as ‘waiting for the next outburst of repression and censorship'. Sublime beauty of sound introduces Unsere Aftikareise or ‘Our African Journey', and this filtering of African and other folk music for a time creates a special atmosphere. Etched Bright with Sunlight is quite a clearly defined finale kicked off with dense and driving patterns, the brightness of light shimmering through the upper range of the piano.
With excellent sound and Ian Pace's remarkable playing, this work is something which demands our attention and admiration. I've tried, but aside from the few movements and passages singled out I'm afraid this is the kind of thing which these days would have me straining to escape the concert hall. My intention is in no way to dismiss The History of Photography in Sound as anything less than an artistic marvel. I would never insist that music should of necessity be pleasurable or entertaining, or that it should impart some kind of spiritual experience, or indeed that it should have any ‘function' at all as such. Music can take itself too seriously but there is always a place for seriousness, and if there is one thing I have no doubts about it is Finnissy's absolute sincerity. I can fully appreciate that his meticulous but intensely abstract music goes far beyond the vapid and the ephemeral. My suspicion however is that it bends so far in the opposite direction that it almost reaches full circle, perhaps approaching the disposability of acute aversion in a strange opposite circle which eats its own tail in something akin to the phenomenon of elevator music. Alas, I've already blown all my chances of rapprochement with supporters for this work but I'm too old to care, and meekly await the inevitable tirades about my crass ignorance. I sincerely hope and trust that the great Mr Finnissy is also beyond caring what anyone says about his music. I raise a glass to his prolific and uncompromisingly gloriously modernist creativity, but fear my own digestion has been shattered in the attempt to appreciate The History of Photography in Sound . You must try for yourself and make up your own mind.