CD reviews: Finnissy and Susman

[With apologies: these have been sitting in my drafts folder for a long time.]

Darragh Morgan and Mary Dullea’s recording of music for music for violin and piano by Michael Finnissy is another addition to Métier’s long-running Finnissy series. Six pieces are featured, from the 30-second Jive to the 21-minute Violin Sonata (written for Morgan in 2007). Apart from Mississippi Hornpipes of 1982, all the pieces were composed in the 00s. This is the complete works for violin and piano (so solo violin works like All the trees they are so high (1977), or Ének (1990) aren’t included here), and in Amphithéâtre des Sciences Mortes and Molly House it includes pieces for flexible or alternative forces. On three tracks Finnissy himself also plays as a second keyboardist.

In his sleevenote, Morgan describes Mississippi Hornpipes as ‘notoriously difficult’, and its technical challenges are obvious to hear. Finnissy describes it as a ‘cut-up’ of American fiddle tunes, and it audibly prefigures his approach in later, longer works such as Folklore and North American Spirituals (indeed, lots of The History of Photography in Sound). The difficulties aren’t limited to getting through the notes though; the multilayered characteristics of each different folk transcription have to be brought out too – in both their unity and their diversity. Morgan and Dullea do a superb job with razor-sharp articulation and a watchful ear against needlessly highlighting the tunes when they do peep through.

The Violin Sonata is a representative of what I think is a relatively recent development in Finnissy’s music (maybe I’m wrong?) of building not so much from a transcription, or even transdialection of an existing (folk or art) source, but extrapolating outwards from it. So Finnissy’s piece exists in a sort of horizontal relationship to its predecessor, rather than a vertical one (although in truth both are diagonal to an extent). The Grieg Quintettsatz (also released on Métier) comes most directly to mind as a comparison. I like it anyway. It has that surreal, hallucinatory quality of much of Finnissy’s music, in which reality is glimpsed through a rain-soaked windscreen. Métier have released some landmark recordings of Finnissy’s music in the past, and this is a worthy addition.

OCTET‘s debut album, released on belarca last June, is a portrait of music by its artistic director, William Susman. There’s an obvious debt to Glassworks-era Philip Glass, but the music is deliciously more mellifluous than that; the first movement of Camille has a Stereolab-like groove, Even in the Dark has a post-midnight languor. Piano Concerto doesn’t do much for me as a concerto, but it has other good ideas to make up for it. The line-up of OCTET is basically stripped-down big band, and the timbres of sax, trumpet, trombone, and bass, as well as a drum kit playing typical drum patterns, do a lot of work in defining the music’s particular character. An album that falls between several stools – classical minimalism, cool jazz, avant pop – but makes a comfortable place to sit nevertheless.

Review: Liza Lim: Tree of Codes

My review of Tree of Codes is now available on the Limelight website. I managed not to credit Massimo Furlan as the designer, and am happy to rectify that here. The way the stage looks and works – for both music and drama – is an essential part of what made this piece a success.

The stage is set like a laboratory. Musicians, dressed in white coats and various items of personal protective equipment, circulate among tables and workstations on which sit strange objects – a giant bird’s head; a mask made up of half a dozen faces; and unfamiliar-looking musical instruments. A tramp appears to be conducting. Alongside the live music are the sounds of birdsong and motorbikes. Liza Lim’s fourth opera, which has just finished a highly successful premiere run in Cologne, begins as an overwhelming, disorienting and even baffling experience. Yet by its end one’s lasting impression is of the coherence that gradually emerges and is, ultimately, sustained over 90 complex, multilayered minutes.

You can read the full review here.

Quick review: Chaya Czernowin at the Royal College of Music

It has been an unusually busy week here – while I was in Cologne for Tree of Codes, Liz has been in the middle of producing a four-night run (sold out!) of short plays at the Hope Theatre – but I wanted to say a few quick words about Chaya Czernowin’s recent visit to the RCM before too much time passed.

Chaya was in London for four days, during which time she gave some composition classes, presented a seminar on her work (which I helped chair), and rehearsed two concerts of her work by RCM students, one of chamber pieces (Six miniatures and a simultaneous songAdiantum Capillus-Veneris, and Anea Crystal: Seed I) and one orchestra/large ensemble (Wintersong IV: Wounds/Mistletoe, Slow Summer Stay II: Lakes, At the fringe of our gaze, White Wind Waiting).

Overall, it was a great success, and a very happy few days to have taken part in. The composition students I saw appeared attentive and inspired, and although only about a third(!) took up the offer of a free tutorial from one of the world’s leading teachers, I understand that those that did were very keen for more.

Of the two concerts, the orchestral one on Saturday evening was the stronger. The players in Friday’s chamber concert did well with with very challenging, and highly exposing music – in particular Sarah Hayashi in the solo vocal Adiantum Capillus-Veneris, and the string quartet of Henry Chandler, Clarice Rarity, Johan Hoeglind and Timothée Botbol in Anea Crystal – but the larger concert was the real stunner. The only disappointment was that more people were not there to see it. Attendance was not bad, but beyond RCM students and associates I spotted surprisingly few of the usual new music crowd, and fewer still of a wider listenership.

