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  • Robert I. X. Jones

Pious Snub Sublime

Updated: Mar 22, 2021


On one occasion, over a quarter of a century ago, at a party of highly intelligent, liberal, literary young people - largely, like me, white and heterosexual - I caused some hilarity by referring to Samuel R. Delany, whose fascinating memoir The Motion of Light in Water I was urging someone to read, as "a black, gay science-fiction writer". What was evidently found funny in my (admittedly incomplete) description was the implied crescendo of marginalization. If you must be black, gay and write, then why not crown your obscurity (at lest as far as mainstream literary culture is concerned) by confining yourself to the ghetto of a largely maligned genre as well? Indeed, I have found over the years that, for all the obvious "literariness" and contemporary "relevance" of his work, Delany's name sparks little recognition with anyone - straight, gay, black, or white - outside the community of self-identifying SF readers.

Similar things might be said about Michael Finnissy - like Delany, a highly politicized gay man - who has for over more than four decades been one of the most prodigiously gifted, original, challenging and meaningfully productive artistic figures in Britain. He, too, operates within a creative ghetto that ensures he is little chattered about by the classes. Check out his Wikipedia page - all seven sentences of it - to get a sense of how invisible he is to the culture at large. Only if you click on the link to a partial list of his works might you begin to be astonished.

Finnissy is a composer, pianist, and teacher. Though long respected by peers and pupils, there has always been something edgy and provocative about his position, even within the small, generally supportive world of contemporary classical music. Not infrequently he is categorized as representative of a British "New Complexity" trend that became identifiable in the 1980s and would also embrace the likes of Brian Ferneyhough, James Dillon and Richard Barrett. These composers do share some common characteristics - a fondness for thorny thickets of freely proliferating atonal counterpoint, rhythmic intricacy that defies any obvious sense of pulse or unison, a wary attitude towards inherited form, an interest in extended instrumental techniques, a tendency towards extremes of gesture, dynamic and register, and a serious-minded scorn for the easily consumable or ingratiating. (Significantly, all have benefited from the support of The Grateful Dead's Rex Foundation, which staunchly enables much British "heroic modernism".) It should be little surprise that, at a time when American minimalism was beginning to exert a widespread influence, undoubtedly luring some alienated listeners back to contemporary art music, there should have been those who chose quietly to disassociate themselves from its enervating flirtation with the blandly soporific and homogenising. In no way, however, should they be seen as constituting any kind of self-defining "Movement" - a notion Finnissy has, in fact, explicitly mocked in his piano work New Thoughts on Old Complexity.

Interestingly, Ferneyhough, Dillon and Barrett have all over the last couple of decades taken cautious steps towards re-aligning themselves with "tradition", most signally by incorporating quotation within their work - a practice that might have previously appeared prohibited by the hermetic intensity of their individual styles. By contrast, Finnissy has always created music that interacts with pre-existing music, albeit sometimes perplexingly.

Crucially, Finnissy is a composer who also performs. The division assumed by western classical music between creator and interpreter (and enabled by its detailed notational system) is less rigid for him than for many of his contemporaries. Although he has written copious orchestral, choral and chamber music there is a sense that the piano remains central to his creativity. His closeness to the instrument partly explaining the torrential output you will now be aware of, having glanced at that Wikipedia link I mentioned. It also goes some way towards explaining his music's unorthodox approach to form, with its privileging of elaboration over development.

As with many great jazz musicians, Finnissy's compositional style can be argued to derive at least partly from idiosyncratic keyboard habits; the tendency to avoid middle registers, for example, from a self-confessed tendency to keep his hands wide-spaced whilst improvising. (Keeping them close, he has joked, hurts his tummy.) There is an affinity with jazz practice also in the way that composition often flows from the unfettered decoration of a found object, whether a show-tune a folksong, or a pre-existing piano piece. The notes one hears often give the impression of having been created under the fingers, as much as in the mind. More fundamentally, Finnissy could be understood as a late exemplar of the piano virtuoso composer - a tradition that would encompass such figures as Chopin, Liszt, Alkan, Albeniz, Busoni and especially Percy Grainger, whose liberating influence he has specifically acknowledged. Pretty much uniquely amongst contemporary composers, he has revived the Lisztian art of transcription, most notably in the 36 Verdi Transcriptions he produced between 1972 and 2005 - one of passages from each of Verdi's 29 operas plus seconds of Attila, Rigoletto, Simon Boccanegra, and a third of Macbeth, together with one from the String Quartet and one from the Requiem - but also in his re-imaginings of Johann Strauss, George Gershwin, and other canonical figures. Almost invariably, these rework and overlay the originals with a thoroughness that can be off-putting. But then the intention is not to dress up the past for ease of modern consumption. Finnissy's palimpsest technique often seems to be addressing something abstract behind the pre-existing music he treats, partly critiquing - and I would say, refreshing - a musical culture which he has described as "over-saturated in its past".

