This program makes high demands on listeners. The unknowing purchaser of this album may be turned off instantly by a barrage of weird sounds, scrapes, and scratches on string instruments and squeaks and squawks on the oboe. This music is not for the faint of heart, not for the timid. In the style of dry British humor, its title, ‘Greatest Hits of All Time’, is actually sarcastic mockery of the television and media phrase we are all familiar with.
None of the composers here was born before 1940. The pieces range from minimalist to atmospheric to the nearly melodic, but none is truly any of the above. Hearing music like this forces me to ask whether I see good music and art as a representation or reflection of what is beautiful in the world or of what we aspire to be, or whether I see it as a statement or commentary on beauty, ugliness, or the chaos that may exist in the world. Most antagonists like to argue that art that has shock value is as good as many of the timeless classics. No one can say for sure whether a piece that evokes nightmares will stand the test of time like the wonderful quartets and chamber music of Mozart, Beethoven, or the symphonies of Mahler or the operas of Wagner. But those pieces represent concepts of beauty, real and imaginary.
As a musician and performer, I recognize the high level of technical achievement here, but this is the type of music that demands more of us than just passively expecting beauty to arise from a work of art. Michael Finnissy’s Greatest Hits of All Time was written using various bits of ideas from a variety of pieces. My favorite work on the program is Christopher Fox’s Oboe Quintet. Some of his melodic inspiration comes from Bernstein, Hindemith, and Stravinsky; and—most
interesting to me—his textural influences seem to come from the movement of the 1970s called Rock in Opposition, which was more prevalent in Europe, especially Belgium, than here in the US.
Howard Skempton’s Garland for oboe and string trio is also an atmospheric work, and it is followed by another rather minimalist and microtonal work by Michael Finnissy. The program ends with a raucous quintet by James Clark.
Though most of you would probably run screaming on hearing a snippet of this album, I think it is still worth finding. The music challenges us, and everyone needs to be challenged now and again.