Musical Times

The perils of pluralism

The perils of pluralism

Mellers, Wilfrid

Uncommon ground: the music of Michael Finnissy Edited by Henrietta Brougham, Christopher Fox & Ian Pace Ashgate (Aldershot, 1998); ix, 436pp. 45. ISBN 185928 356 x.

The most distinctive characteristic of the age we live in may be its extreme pluralism, which is an indirect consequence of the triumph of democratic principle and of the sheer size of the industrialised communities we inhabit. When social groups remain relatively small, self-contained, and regional, continuing customs and codes of value may be meaningful, whereas this is virtually impossible in the multifarious congregations of races, religions, creeds, castes and classes spawned by our industrial technocracies. A global village is a contradiction in terms, though the phrase is pertinent to `the way we live now’.

It is no accident that the first great composer of democratic pluralism was a man of the New World: Charles Ives, a successful businessman who, as a loving amateur composer, melled memories of the artistic legacy of Old Europe (especially the music of Faustian, aspirational Beethoven) with the musics of everyday life around him – New England hymnody, patriotic anthems, parlour ballads, cowboy ditties, military band marches, shantytown rags, black boogie-woogie, blue jazz – using techniques appropriate to these no-more-than-semi-composed musics. Predictably, Ives’s own music came out as eclectically confused but stimulating plain diatonic, modal, chromatic, atonal, veering between uncoordinated noise and complex sounds elaborately if imperfectly notated, making for an idiom polymorphous, polymodal, polymetrical, polyharmonic and polytextured. Democratic muddle and psychological, philosophical and sociological order met, pointing to futures still unknown. This is why Ives may be the most significant, if not the ‘greatest’, of 20th-century composers. In Latin America, Villa-Lobos is a comparable phenomenon, though one less pertinent to our Western consciousness’. Even in Old Europe composers appeared (chronologically more or less coincident with Ives and Villa-Lobos) who exhibited a similarly recreative eclecticism: notably Darius Milhaud, with his ancient Provencal origins, his Judaic heritage, and his Parisian sophistication, combined with a populism picked up in Brazil; and Charles Koechlin, austerely huguenot in background, yet obsessed with wildernesses (as in his best known series of works, based on Kipling’s The jungle books), and with the sirens of the Silver Screen. Interestingly, Villa-Lobos, Milhaud and Koechlin were immensely fecund composers, producing music in a jungle of contradictory styles.

If Ives is the most significant of these composers, the reason is not only that he is closest to us, but also that his democratic pluralism germinated, and matured, spontaneously He didn’t write as much as Villa-Lobos because he didn’t give himself time, being comfortable in, even proud of, his status as a businessman. Even so, his revolutionary art was a process of continuous self-discovery that paralleled the ‘forging’ of America itself. Today, that is hardly possible, though pluralism has, of course, not abated. Most energetic, and perhaps best, among today’s pluralists is Michael Finnissy whose 50th birthday is celebrated in this book. Ethnically complex in origin, Finnissy is the closest we’ve yet come to a Global Village composer: an outsider politically in being radically anti-establishmentarian, and socially in being homosexual, while at the same time being, in a world context, an insider who embraces all sorts and conditions of men and women, and maybe a few birds and beasts for good measure. He tells us that it was his early awareness of the music of Ives that convinced him that conventional musical practices were inadequate, and even irrelevant, to him; and if he is ultimately a lesser composer than Ives (a judgment I suspect he might agree with), that’s because Ives’s pluralism evolved embryonically, whereas his, half a century later, became, though empirically prompted, a conscious gesture. By his time we ‘knew’ more than could be digested.

brilliantly instinctive pianist, Finnissy has used the instrument to explore the corporeal nature of music, which in his case springs from the physicality of what he does. The extreme difficulty of his music – he is sometimes misleadingly bracketed with Ferneyhough as a leader of the New Complexity – comes from his attempt to transcribe into ambiguous but performable notation what he does as a keyboard improviser, making music burgeoning on several levels, in several kinds of notation. The piano piece, Freightrain blues, for instance, was originally improvised as an accompaniment to dance, in a style peripheral to black barrelhouse blues, though the title’s pun of ‘blues’ and ‘bruise’ indicates how the music’s distortions and dislocations also `hit the cold floor of contemporary angst’. Here Finnissy is at once a folk-musician or jazzman, who ‘makes’ music as he goes along, and an artist in that, as a com-poser, he `places together’ often disparate things. In his chamber music, vocal music, orchestral works and theatre pieces he combines, but does not fuse, such ‘moments’ into coexistence, with no before or after, admitting that he has learned much from the cutting techniques of cinema, an enthusiasm of his adolescence. Such methods, though democratic in being chaotic like life itself, don’t make for ready apprehension, let alone Easy Listening.