This process already informs English Country-Tunes, one of his earliest major works, where folk-songs are startlingly re-constituted in the violent gestural language of Xenakis and Stockhausen. The piano becomes a vast cavernous collider, the echoes of coruscating dissonant eruptions, decaying magically over quiet sustained chords in the bass. Running tumultuously across bar lines - (the pieces are bared but eschew time signatures) - fantastically complex rhythmic groupings are set against each other in defiance of logic or performability. Whilst composing The Rite of Spring, Stravinsky said he was hearing rhythms he initially did not know how to notate. Yet The Rite of Spring, vital masterpiece though it is, sounds pretty orderly when set against Finnissy's fearless testing of standard notation's limits. Arguably, the system whereby most Western music is transmitted is being set against itself to admit effects it usually banishes. The result is certainly a bracing antidote to the soporific pastoralism of so much English music but also, I think, something more. Embedded deep within the fractured, unstable textures, the original tunes are purged of accumulated associations. No longer soothing nostalgic signifiers, they are re-activated as the DNA of something vital and new. Folk is set free. On first hearing, back in the 1980s, I found the piece both thrilling and slightly numbing. I also wondered if it didn't represent something of a dead end, its rhetoric rather single-mindedly destructive. These days I still find it thrilling, but altogether more companionable and yes, beautiful, even moving. One might invoke Roland Barthes' distinction between literary texts that are "readable" and those which are "writable". "Readable" texts - those that largely fulfil readers' expectations - can afford pleasure, but only "writable" ones - those which actively engage the reader in the production of meaning - can afford the higher pleasure Barthes calls jouissance (bliss). Much of Finnissy's music is "writable" in Barthes' sense - a challenge to passive habits of listening.

Finnissy's immense productivity is also a reflection of his strongly expressed views on art and society. Although his music is hardly ever programmatic in the manner of, say, a Strauss tone poem, he insists that it is always charged with extra-musical meaning through its very existence as a created object - preferably one standing at a defiant angle to the human world around it. To this end, he has clearly thought it important to compose fluently for whatever occasion or combination of performers presents itself and to develop a style that can accommodate everything from disarming tunefulness to rebarbative atonality. String Quartets and Sonatas, share a place in his output alongside pieces for the most eccentric combinations imaginable and several whose instrumentation is left open.

Also, as his career has progressed, an explicitly political animus has become increasingly prominent, whether in a piece like 1988's Red Earth, which replaces orchestral clarinets with didjeridus in an angry, acrid, evocation of a despoiled Australian landscape, or in the many works exploring the social position and cultural dimensions of homosexuality. These last include the orchestral Speak its Name! (1996) and Natural Behaviour (2017), the song-cycle Seventeen Immortal Homosexual Poets (1997), and the chamber opera Shameful Vice (1994). What might well be his masterpiece to date, The Transgressive Gospel (2009), matches two vocalists (one a classical tenor, the other a jazz chanteuse) with a small folk-like ensemble in a raw, even reckless, plea for inclusivity that departs from the Evangelist Mark's comment that Christ was executed as a "transgressor". This hybrid Passion, incorporating settings of verse by Rimbaud and George Herbert, is a powerfully unsettling expression of faith, neither austerely liturgical, nor cheaply populist. Clearly, for Finnissy, political, sexual and religious "passion" are inseperable.

I do not know the personal history of Finnissy's commitment to what I assume to be a liberal High Anglicanism, but certainly it has shaped and coloured his later output in ways that are typically bold and forthright. For an artist as cultured and self-aware as Finnissy to proclaim himself a Christian might be interpreted as acceptance of a further mark of stigmatization - along with being a homosexual and a classical composer. He has written of The Transgressive Gospel as a religious work appropriate to a "secular society", where "Christianity [has been] virtually outlawed in academe, politics and the media...except when everyone whizzes back into church and falls on their knees in response to celebrity death and large-scale disaster". Many will, no doubt, be indifferent to this stance or - like me - think it overstated, but it is thoroughly characteristic as an affront to liberal complacency in this age of politicised identity.


