This superb five-CD ‘luxury’ set of Finnissy’s colossal piano work is the tenth release in Métier’s series devoted to the works of this British composer. It’s a major achievement and one that should appeal strongly to lovers of contemporary and piano music alike.

Lasting five and a half hours, The History of Photography in Sound is a unified piano cycle. In ways that may remind us of Cardew’s The Great Learning it actively comments on the nature of music itself and its relationships with our perception of it.

‘History’ because of humans’ predisposition to record and forget, and remember. ‘Photography’ because such recording aims to capture what is – as it is. ‘Sound’ in the first place because that’s Finnissy’s and our love. It’s Photography in Sound also because metaphor, the standing in of one medium, idea, object, milieu for another is an indispensable tool with which to think.

There are various aspects of this project that will strike those unfamiliar with it as remarkable. That impression can, for some, arise from the fact that the eleven individual pieces are approachable despite their length; only a couple last much under half an hour; Kapitalistich Realisme well over. The very accessibility of the project as a whole is also remarkable.

It would be somewhat naïve to assume that most readers of this review will routinely, or regularly, devote over five hours to (repeated) listening of The History of Photography in Sound . It’s thus to Ian Pace’s great credit that he both respects and honours Finnissy’s intentions. At the same time, for each moment that you devote to listening to it, he renders the music approachable. This can really only come from great familiarity and empathy with the music and indeed with Finnissy and his preoccupations and world. The experience is as fulfilling as it is stimulating.

Pace’s own commitment and skills here go a long way towards making such fulfilment. Further, this enterprise may appear to be too abstract a premise for music of any compositional validity to emerge. But, no: Finnissy’s superb grasp of what constitutes integrity in both listenership and listening ensures that doesn’t happen. At the same time, it’s the very intensity of the performer’s and the listener’s engagement with this astonishing work to which this set appeals; as well, one supposes, as the faith that each will be rewarded.

The appeal works. For Pace understands Finnissy, his world and his idiom extremely well. He writes, “For a period of over 20 years prior to writing both the programme notes for my CD of The History of Photography in Sound … Michael Finnissy’s music has played a prominent role in my own life; its presence has sometimes been dangerously close to overwhelming, and my attempts to maintain my own distinct identity and priorities both when playing and writing about it have often been fraught, sometimes to the point of exasperation.”

To help digest this you might want to speculate on such other single instrument works – admittedly nowhere near so substantial in length – as the Goldberg and Diabelli Variations. Perhaps Finnissy’s conception isn’t so alien after all. In some ways Bach and Beethoven were examining the limits of melody, rhythmic variation and invention. Pace again: “… Finnissy and Brian Ferneyhough … [are] two composers whose work operated on the boundaries of pianistic possibility, this very fact being tied into the nature of the musical experience.”

The final remarkable notion must be that Pace can manage so successfully in this mammoth recording to present music in a holistic way: Finnissy’s music – then his own interpretation of Finnissy’s music … in that order. He is a fervent enthusiast, an unashamed advocate, Pace began to play the composer’s piano output in the late 1990s, tackling its entirety in six long recitals in 1996 in London. A research fellowship from the Arts & Humanities Research Council made possible the series of recordings constituting the present CDs at Southampton University almost ten years later. Pace is also quick to acknowledge the involvement and support of many others in contemporary music, without whom the project would have been the poorer.

What you will hear as you steadily take in the music on these five CDs is music of great variety, penetration, breadth, wit and originality. First conceived in 1995, work on The History of Photography in Sound began in 1997. Pace speculates that there was maybe a connection between Finnissy hearing the totality of his piano music performed in the aforementioned recital series in 1996, and his desire to reflect on its boundaries in order to extend them. The eventual structure of the work grew from nine to eleven individual components, though always in the originally-planned five books.

In part the variety originates in the breadth of Finnissy’s philosophical and musical conception. It’s also a product of specific technical strictures – register, for instance. Each piece can be discerned to emphasise a different register. Le demon , for example: central registers, but ending in the bass; Awakening : central, expanding to the whole compass of keyboard in the centre; Muybridge-Munch : low treble, whole treble, central; Etched : high treble, treble, low bass, central, whole keyboard, and so on.

Similarly, dynamics are carefully constructed … both My parents’ generation and Unsere Afrikareise have extended extremely quiet periods. Indeed the whole work begins that way. Although employing fewer textural extremes than he does in some of his other piano works, Finnissy again matches density, compression, monophony and so on to changing circumstance and underpinning requirement. The History of Photography in Sound flows from tonality to atonality. Flux is more central to Finnissy here than is either state.

Indeed, sounds beyond, but conveyed by, the piano are as central to the work as are the technicalities and particularities of pianism itself. Again, that is not to say that Finnissy attempts to ‘paint’ with the keyboard. Rather, as the work’s very title suggests, he describes sound by appropriating it, capturing, it – as with the subject of a photograph. Quotation is one way; evocation another; reference, allusion, hint. Yet it’s structure that also prevents the cycle from becoming pastiche – even very abstruse pastiche. Perhaps the fact that the enormous pianistic virtuosity that it calls for – and which Pace delivers admirably – is never gratuitous; always in the service of the music’s inner logic.

It would be wrong to assume that The History of Photography in Sound is predicated exclusively on a concept. Rather, it illustrates, evokes, advocates, befriends music and sound, the paradigms of composition and the nature of listening. Yet in so doing, the cycle calls on sources such as Bach, Beethoven, Paganini, Berlioz, Alkan, Meyerbeer, Fe´licien David, Bruckner, Wagner, Busoni and Debussy, 1940s popular song, music hall songs, hymns from Britain and America, war songs from several countries, African-American spirituals, folk music from England, Ireland, Norway, Spain, Sardinia, Sicily, Crete, Tunisia, Ethiopia, the Transvaal, Native Americans and the Inuit. At the same time, it’s by no means a collage or mélange. Pace understands and conveys, the extent to which Finnissy integrates his starting points with the work as composed.

The History of Photography in Sound is much more assiduously worked than that. A useful analogy would be the way in which the poetry of T.S. Eliot alludes to and draws on sources. In the end, however, it is its own work; more, perhaps, than can perhaps be claimed for that of Ezra Pound. After all, many of the references in The History of Photography in Sound remain oblique, frequently obscured almost completely. Nor does Pace have to work at all to dispel any notion that Finnissy is using music as a phenomenon, or as a vehicle for prolix or prosaic musings. He folds everything in on itself and – like a well kneaded form of dough – it’s a delectable and palatable whole.

Only two of the components of the cycle are otherwise available on CD: North American Spirituals and Eadweard Muybridge . It should be obvious that students or admirers of Finnissy in particular, and those interested in contemporary music in general, will want to get this full cycle … and it’s reasonably-priced. It’s hard to see how a more suitable and sympathetic performer could be involved. The acoustic is sympathetic and neither adds nor takes away anything from our necessary concentration on the music.

The booklet that comes with the CD is substantial at nearly 100 pages of annotated text printed in a relatively small font. Yet there is more: a separate PDF, which is nearly 300 pages long (70 MB), is downloadable from the Divine Arts website.

This is a major release of a major project and one which should be investigated by as wide an audience as possible. Execution and presentation are as excellent as the music is compelling.

—Mark Sealey