Monday, 5 February 2018

'You still have to make the right line' - Michael Finnissy day at St John's College, Cambridge

Andrew Nethsingha and the choir of St John's College rehearsing Michael Finnissy's Videte Miraculum
Andrew Nethsingha and the choir of St John's College rehearsing Michael Finnissy's Videte Miraculum
Michael Finnissy is currently composer in residence at St John's College, Cambridge and is writing nine pieces for the college, four works for the choir and five for organ. On Saturday 3 February 2018, there was a Michael Finnissy day at the college when Andrew Nethsingha and the choir premiered Finnissy's Videte Miraculum at Evensong, and Glen Dempsey, the Herbert Howells Organ Scholar, premiered Finnissy's organ solos Dum transisset Sabbatum and Videte miraculum at the lunch-time recital. In between the composer gave an illuminating lecture recital in which he talked about his approach to composing, and how the St John's project came about.

At the lunch-time recital, Glen Dempsey performed Michael Finnissy's Dum transisset Sabbatum and Videte miraculum alongside Olivier Messiaen Apparition de l'eglise eternelle, William Byrd's Fantasia in C and Herber Howells' Master Tallis' Testament and Paen. Finnissy's Dum transisset Sabbatum was full of high, transparent textures with a sense of an elaboration around a cantus firmus. Complex yet fluid, there were dense harmonies which had a luminous feel, and hints of the Messiaen piece the use of hieratic repetition. Finnissy's Videte miraculum (which is related to but not the same as the choral piece which was premiered at Evensong) used a similar high, Messiaen-like texture but used silence to create something contemplative. There were moments when you felt a clear echo of the Tallis original, yet filtered through new ears, and there were moments of intense drama, but the quietly contemplative always returned.

The recital opened with a solemn, hieratic and sombre account of Messiaen's Apparition de l'eglise eternelle, and between the two Finnissy pieces were hear William Byrd's Fantasia in C, all elegance and clarity despite the quite full sound of the organ with Dempsey displaying some dextrous fingerwork, and Howells' Master Tallis's Testament, with its lovely warm organ texture creating a very mid-20th century English sound-world through which the 16th century was refracted. The recital ended with Herbert Howells bold and brilliant Paean which used the cimbelstern stop.

We were able to hear Finnissy's organ Videte miraculum again at Evensong that evening as Glen Dempsey performed it as the organ voluntary before the service. We started with Andrew Nethsingha and the choir performing as introit Tallis' Videte miraculum, the work on which Michael Finnissy's choral Videte miraculum is based. The choir sang with a quite a full, luxuriant sound, but still achieved a lovely clarity and flexibility. The preces and responsese were Kenneth Leighton's wonderfully imaginative ones, lovely to hear his music still in liturgical use. The Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis were from Purcell's Service in G minor, accompanied by the small choir organ, finely poised with a nice rhythmic felicity to the details and excellent solo groupings.

Finnissy's Videte miraculum felt that it existed in the same sound-world as the Tallis, with the same sense of intersecting lines, but with a dfferent sense of colour and far more angular harmonies. There were some highly complex details, but there was a sense of clarity and sharp purity.

In between these two events, Michael Finnissy gave a lecture recital in the Old Divinity School. He started by talking about what composing is, listing a series of analogies which people use for composing.

Composing is like:

  • furniture making - this is important, craft is paramount, you need to ensure that your table has four legs the same length
  • flower arranging - this is a bad version of furniture making, sticking things together in a vase because they look pretty
  • gardening - he quoted William Shenstone, from Unconnected thoughts on Gardening which was quoted by Ian Hamilton Finlay
    • gardening has five attributes, sowing, planting, fixing, placing and maintaining which can all be thought of under the umbrella of composing
    • this is related to the ideas of Virgil and Theocritus, the bucolic view which is not just about plants but creating a stage set including sculpture and landscaping
Michael Finnissy commented that it was this latter view which was the closest to his own idea of composition, bringing things together not just sound and notes. He commented, if you involve text then this creates all manner of hazards, where you place the various sounds, the breathing as well as setting the text meaningfully.

Shaping a piece of music can also be seen as analogous to painting, poetry, mathematic, philosophy and architecture, which latter gives us the words structure and form.

