Michael Finnissy’s works, ostensibly for violin and piano, also employ instruments as varied as detuned harpsichord on this side of normal and household appliances on the other. The composer’s notes on these pieces identify the Mississippi Hornpipes as having been composed —or pieced together from American fiddle tunes—for violinist Roger Garland. Listeners will note that the violin and piano parts go their own ways rhythmically and harmonically, in a way at once fresher and more baffling than that of, say, Ravel’s Violin Sonata. Violinist Darragh Morgan and pianist Mary Dullea play with cheeky verve, creating bright, crackling sonorities from these at-first-blush uncoordinated materials.
Setjentens fridag also borrows traditional folk music —this time from Norway. It also includes a second keyboard part (for organ), played by the composer himself. Listeners to the at-times dense textures of Hardanger fiddle music will find these, as well as figuration idiomatic to the instrument, parodied, though not disparagingly, in Finnissy’s piece, although in a harmonic language extended far beyond that of the original sources.
In Amphitheare des Sciences Mortes, Dullea plays a tangy prepared piano and Michael Finnissy rejoins the ensemble with a different second keyboard. The composer notes that he drew the title from a novel by Sar Peladan, writing the music for Anders Førsdål in its original version for guitar and toy pianos. The accompaniments (four layers, according to the composer), at times nearly pointillistic, provide a background for a violin part that alternates plaintive melody and pizzicato. Jive, written for Deedee and Elliot Schwartz, serves as a brief (31 second), though memorably engaging, interlude.
Molly House incorporates household appliances (the booklet lists Morgan as playing them, although the photograph shows Dullea handling them as well —can she be a closet appliances aficionado?). On the whole, the parts for appliances (a hair dryer, a shaver, and a vacuum cleaner), whoever plays them on the recording, don’t sound particularly difficult—instead of humming the music afterwards, then, will listeners repair to their bathrooms and broom closets to recreate these parts for themselves, or even try to play the piece for their friends without the violin and pianos? As in the program’s other, less outré pieces (at least timbrally), this one sounds clean and transparent enough to make the dissonances go down smoothly. Finnissy mentions that “hardcore” contemporary music remains “behind closed-doors”—relegated there, presumably, by a sort of nefarious conspiracy of conglomerates and press. Still, Finnissy must recognize that his kind of musical expression lies by its very nature behind a veil created by its radical departures from anything commercial. For Alzheimer patients enduring the crumbling of their psyches, music and religion remain intact longest. Would Finnissy’s utterances bring such patients the same kind of balm—from sundowners’ syndrome, say—that music from their past provides? (I’ve participated in experiments that strongly, if not definitively, prove the healing power of music in such cases.)
The two-movement violin sonata imports snatches of Brahms’s String Quintet, op. 88, but, as Finnissy remarks, it also reveals a more general connection with that composer’s dialectic; he also draws, he informs his readers, upon an Irish melody borrowed by his predecessor Beethoven. Solo sections separate the work’s various passages from each other.
Metier’s engineers seem to have come very close to their soloists; but the balance (perhaps except for the appliances, which seem to remain farther in the sonic distance) and clarity remain unsullied by this proximity. Even those who experience difficulty in forging emotional connections to Finnissy’s compositions should be able to admire the composer’s quirky insight, the brilliance of the textures the performers have created, and the fidelity with which the recorded sound has captured them. Recommended primarily to explorers who know exactly what the program contains and yet still wish to open these frontiers and even pass through them. I’ve spent many a less rewarding hour listening to stale performances of the more traditional fare Finnissy seems to resent as crowding him out.