Ian Pace plays Finnissy (CD Review)

Michael Finnissy

The History of Photography in Sound

Ian Pace, piano

Metier Records 5XCD set

Clocking in at well over three hundred minutes in duration, Michael Finnissy’s eleven-movement cycle for solo piano The History of Photography in Sound (composed 1997-2000) is a gargantuan effort for both composer and performer. Ian Pace is the foremost advocate for and interpreter of Finnissy’s piano music – over the past two decades, he has performed all of it and is presently writing a monograph about the composer. One cannot imagine a more heartfelt nor technically skilful performance of this work.

From a composer with a more directly programmatic bent, a work titled “North American Spirituals,” as is this piece’s third movement, would sound very different. But Finnissy’s musical language revels in a complex interplay of far flung reference points, ample virtuosity, and a penchant for pungent, dense harmonies and a coruscating rhythmic grid. Thus, musical program can sometimes be integrated in earnest or with a measure of critical distance – oftentimes, both aspects of dealing with narrative are at least somewhat present. The past, especially past music, can sometimes seem to be a far-off memory distantly evoked; it can also seem to be lampooned in over-the-top fashion.

Finnissy has been called a “New Complexity” composer, and late modernism is merely one strain of his work. While Ives’s sense of collage and quotation certainly is a touchstone, so too are Scriabin, Schoenberg, Liszt, folksong, pop standards, and, yes, Ferneyhough. Also present are a variety of recurring themes – homosexuality, freedom, violence, sensuality, Christianity, community, literature, poetics – the list goes on.

The question many listeners inevitably will have, particularly with the prospect of 5 ½ hours of Finnissy’s music ahead, is how to make heads or tails of an overarching message or narrative: it would seem to elude one’s grasp. And that’s because, as far as this writer can tell, there isn’t a single idée fixe to be had: that’s not the reason for this cycle’s existence. We may like to think that a monumental and cyclic composition must have a single thread for us to wend our way through it – even the twists and turns of the Ring Cycle have a mythological framework for us (tenuously) to grip. Pace has written often of Finnissy’s generous spirit, and if there is a through line to be found in The History of Photography in Sound, it is that spirit of generosity bestowing upon us all the many musical ideas Finnissy has to offer: and that’s quite a lot. So, don’t worry about “getting it” on first hearing: that’s not the point either. Instead, revel; wallow even, in the embarrassment of riches and abundant virtuosity on display here. Then, listen again, gradually peeling away successive layers to find your favorite bits.

Caution: The History of Photography in Sound is a heavy dose for a single sitting, much like watching a season of Breaking Bad in a single weekend: binge at your own risk! Still, this is a boxed set that is wholeheartedly recommended.

-Christian Carey

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