Cooking is another useful analogy, there are various types of cooks (just as with composers). In cooking the ingredients come from elsewhere, and for a composer the ingredients come from scores in libraries.
  • the first type of cook, buys ready made ingredients and just adds water, which dilutes the ingredients
  • the second type of cook knows how to dice vegetables, this makes them cook more evenly. It is at this point that the cook gets involved in the cooking proces, the level at which things become creative
  • a stage too far is the TV cook, all trimmings and no substance, all decoration and nothing underneath.
For Michael Finnissy, the ability to write down notes does not make you a composer, you need to make a dialogue with the world. It considers it an odd life, seeing the world in terms of music; when Ligeti walked along the street what he hear was sound.

Coming from an ordinary background in South London (Brixton and Tulse Hill), Michael Finnissy had no formal training until he attended the Royal College of Music. Herbert Howells was responsible for him receiving a foundation scholarship. Finnissy appeared at the audition clutching the score to a symphony, Howells took the score off him and asked him to play it from memory. Howells must have seen something in him, as Finnissy received the scholarship.

He credited everything he knew about the craft and about teaching composition to Bernard Stevens at the Royal College of Music. Stevens could not be fooled, he know something about everything and he could talk about modernism, Schoenberg, microtonality and many other things which did not find their way into his own music.

Finnissy talked about the difficulty of being a composer in England. Early on, Bernard Stevens asked him if he came from a moneyed family (no), in which case he was going to have a difficult life. And in a letter Michael Tippett said that 'In England being a composer is like crossing a desert without a map'.

One of the pieces he played was Romeo and Juliet are drowning which he wrote whilst at the Royal College of Music and is one of his earliest piece based on other music, in this case the love scene from Berlioz' Romeo et Juliette and Berg's Wozzeck.

Of his way of composing, which he talked about as taking objects and re-imagining them, he was indebted to David Hockney, Picasso and Warhol. He also mentioned an essay by Busoni, in which he talked about the composer starting by transcribing the idea. At which point, Finnissy points out that the composer has to choose how to notate it, decisions which could have serious repercussions later in the composition process.

He quoted Naum Gabo, ' I have chosen the absoluteness and exactitude of my lines, shapes and forms in the conviction that they are the most immediate medium for my communication to others of the rhythms and the state of mind I would wish the world to be in.' Finnissy's music is conviction based, when you write a line it is either the right shape or the wrong shape.

He is writing two interconnected cycles for St John's College, four choral pieces and five organ pieces, and the two will have lots of cross references. Some years ago Andrew Nethsingha and the choir of St John's performed a Christmas carol of Michael Finnissy's (he commented that he is fond of Christmas carols), this led to a commission for an Advent carol, which in turn led to the commission for the cycle of motets.

Finnissy commented that this sort of thing does not happen to him very often, and he is not the most obvious choice. Yet whilst his music is often regarded as part of the new complexity, he has also worked extensively with COMA (Contemporary Musicmaking for All, originally Contemporary Musicmaking for Amateurs).

There is a strand to Finnissy's music making where he has been making something of Englishness, but he had never looked that deeply into Tudor polyphony, so this would form the inspiration for the music for St John's College. Finnissy takes elements from Tallis and re-works them, taking the idea of transcription and taking it somewhere else - 'you still have to make the right line, even if you have nicked most of it from Tallis'.

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • Singing to create a national identity: the Estonian Philharmonic Chamber Choir - concert review
  • From oboe to podium: Leo Duarte on Handel pasticcios, playing the oboe & period singing style  - my interview
  • Finely balanced casting: Handel's Orlando from La Nuova Musica at St John's Smith Square - Opera review
  • Hamlet reinvented: Ambroise Thomas' opera from Opera2Day in The Hague - Opera review
  • Music for the Queen of Heaven - the Marian Consort in 21st and 20th century music - CD review
  • Debut treehouse - intimate, innovative and engaging - concert review
  • Classical music with a popular twist: I chat to Lithuanian composer Gediminas Gelgotas - interview
  • Seeing the genre develop: Lully & Quinault's second tragédie en musique, Alceste  - CD review
  • Celebrating Estonian style - the distinctively stylish Estonian Voices - concert review
  • 1768: A Retropective - Chiara Skerath, Katy Bircher, Ian Page, The Mozartists at the Wigmore Hall - concert review
  • The Schuman's at Home - Julius Drake and Sophie Bevan at Temple Music - concert review
  • Eavesdropping on David Pountney rehearsing Verdi's La forza del destino at Welsh National Opera - feature article
  • Chants d'amour - Louise Alder and James Baillieu in Mozart, Bizet, Strauss, Mendelssohn, Faure, Liszt at the Wigmore Hall - concert review
  • Home

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