Writing with Light and Time – An Interview with Michael Finnissy

Back in May 2010, I did an interview with Michael Finnissy for What Next? Magazine about the piece he was working on for the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival.

Writing with Light and Time

Michael Finnissy’s new work for saxophone quartet and choir,  Gedächtnis-Hymne, receives its premiere at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival this year. In May, I caught up with Michael in London to discuss this new work, as well as music and art in general.

Michael Finnissy has remained an important figure in British contemporary music since the 1970’s and is perhaps still most well remembered for his fiendishly difficult English Country-Tunes written between 1977 and 1985. It was exactly this kind of challenging music and its exacting notation that led Finnissy to be proclaimed one of the leaders of the ‘New Complexity’ movement, although he himself claims no such role.

Michael and I are sitting outside a restaurant on the South Bank following up on a discussion about Degas that we had begun several weeks before. Right now we are looking at Degas’ Mlle La La at the Circus Fernando.

“What do we see? A trapeze artist? It’s actually paint and canvas, and much more than merely representing the subject (Mlle.La La). It’s a collection of choices made by Degas – the reckless moment, the extraordinary angle, the theatrical lighting with its exaggerations, all edited together with precision, but appearing as if no editing had taken place. It appears natural, as if a ‘something’ just happened, but it was hours of collating brush-strokes and applying paint. Too much work, and a whiff of artifice, and the ‘something’ would become utterly stagnant. It takes just enough work, and vision, to liberate the ‘something’. Degas lives as dangerously as Mlle. La La, almost over the edge. I could ask analogous questions about the start of Gedächtnis-Hymne. What do we hear? It’s actually pitches and rhythms: D+G, E+F, F+G, G+G flat; quaver, crotchet, crotchet, quaver. “Viel sind Erinnerungen” the voices sing: Many are the recollections.”

Michael is wearing a light suit, topped off with a very youthful baseball cap. As András, our photographer, sets up his camera, Michael offers, “Would you prefer the cap on or off?

“I think on looks cool”, is András’ response and then we are down to business, although András and I are both keen to hear more about Michael’s views on Degas.

“You liberate the music from a mass of possibilities, a chaos, and following Degas’s example you have to know when to stop manipulating and changing things. You have to know when the ‘something’ reaches maximum heat. You stand back and listen, asking ‘Does this work, is there further to go?’ – but how do you know?”

Michael indicates the reproduction of Mlle La La at the Circus Fernando that we have on the table, ‘All the decisions Degas made seem, to me, to indicate his total involvement with, total excitement and curiosity about, his chosen medium. It’s not cold and technical, it has an extreme pathos and it exhibits a kind of dark, almost savage insight into people, it has emotion, skill, vision and passion. He’s considering what he sees endlessly, endlessly, endlessly. How, I wonder, does he compress all that into a single canvas? When you see it, you feel almost sick with dizziness. There’s also a vulnerability, an acceptance of ‘incompleteness’, which seems to indicate ‘I don’t know everything’ – there are large blank areas, for you to fill with your own thoughts.”

There’s always a vulnerability in Degas’ work, which is a big statement about the world view:  ‘I’m just at tiny speck here.’  So, this is a view of a tiny speck of another tiny speck. And everything is, on the one hand, exquisitely calculated to achieve that effect.  And, on the other hand, you look at it and it looks as if it’s just literally happened a second ago and it looks as it might continue on …It doesn’t get better than that!  It really doesn’t.”

When I propose the view that this work and a number of others by Degas have a similar quality to photographic snapshots, Michael quickly picks up the theme,

“But we’re talking about photography as an ‘idea’, as a ‘concept’. It is said that photography arrests time, locates the ‘iconic moment’. Plenty of other factors go into the making of a photograph! I am not a photographer. I am just someone who imagines that they can photograph sound, particularly to catch the spontaneity of thought as it flashes by. Then what? Musical sounds are perceived within conventions. This fouls thing up considerably. Composers follow the conventions, or they challenge them in some way. Like listening actively or passively, you can create actively or passively. You listen actively, getting involved, and interpreting. Or passively – nothing much happens! Active listening requires work, requires knowledge. If your audience don’t want to do anything, it’s very tempting to hit them harder and harder. How else do you know they’re alive?  It’s life or death, it’s an imperative for me, but a form of relaxation or opting out for a lot of them.”

I ask Michael to talk a little about his five and a half hour solo piano piece History of Photography in Sound and how that piece relates to the art of photography itself.

