The music of English composer Michael Finnissy (b. 1946) is difficult to categorize. It is exceptionally multifaceted in both its surface and substance. It is music that is filled with its own original ideas (and textures that sound like nobody else), but at the same time it is constantly making explicit references to other music. His music’s difficulty ranges from nearly unplayable fiendish complexity to exceptional plainchant-like simplicity, frequently within the same piece. Finnissy’s notation is likewise extremely varied, and almost all his scores exist in his astounding calligraphy.
The History of Photography in Sound (1995-2001) is Finnissy’s largest piano work at nearly 5.5 hours in length. Any attempt to summarize the piece in a brief review will fall significantly short of pointing out even a fraction of its facets. The pianist Ian Pace has been associated with Finnissy’s music since he (Pace) was in school, and he recorded this work shortly after its complete premiere about decade ago. For whatever reason, it is only now appearing on CD, but its release is a major event for those interested in Finnissy’s work or significant piano literature. Many of the individual movements/sections were composed as separate projects/commissions and premiered by different pianists. This excellently-produced CD box set also includes an extensive set of booklet essays by Pace (who is also a musicologist), and an even more extended version filled with musical examples is available online. In addition to his concert career (as a new music specialist), Pace is a very outspoken and caustic critic of academic musicology, and in recent years has become a very public advocate for investigation into the many sexual abuse scandals in British music schools.
Finnissy is himself a pianist, and his large catalog is dominated by works for the instrument. For him it has clearly been a source of continual musical inspiration, and the role of the piano in even his non-solo works is also extremely significant, even including an opera where the “orchestra” is simply a single virtuoso pianist. Each of the 11 sections of The History bear a descriptive name, ranging from “North American Spirituals” to “My parents’ generation thought War meant something” to “Kapitalistisch Realisme (met Sizilianische Mannerakte en Bachsche Nachdichtungen).” As is nealy always the case in Finnissy’s work, the piece abounds with references and quotations to other music: from Bach to 19th-century music hall songs, and from Berlioz to Inuit traditional music. Sometimes these references are very explicit, but often there is simply a fragment of a melody embedded within the “tenor line” of a larger texture; these would certainly go unnoticed were it not for the composer’s trademark arrows carefully identifying the sources in the score. One of the booklet essays specifically addresses the quotations, and it challenges —in a typically Pace-ian confrontational style—the general critical response to these myriad references as nothing more than a sort of “found object tourism.” Pace breaks down all the different types of quotations into various categories, examining how each category of material is “weighted” in different ways throughout the sections of the work. The external references made in The History are not purely musical, either; literature and philosophy also make appearances. The sixth section, “Seven Immortal Homosexual Poets,” is conceived as a musical version of a poetry anthology, and each poet is treated in turn, wordlessly.
The composer has given Pace’s performances and this recording his enthusiastic recommendation, so it is to be assumed that the performance is definitive. No other pianist (aside from the composer himself) has been more closely associated with Finnissy’s music, and thus Pace brings to the project a true mastery of the composer’s interpretative challenges. Like many of Finnissy’s pieces, there is enough content in The History to keep one engaged through a near lifetime of listens. Certainly there are precedents for large-scale piano works of this scope, or even significantly longer ones: including numerous work by Sorabji and Frederic Rzewski’s “novel for piano,” The Road. In most cases of such large scale works, the pieces end up being quite representative of their composer’s preoccupations and principal artistic concerns. The History is no exception, and thus stands as a major work of a major composer. For those who are completely unfamiliar with Finnissy, they may wish to start with shorter works, almost all of which have been recorded. However, for those who wish to take an unforgettable journey, this is a work, like much great art, that embraces everything and, in the process, tells us something about ourselves.