Well, if you weren’t there you missed a treat. Ian Pace, who I happened to be sitting alongside, reckoned it one of the best concerts he’d heard in a long time. For me, it began well and just got better. Wintersong IV and Slow Summer Stay II both effectively showed off Czernowin’s strikingly physical musical language, her use of space and unusual instrumental combinations, as well as her ability to construct entirely original and unexpected forms.

But it was with the two orchestral pieces in the second half that things really took off. At the fringe of our gaze was written for the young performers of Daniel Barenboim’s East West Divan Orchestra, and was ideally suited to the players of the RCM. Aware of the aesthetic demands her music can make on players who may not be used to it, Czernowin has composed into the work a gradual move from the familiar (harmony, polyphony, melody) into the strange. When the opening (‘familiar’) material returns in the middle of the piece, it now feels totally estranged, both listeners and players having been taken into Czernowin’s world.

It seemed to be a good preparation for the quasi-guitar concerto, White Wind Waiting. This is a strange piece, perhaps somewhat transitional, a step along the path to the radically stripped-down style of the subsequent HIDDEN for string quartet and electronics (which can be heard in Boston this Friday). It certainly isn’t easy to realise: although the guitar is the soloist, it does very little that is concerto-like; and the work’s structure as two panels of increasingly empty space does not provide for half-committed note bashing. Fortunately, the RCM orchestra, conducted by Johannes Harneit (and with Jonatan Bougt as soloist) were more than up to the job. This was a stunning, and wholly convincing performance of a difficult piece. I knew a recording of it a little in advance, but this rendition completely sold me on the music’s delicate and deeply moving poetry of absence. Congratulations to William Mival, Jonathan Cole and everyone else at the RCM for putting the event together. Here’s to more!

In Cologne Cathedral


I arrived at Cologne Cathedral as the midday office was coming to an end. A pair of priests in red cassocks stood at the head of the nave, arms folded, like bouncers, only allowing through those who wanted to join the service. The brief ceremony ended with a voluntary from the organ, whose pipes are contained in a cabinet suspended improbably high up one side of the nave. I didn’t recognise the composer; I’m guessing mid-century, but it may even have been improvised. The music began quietly with vox celeste and grew from there. The sound – sinuous, slow polyphony and rich extended-tonal harmonies, darker than Messiaen’s sweet octatonicism – filled the building, which by the end positively rang like a huge stone bell.


I thought of Stockhausen, 20-something, sitting in this space, listening to music something like this (the modern nave organ wasn’t built then), dreaming of Gesang der Jünglinge. The resonance of the cathedral – full, massive – did things to the music’s space and time that surely must have inspired the swoops and swirls of GesangKontakte and all the rest.

Czernowin residency at the Royal College of Music


Some time ago, I complained on this site that Chaya Czernowin was badly under-represented in the UK. Well, two years later that ship may be turning as the RCM hosts this week the first UK retrospective of her work.

Events centre on two concerts this Friday and Saturday: chamber works early on Friday evening, and larger works on Saturday (including the wonderful and surprising sort-of guitar concerto White Wind Waiting). Czernowin will also be in conversation with the RCM’s William Mival before the Saturday concert.

For myself, I’m delighted to be hosting an extended conversation-cum-lecture with Chaya on Wednesday. Unfortunately I think it is open to students only, otherwise I would invite you all to come.

When Helmut Lachenmann came to the RCM in 2006, it was a transformative moment for his reputation in the UK, and perhaps even for the trajectory of composition in this country. I’m not saying this week will have the same impact, but you probably want to have a look just in case.

Birthday playlist for Finnissy at 70


Few living composers have an output as large and as diverse as Michael Finnissy does. On the occasion of his 70th birthday, I’ve tried to reflect that in a little playlist, along with some brief thoughts on what I think makes his music special.

Red Earth

Those older than me who were at the BBC Proms premiere of Red Earth in 1988 (until this year one of only two Finnissy performances at the Proms) remember it as something special: a real statement piece.

The History of Photography in Sound, III: North American Spirituals

For all its diversity, Finnissy’s output is dominated by his piano music, and that by five major cycles: English Country-TunesVerdi TranscriptionsGershwin ArrangementsFolklore, and The History of Photography in Sound. One is tempted to describe the last of these, at five hours in length, as Finnissy’s magnum opus, and it draws together many of the threads that run throughout his work – particularly modes of musical representation, the role of class in Western art music, the value and function of transcription, and the meaning of folk music. North American Spirituals, the third part (of eleven) is possibly the cycle’s most accessible entry point.


WAM: the tongue-in-cheek musicologists’ abbreviation for Western art music can likewise stand, as it does here, for Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Composed of hundreds of scraps and micro-parodies of Mozart, Finnissy forces us to confront our relationship to music 200 years old, and what we are doing when we listen to it.

