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One-man Band

Michael Finnissy playing his
English Country Tunes
on Etcetera KTC 1091

CD Review

Michael Finnissy - credit Katie VandyckThree years ago Michael Finnissy attained the landmark of his fiftieth birthday: which means that he was born around the time when American Abstract Expressionist painters were forging the most radically innovative visual style of our battered century. Currently, London is displaying a retrospective exhibition of the work of Jackson Pollock, facetiously known as Jack the Dripper because he dripped, sprayed and splashed paint around with a random precision that amounted to genius. If there can be an aural equivalent to Pollock's alarming visuality, we may surely find it in the music of Michael Finnissy, especially that which he wrote for his own instrument, the piano, a one-man band on which he exhibits a random dexterity reminiscent of Pollock's inspired instinctuality. This amounts to a triumph of the pluralism that dominates our world, which has only hazy recollections of what concepts like 'tradition' and 'value' used to mean. Since 'anything goes', an artist young in heart or years may borrow from a multiplicity of global village sources, while from his own world he may deploy 'materials' selected regardless of distinctions between genres and categories. If that makes for bewilderment, that's because our world itself bewilders; and bewilderment may hopefully stimulate and enliven, as well as deconstruct.

This is evident in the work here recorded by the composer, for English Country Tunes, a large-scale piano work written in 1977, encapsulates what Finnissy is 'about'. If the title arouses expectations of benign English pastoralism, we're in for a 'rude' shock, as is indicated in the liner-notes' information that the second word of the title is a pun on the first syllable of the word 'country'. Well, the old Folk wouldn't have objected to that, and might even have recognised the ferocious bangings and bashes of Finnissy's Loud Music as an industrialized version of the percussive hubbub they'd sometimes employed, in 'olden' times, to scare away evil! Perhaps, indeed, that may be part of Finnissy's motivation, though the more patent point of his raucous racket brings in political issues that have served savagely to demolish the presumptive innocence of old-time songs. Politically, Finnissy thinks he is alienated as an old-fashioned but bravely unregenerate leftie; socially, he thinks he is still marginalized through being gay. This was probably once true, and if it's less true now, one can still understand why his music comes out as explosively angry, hauntingly nostalgic, and curiously moving in the very violence of its disparities. The considerable stretches of immensely loud ('New Complexity') music sound as if they are being improvised in the wild heat of the moment , as they probably were, originally. But even the most rebarbative passages are now notated, and we're told that the pianist Ian Pace, if not the composer himself, can play them accurately. I don't think accuracy makes much difference to the effect, though I can see that notation at least ensures that the onslaughts on the keyboard may be related to those invented, and intended, by Finnissy, rather than to those unleashed by a probably less talented musician. On this recording Finnissy's keyboard escapades - triggered off by the pianism of the New World's great Charles Ives, whom Finnissy acknowledges as prime instigator of his approach to composition - take the listener's, as well as the performer's, breath away: for he sees his art as a gallimaufry of reanimations of what the past may mean to a changing world, from Beethoven and Verdi (whom Finnissy has re-made) to ballads, blues, boogie, and thence to the deliberate Chaos of John Cage's indeterminacy. The music comes out as pluralistically polyphonic, polytonal, polyharmonic, and polymetrical, as well as polyethnic, since it draws (not quite impartially) on all the ragbag of 'material' that a multicultural metropolis, such as Finnissy's native London, may spew up.

A Jack the Dripper-style random precision calls not only for talent, but for genius, if it is to convince. Unsurprisingly, there are moments when Finnissy's startlements, persisting a shade too long, cease to startle. What matters, however, is that there are also moments of stillness through which 'old' tunes of the 'folk', who were folk long before industrial technocracies were invented, glimmer, in pathetic fragmentation, through the hurly-burly. Such a notion has been dismissed by some steely critics as sentimental, or at least as naïve: though for me it distils - I choose the word carefully - a bloom redolent not so much of worlds old or lost, as of those 'spiritual' values that may still atemporally resuscitate human creatures. I guess it's a bit ominous that I've put the word 'spiritual' in defensive quotes; but if you listen to the first of Finnissy's tattered tunes, 'Midsummer Morn', then to the frenzied babel of tongues he extracts from 'Lies and Marvels' and even from the heart-rending 'Seeds of Love', and finally to the last and least fragmented of his deconstructed old tunes, 'My bonny boy', you'll understand why Finnissy is on the side of the Angels - of people who care about something other than Market Values. The momentary quietude of this music - like that of Morton Feldman, an American composer deeply related to another Abstract Expressionist painter, the 'inactionist' Mark Rothko, as distinct from the Action painter Jackson Pollock- tells us, from the hazardous heart of our world, that while there is life there is hope. 'My bonny boy' was, and is, a love song, in this case presumably, though not exclusively, homosexual.

Copyright © Wilfrid Mellers, March 22nd 1999


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