****

Living, as I do, just round the corner from a great English cathedral with a thriving choir school, I not infrequently find myself attending weekday Evensong, not so much out of any devotional impulse, as in pursuit of a space for calm and contemplation. Although the anthems of Stanford, Howells and assorted Wesleys are not the sort of thing I would often listen to at home, in the proper context they invariably come across as altogether more dignified, sincere and ennobling than the would-be folksy musical drivel I grew up with and that seems to accompany most Catholic worship in this country. That said, the very title Pious Anthems and Voluntaries is one I must confess to finding distinctly off-putting, even though experience has taught me to expect irony. In bestowing it upon his latest major religious work, Finnissy is both being literal - this is music designed for specific liturgical use - and presenting, in his own words, "a snub to consumerism and trash-culture".

Fruit of his three year stint as Composer in Residence at St. John's College, Cambridge, Pious Anthems is a set of nine items that may be performed singly or together. Although individually impressive, I do think that the parts have vastly enhanced meaning when perceived in relation to the whole and since, at around 80 minutes, the entire sequence is no longer than several Bruckner or Mahler symphonies, I really would advise those new to these pieces to take the plunge and experience them complete. Time will pass swiftly. Strictly speaking, there are only three Anthems - sacred motets for church use - overlaying, in Finnissy's familiar manner, pre-existing pieces by John Taverner, William Byrd, and Michael Tippett and each followed by an organ commentary (or Voluntary). The rest of the design is made up of a re-composition of Bach's Advent-themed Cantata BWV 96, Lord Christ, the only begotten son, flanked by short trios for Bach's original instrumentation of organ, flute and violin.

Now in his seventies, Finnissy is still talking about wishing to "expand [his] compositional knowledge" and the entire enterprise has about it a joyously respectful air of engaged discovery. Sticking unusually close to his models, he nonetheless manages to forge them into a persuasive and satisfying stylistic whole. The music's shifting rhythmic contours and expressive dissonant harmonies will challenge even the best amateur choirs (together with more conservative listeners) but feel like an organic extension of tradition, not a violation of it. A striking series of chords setting the name "Jesum" in three contrasting degrees of intensity occurs early on in the first Anthem and acts as a unifying and clearly identifiable thematic marker, whilst the remarkable organ compositions - full of delicate colours, intricate traceries, and spacious tonal effects - juxtapose strands of the choral material in patterns of luminous reflection, like the play of evening light refracted through a stained-glass window.

Yet unity does not preclude variety. The athletic counterpoint of the Bach sections perfectly offsets the more introverted mood of the rest, the dancing rhythms and unexpected timbres of violin and flute affording bright refreshment for the ear. Into the sacred precinct of the Cathedral choir, Finnissy is perfectly happy to introduce the surrealism and cut-up techniques of Pierre Boulez's Le Marteau sans Maitre, whose layout and sonorities could be seen as unexpected point of reference. As Andrew Nethsingha, who commissioned the Pious Anthems, has observed, Finnissy uses a far smaller and less exotic ensemble than Boulez, but does have a unique extra instrument at his disposal - the acoustic of St. John's Chapel itself. (In fact, if I have any criticism at all of the lovingly recorded performance Nethsingha directs St. John's choir in on the Signum label, it is that the cathedral ambience is not somehow maintained between tracks.)

The Pious Anthems and Voluntaries are, it seems to me, an instant classic; a work of subtle fascination and potentially wide appeal that suggests its white, male, gay, Christian composer might be entering a rich and rewarding late period. Certainly they have fortified me for a return to the exploration of his vast and intimidating catalogue. (I have not yet, for example, subjected myself to the whole of his five and a half hour piano cycle The History of Photography in Sound, which I am reliably assured is a masterpiece.) Whatever one's personal faith, or lack of it, I'd have though it hard not to respond to these mature meditations on space, time and human nature, with their many thoughtful and consoling beauties. But I should not leave you with the impression that it is all consolation. The final and most complex anthem is built from an original by Michael Tippett, another champion of inclusivity and purposeful innovation who acted as an unofficial mentor to the young Finnissy, once writing to him that "being a composer in England is like crossing a desert without a map". The concluding voluntary that follows on pits grand organ against chamber organ, each player being given just their own part, introducing a certain fraught quality to their duetting. It begins lyrically enough but, with the belated introduction of the pedals, builds in steady crescendo to fierce, wide-spaced chords of frightening, implacable intensity. St. Michael, you may recall, cast the rebel angels out of heaven. In this stark, disquieting ending, which sounds more and more inevitable with each hearing, the two composing Michaels call out the disrespectful pedlars of consumerist trash. A bracing valedictory snub clad in vestments of rare sublimity.

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