I cannot claim to know Finnissy’s music well enough to be sure how far ideas and ideals I’m deeply empathetic to are fully realised. But the youngish people who have written and edited this tribute are committed Finnissy disciples who believe that intention and realisation may be sufficiently equated – Finnissy’s irrepressible fecundity has the courage of its contradictory convictions – to make him a major composer, possibly the major composer of his generation in Britain today. It doesn’t matter if some of Finnissy’s dizzier notations cannot be accurately interpreted, any more than can some of Ives’s notations, for it is evident that something like his mating of instinct and intellect is essential to our survival. I can see and hear the immense Folklore anthology for piano as music of the Global Village juxtaposing and interacting many different notions of musical pitch, rhythm, and timbre culled from sources worldwide and almost timeless, but refashioned by a musician who, in global awareness, may `stand for’ us all. I get the point, too, that Finnissy’s music, being multi-ethnically human, is rooted in the human voice, whatever literally breathtaking contortions and convulsions may be entailed in its execution. And I can see that much of it calls for theatrical projection, whether – as in Therese Raquin – it takes as subject for a full-scale opera, social and sexual delinquencies in Zola’s l9th-century Europe, or whether it offers a briefly powerful moral homily on behalf of homosexual Tchaikovsky, in whose perfervid music Finnissy has always delighted, and with whose ‘persecuted’ genius he has frequently identified. In the theatrical works the multitudinous `found musics’ – references to and quotations from past works by other composers – boggle the mind and cannot fully register in performance; yet they have a certain logic in paralleling the aural continuity of folk traditions wherein modes of musical ‘behaviour’ are handed down, modifed, from generation to generation. Finnissy’s ‘transcriptions’ of notated art music (such as the vast Verdi cycle) turn literately notated music into folk memory, though the burden of so much accumulated knowledge is surely too great to sustain.

Even so, we should honour Finnissy’s bravery in confronting a pluralism at once perilous and promising. His courage outweighs the fact that, fairly recently his life and art have garnered a religious dimension in response to his partner’s Anglo-Catholicism, for though this has slightly tamed his violence, letting light into his music’s density, I can’t see him being committed to a quest for spiritual serenity nor, indeed, to any defined path among life’s bewildering multiplicities.

The authors of the book – Ian Pace on the piano music and theatre pieces, Roger Redgate on the chamber music, Julian Anderson on the orchestral works, and Christopher Fox on the vocal music – have all worked creatively with Finnissy, and the extraordinary pianist Ian Pace (who is said to be capable of playing the pieces with almost total accuracy) has embarked on the formidable task of recording all the keyboard works. These critical surveys are helpful, sometimes analytical, sometimes descriptive or merely informative, but always copiously illustrated by music examples clear enough to be decipherable. But the general reader will profit most from the introductory interviews with Finnissy, who comes across as wide-rangingly intelligent and warmly sympathetic. If I relish his spoken words rather more than most of the music I’ve been able to hear, this is due mostly to ignorance, and doesn’t temper my respect for the boldness of his enterprise. I see Finnissy as an heir to both Ives – a great musical humanist who felt and thought hard, in that order – and John Cage, who started from his human instincts and from (God’s) chance, but ended by paradoxically substituting chance for intellect, in that he produced, in his Etudes for solo violin, music of a hair-raising complexity barely matched even in Finnissy’s most rebarbative moments, and did so by way of chance operations of varying degrees of abstruseness, from the I-Ching to the tracing of star-maps. God or Chance does indeed work in a mysterious way; though Cage’s assertion that he was `testing the limits of human possibility’ sounds immediately relevant to Finnissy, whom I see as tramping and stamping on paths uncovered by Ives and Cage with undauntable audacity – emulating his childhood hero, the boy Rimbaud, in circumstances perhaps less propitious yet also, at the dawn of a new millennium, hazardously hopeful. This book – which incorporates a comprehensive catalogue meticulously compiled by Henrietta Brougham, along with a bibliography, discography and filmography – should keep the Finnissy flag flying over the next two dangerous decades.

Copyright Musical Times Publications, Ltd. Winter 1998

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