Here are seven of Michael Finnissy’s string quartets recorded in St John’s Church, Loughton, using a pair of microphones. Sound engineer, producer, digital editor, cover designer and booklet editor is David Lefeber, who also runs the label. Such dedication is not unusual for Finnissy supporters, who tend to be partisan, claiming that he is one of the few real composers to have emerged in England this century. Exposure to the music encourages you to cede the point. Finnissy makes no modish nods towards the popular, but his extremism brings him into the orbit of other radical sounds. Plain Harmony was composed in the early 90s. A pure descending melody that could be an English madrigal meets warped chords simultaneously shimmering and turgid. Finnissy refuses to make the choice between traditional tonality and 12 tone: rich chordal voicings and atonal crises together create his highly personal textures. Nor is lyricism eschewed. Indeed, melody is pursued with such passion it churns up mud from the unconscious. Clean harmony and chaotic murk operate dialectically, transforming themselves into each other in unexpected twists and turns. Pure serialism can be abstract and pretty (e.g. Milton Babbitt). With Finnissy, each discord hurts. Nobody’s Jig (1982) is a reminder of the unsettling nature of deserting the key system. Even the sweetness of the violins is sick and sinister: wheedling high notes are fraught with anguish. Yet the composer’s focus is clinical – sweated terror frozen into fine art crystals. Intervals zigzag between instruments like thought hesitating between options. An energetic violin makes an unresponsive cello sound like feedback hum – alienated gestures against a backdrop of urban noise pollution. At the same time, any note may bleed into the background and affect the whole. Finnissy undermines music’s sense of affirmation, suggesting parallels to A Handful of Dust or Richard Youngs.
The initial theme of Multiple Forms of Constraint is a folkish air Beethoven might have employed, but instead of initiating responsible dialogue, it provokes a slurry of interference and malign echo. Like a febrile insomniac revolving an insoluble problem, the music cannot relax, but nevertheless generates beautiful violin lines, intricacies plotted without a trace of cliche. String Quartet (1984) has a narrative structure, bravely stepping out from the systems obfuscation of so much modern composition. It begins softly, a field of subliminal impulses; after seven minutes, there’s a jump into loudness, as if floodlights had been switched on. Climactic violins jeer at each other like gulls, alternating with violent pluckings from the lower instruments. It sounds simple, but Finnissy is stretching his players – irrational timings and unexpected intervals – so there’s none of the pop condescension of boom boom Minimalism.
This release makes no concessions to the mass market. Two members of the quartet contribute essays. They’re so immersed in Finnissy’s scores they don’t stop to think how the music might sound to people unversed in modern classical music. Finnissy hollows out the romantic legacy from the inside, spinning lines so tense they sound as if they are traced on a bomb ready to explode. Perhaps the febrile beauty admired by Finnissy’s devotees is not so much the pinnacle of art as the ring of truth.