In Arnone’s hands, Finnissy’s piano music proves spellbinding
There are two days remaining in the Michael Finnissy Retrospective at Spectrum, which should not be missed by anyone interested in the contemporary face of classical music. Finnissy’s substantial, evocative body of work mark him as a major composer.
Foreknowledge of his music, however, was no preparation for what pianist Augustus Arnone accomplished for the Retrospective on Monday night. In ninety minutes of spellbinding music making, he got to the core of what makes Finnissy so irresistible, and successful, as a composer.
Arnone played four selections—“Wachtend op de volgende utibarsting van repressie en censuur,” “Unsere Afrikareise,” “Alkan Paganini,” and “Etched bright with sunlight”—from Finnissy’s enormous piano work, The History of Photography in Sound. In full, the complete work spans around five and a half hours. What is remarkable is how the music is so completely free of intellectual and aesthetic fashion, yet is so deeply sunk in the history of classical composing and pianism.
This is a work of powerful intellect, deep feeling, and sincere, eloquent expression. Finnissy seems to have absorbed so much of the classical tradition, and folk and popular music, that it spills out of him, like from the gates of a dam, completely colored and transformed by his personality. The music in The History of Photography is essentially without form (this is not true of many of his other chamber works that are part of the Retrospective); there are discernible sections that, once heard, may return in an altered but still identifiable state, but it happens almost by accident, the product of Finnissy’s stream-of-consciousness style. If the romantic tradition in music can be thought of as a monologue, Finnissy’s is like Finnegan’s Wake. The music isn’t trying to get anywhere or support an abstract concept, it just goes.
Finnissy spoke with Arnone before the performance, and compared the way the music was made to birth and death, which don’t announce themselves to us: “My pieces just start, and they just stop,” the composer said, as do the narratives in dreams.
The sound of the music, the notes together and in sequence, falls somewhere in the fertile but unpopulated territory that lies between Robert Helps and Cecil Taylor, something like Chopin being played both too slowly and too quickly at the same time. There are long, languid phrases; clipped dissonant chords with the astringency of witch hazel; extended, carefully placed stretches of silence (one, where the page turner stood, counting rests along with Arnone, approached performance art); fragments of folk tunes and even what seems to be Charlie Parker.
Ives hovers nearby—Finnissy is explicit about his influence—as well as Brahms and, unusually, Sorabji, a surprise until one considers how duration and single-minded, personal expression are prominent concerns. Finnissy brought a lovely new miniature he played as a prelude, something he based on Brahms’ Ballade No. 4, Op. 10, and the relationship with Ives was uncanny. Finnissy and Ives share important values: the collapse of foreground and background, the dense polyphony, the sense that they are each searching through personal and cultural memories.
The music is technically arduous, with complex cross-rhythms, rapid changes in registration, seemingly impossible adjustments in mood, and up to a half an hour of non-stop playing in “Unsere” and “Etched bright.” Those two pieces are especially beautiful and Arnone’s playing was deeply impressive, his concentration and physical effort never distracting from the completely immersive listening, never getting in the way of the purity of the music.
And pure is the right word. The vocabulary and syntax form an expression that seems the essence of Finnissy himself. At the same time, the music is so rich that, even with the composer at the center, it appears as a mirror to sympathetically reflect the values of the listener. There is something in there for everyone, and once the listener finds their way in, time and space fall away into a mesmerizing, poetic experience.
“Unsere,” under Arnone’s hands, was extraordinary and gorgeous, sustaining a great and mysterious delicacy. There are melodies that tease the ear, lying camouflaged in the middle register, flanked by more noticeable activity on each side. “Alkan Paganini” stood out for a lyricism that built to a heightened anxiety, before ceasing. “Etched bright,” which is becoming something of a standalone piece, had a captivating Classical-style melody that surfaces about halfway through. And then it has another. And then there is something that sounds like the music is remembering the baroque era.
And then, like the other pieces, it ended. One was left with the compelling void of having woken suddenly from the most enriching dream, defined now by its absence.
The Michael Finnissy Retrospective continues with Collide-O-Scope Music, 8 p.m. Tuesday, and, ICE 8 p.m. Wednesday collidemus.com.