“I chose that title because I grew up dreaming about sound in the presence of photography: my father was a photographer. Photo-graphy: writing with light, writing at the speed of light. Writing things down, transferring or translating from one experience (reality?) into another (Art?). Degas translates Mlle.La La’s trapeze act into painting. She continues to be alive through the medium of his painting, he keeps her hanging in mid-air, in a sort of time-bubble. You can feel the moment, resounding. There is a special kind of time that exists in painting and photography, a kind of imagined time. In music there is both actual time AND imagined time, imagined time is the more deceptive.”

Eventually, our conversation veers towards Michael’s more recent works and I am particularly keen to ask him about his new work for the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival (commissioned jointly by the NLCC and hcmf) to be premiered on 28th November 2010.

“It’s a piece for voices (the New London Chamber Choir) and saxophones (the Rascher Quartet). Saxophones can be very ‘vocal’ in quality, they blend beautifully with almost any timbre, so the sounds slip from actual singing voice to saxophone ‘voice’. The text is taken from fragmentary late poems by Friederich Hölderlin. These texts lament the absence of spirituality in a world advancing towards the Industrial Revolution, and have no less force when applied to the currently vacuous, media-driven, culture of England.”

Whilst acknowledging that the saxophone has a vocal quality, I wanted to hear more about how Michael approached achieving this blending of the two ensembles.

“How? I have them do the same things, playing identical shapes, and overlapping in the same registers. I elide bits of material, so that phrases which start in the choir are taken over by the saxophones, and the other way round.

There is no over-arching narrative in the text: it’s a set of glimpses of different things, so the music is responsible for structuring the experience. The sound world is very spare, economical, perhaps ‘folkloric’ or ‘ancient’ in effect – the choir sing mostly in two or four parts.”

I ask if he was tempted to split the choir into many more parts in a similar way to Ligeti in Requiem.

“No, I didn’t want that kind of result. I wanted something quite harsh, rhythmical and bright, with sharp edges. Partly to counteract what could have become too melancholic and over-rich in my response to the text.”

Now as I’ve brought Ligeti into the conversation, and feeling a bit cheeky, I decide to throw in a question that I’ve been dying to ask Michael for a long time, “This may be a very quick answer – or a very long one, I’m not sure. I was just slightly curious.  It made me laugh when I read an interview with you where you referred to Ligeti as being “uninterestingly deviant”. Could you elaborate on that statement a little more?”

“Perhaps Ligeti just seems that way to me, not everyone! Plenty of people find him ‘interesting’. For me there is an imbalance between polished technical apparatus and strength (or vividness) of imagination; an over-emphasis on deliberately mechanical devices, clockwork. And the music is too ‘chic’ for my liking, too journalistic. It seems to be coyly pretending to be disruptive, but it’s soft-core teasing. It introduces a slight quirkiness into the dominant culture, but it doesn’t confront it wholesale. Ligeti is a little bit naughty, but not naughty enough to get crossed off the posh party list. It’s ‘acceptably naughty’. ‘Interestingly deviant’ would be going the whole hog, deviating right away from the accepted norms of musical taste, and risking not being played by the ‘right people’ and giving offence.”

I want to probe this issue a little more. “Where do you think your music, as a composer, would fall?  Do you think you would be interestingly deviant?  Or, if not, who would be?”

“I don’t REALLY know. I just write the way I have to. Blah blah. But I do occasionally read the reviews and comment: the music has always deviated, more or less, from normative tonal, serial or minimalist behaviour. It is effective on the margins, under the radar, or off the map. You could have once classified me as ‘sexually deviant’, do these categories persist? A colleague once called me ‘iconoclastic’, I think because I had told some students that Satie and Ives were as important as Schoenberg and Stravinsky. I did say ‘as important’ not ‘more important’. Of course I had role models, composers I adored – and still do. Starting with Beethoven a good many of them deviated from the ‘polite standards’ of their time. It doesn’t bother me to shock people, or even to have to shock them out of their complacency. It’s not all that interesting though, is it? I happen to like Beatrix Potter as well.”

At his point, I notice András indicating that we need to get started on the main photo shoot before we completely lose the rapidly dimming London light. After reluctantly wrapping up the interview and thanking Michael, he and András make off towards the concrete modernism of the South Bank Centre, which seems a fitting backdrop for one of Britain’s most interesting and challenging composers.

You can see the full article along with photographs by András Ridovics here.

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This entry was posted in composer, composition, Contemporary music, Michael Finnissy, music, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

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