Gershwin Arrangements: They can’t take that away from me

For all his voracious ingestion of folk and historical classical musics, there is very little pop in Finnissy. The two sets of Gershwin arrangements might count as an exception, but even then they are as much historical as anything. Practices of transcription and arrangement run throughout Finnissy’s work, but always taking a liberal approach. Extensive re-harmonizations, elaborations of the melody, occasional departures, and the addition of new material are all common. Other transcriptions may take even more radical routes. The sources for the Gershwin Arrangements are identifiable enough, and strongly enough characterized in themselves, to make clear the sorts of things that are going on, and in They can’t take that away from me Finnissy applies a relatively light touch.


It was while studying at the Royal College of Music in the 1960s that Finnissy apparently planned that his future output would be dedicated to assembling a complete and personalized history of world music. He began writing works that explicitly engaged with national folk musics in the early 1980s (not just the usual European styles, but also Korean, Azeri, Australian Aboriginal, etc), many of them written for one or two instruments. Dilok for oboe and percussion is one of a number of Finnissy’s oboe works (including Âwâz-e Niyâz) to be based on Persian music. It also showcases Finnissy’s essentially lyrical approach to instrumental writing.

Grieg: Quintettsatz

Grieg features more than once in Finnissy’s personalized history – the Quintettsatz is an accompaniment to Finnissy’s completion of Grieg’s unfinished Piano Quintet; he appears again, in his guise as a folk music arranger, in the first part of Folklore. The Quintettsatz takes Grieg as its starting point, but filters him extensively through Finnissy’s own language, a juxtaposition that produces one of his most touchingly affective works.

This Church: Part 2: On Christmas day, 1643, we went to Shoareham

For all the virtuoso demands his music frequently makes, Finnissy’s contribution to amateur and community music making is often overlooked. This Church was composed for a one-off performance, celebrating the 900th anniversary of the church of St Mary de Haura, in Sussex. Its text is a collage documenting and narrating the church’s history and its place in the community of New Shoreham since the 3rd century, and in the manner of Britten or Davies Finnissy sets amateur performers – bell ringers, church choir, speakers – alongside professionals to create a unique and quite extraordinary work.


Finnissy is unusual among avant-garde composers, again, in having converted to Christianity. Yet this hasn’t softened his touch: one of the most appealing aspects of his personality and his music is the priority it gives to humanity – and humanness – over ideology of any kind, and this includes religion. Nevertheless, works like Palm-Sunday, a refraction of centuries of sacred choral music as well as a personal expression of faith, have a sumptuous beauty of their own. EXAUDI, who sing here, are among a growing group of Finnissy performers – Ian Pace, Christopher Redgate, and the Kreutzer Quartet are others – dedicated to the very bet performances of his music.

Folklore: II

This is the first Finnissy piece I remember hearing. Certainly the first that made an impression on me. I was probably in my late teens. Coming to it with expectations based (vaguely, and inaccurately) on associations with other composers whose music I knew better by then – Boulez, Stockhausen, Ferneyhough, Birtwistle – its glittering beginning, dewlike, curving in sunlight, blew me away. That opening, I know now, is based on Scottish highland bagpiping, in particular the ornament known as a Hinbare. As the piece progresses, Finnissy adds elements from Romanian folk tunes, a short homage to Christian Wolff, hints of the “Deep River” spiritual (via Michael Tippett), Chinese folk music (via Cornelius Cardew), and one tune from Finnissy’s home county of Sussex, “Let him answer yes or no”. It’s an extraordinary amalgam, whose layers one could unpick eternally, and an example of some of what I find absolutely best in Finnissy’s music.

Birthday Piece for Michael Finnissy

Perhaps nothing conveys the pan-optical vision of Finnissy’s music than the affection in which he is held by other composers, particularly in Britain, and in which he holds them. Crane and Finnissy make an unlikely pairing, coming from seemingly opposite ends of the aesthetic spectrum but meeting at a point that if you can make it out tells you a lot about what contemporary music really is. Crane’s birthday piece was in fact written for Finnissy’s 50th; here it is, played by Finnissy himself as he returns the tribute.

On good narrators

Here’s a passage from Anne Lamott’s Bird by bird: Some instructions on writing and life.

Having a likable narrator is like having a great friend whose company you love, whose mind you love to pick, whose running commentary totally holds your attention, who makes you laugh out loud, whose lines you always want to steal. When you have a friend like this, she can say, “Hey, I’ve got to drive up to the dump in Petaluma – wanna come along?” and you honestly can’t think of anything else in the world you’d rather do. By the same token, a boring or annoying person can offer to buy you an expensive dinner, followed by tickets to a great show, and in all honesty you’d rather stay home and watch the aspic set.

I don’t know of a better explanation of why good writing – not good subject matter – really matters if you’re trying to sell something. That includes new music.