When news of Michael Finnissy’s conversion to Christianity reached the nerve centres of the international avant garde, many were despondent. History is littered with casualties of organised religion’s ability to recruit rebellion to its hierarchical structures, from St Francis to Roy Bhaskar, TS Eliot to Cat Stevens .Finnissy was the composer whose anger at social justice put the ‘cunt’ into English Country Tunes, the firebrand who surrounded a grand piano with teddy bears and had the hapless pianist read out newspaper headlines for a prestigious BBC Radio3 broadcast. The question was: would Finnissy’s music subdue itself to the conservatism of an ideological structure whose material base is in feudal land ownership and ground rent?
This Church was recorded at St Mary de Haura Church in Shoreham on 14 and 15February 2003. The musical forces are designed to suit the tradition echoic, with choirs, pip organ, spoken word and solo singers Richard Jackson and Jane Money. Finnissy played piano with the The Ixion Ensemble which includes the brilliantflautist Rowland Sutherland, accordionist Yao Yi, three strings and the lively percussion of Joby Burgess. Conducting from the piano, he also wrote parts for The Saint Mary Handbell Ringers. Hence non-believers are not only threatened with the grisly boredom of a church service, but also with the ersatz nationa lfolk imbecilism of jangling Morris dancers.
The good news is that Finnissy has not recanted on the founding heresy of modern music: atonality. The opening has the slightly hysterical, unnerving instability of his classic manner, with a male falsetto harried by irrational metrics. If in writing for non=specialists, he is forced to use sea shanty rhythms and liturgical phrases, he has not borrowed an techniques from pious minimalism or Techno Trance .in giving narration to church members – Finnissy is an active member of his chosen congregation, engaging in church politics and theological controversies with glee – he shows the confidence in homely, unspun humanity characteristic of anyecht punk, revolutionary socialist or social worker. He has researched the history of Shoreham from the parish archives, giving us details that are nuanced and troubled, such as the missionary who begins to doubt his faith. The way he integrates the spoken word – the double bass jazzily taking up the narrative, the integration of psychedelic, key crazy instrumentation with level speech – is bravura, extending the legacy of Benjamin Britten in an utterly unexpected way. Atonality is used to expose voices and facts in their raw immediacy. You may cringe at what you hear, but if so, you’re disliking people, which makes you feel ashamed. Perhaps the atheist cannot quite credit the gorgeous communitarian crescendo of the finale ,but we’re touched nonetheless.
Finnissy’s avant garde integrity gave the lie to the musical compromises of the post modernist 1980s. Now This Church shows how, in attempting to borrow the heady perfumes of liturgy without embracing a particular congregation Jan Garbarek and John Tavener and Gavin Bryars gave us a phoney high. This music has grit and invention and documents a genuine situation: a cutting reproach to the glibness and ingratiation which seem to be the inevitable condiment to commerce.