Michael Finnissy’s “The History of Photography in Sound” for solo piano is another listening “Mount Everest” for me, both in terms of its approximately five and one-half hour duration, as well as regarding my attempts to grasp the compositional goals he set out to achieve.
Finnissy (1946-) began composing the piece during 1997 and completed it in 2000, amending it during 2002. It utilizes music from a wide variety of sources, including many examples from Western Classical music, Folk and Popular songs from around the globe. Those unfamiliar with the piece might have difficulty discerning these occult quotes, which are subsumed within Finnissy’s style.
Spread over five CDs and released under the Metier label, this piece was my first experience with Finnissy’s music, which I found stimulating and fascinating. These performances from pianist Ian Pace (1968-) reflected his background as a highly qualified musician and a formidable musicologist. In fact, Pace was also the author of the 98-page book of accompanying liner notes, as well as an additional extended discussion of the work, which is available as a free PDF file. I must confess that the small print in the accompanying booklet made me wish I’d initially chosen the PDF version. Although he recorded the piece during 2004 and 2006, Pace wrote the liner notes during 2013, by which time he had lived with and/or performed Finnissy’s music for approximately 20 years, forging a strong collaborative relationship with the composer. As it developed, Pace performed the world premieres of each chapter of the work, prior to its completion.
At any rate, the completed work contains 11 chapters which address musical and socioeconomic topics and range in length from approximately 14 minutes (Alkan-Paganini) to 68 minutes (Kapitalistich Realisme). Finnissy belongs to the “New Complexity” school of composers. While the music is fearfully complex at times, Pace noted that there are few instances of great frenetic activity, particularly when compared with many of Finnissy’s earlier works. I noticed that much of the music was quiet and contemplative, with stretches of complete silence. The dynamic range and challenges required from the pianist were enormous. A reminiscent comparison might be made with works of Charles Ives (1874-1954); i.e., “The Concord Sonata,” particularly when a hymn or popular song is uncovered through the harmonic haze.
While I can provide detailed comments, they will not diminish the necessary effort required to hear this work, and only the truly adventurous will want to tackle it. You should know that this composition is in good hands and the recordings of these discs deserve the highest marks. I look forward to hearing more music from Michael Finnissy.