Disorientation is a recurring trait in Michael Finnissy’s output generally, not only due to collisions of style and aesthetic but in the way different parts or materials relate to one another. This can lend his music a layer of initial impenetrability, a quality particularly audible in the works on Metier’s most recent Finnissy disc, Mississippi Hornpipes, exploring various works for violin and piano, performed by Darragh Morgan and Mary Dullea. Not in all of them, though: based on folk fiddle tunes, the title work is a highly engaging, rapid progression through a huge number of episodes, so rapid that the joins are often difficult to discern. The connectivity between the instruments to an extent moves in and out of phase but behaviourally they’re clearly united.
However, in Seterjentens Fridag, another folk-based work, the relationship between the three players (violin, piano and organ, the latter performed by Finnissy himself) has the semblance of a mobile, drifting parts that align themselves in accidental and coincidental ways. This highlights another facet of disorientation in Finnissy’s work, due to the way he manages the distribution of his musical materials. A great deal of his music involves unsynchronised performance, with varying amounts of control being exerted in terms of a composition’s long-term coordination and structure. The effects of this are pretty bewildering in Seterjentens Fridag, whereas in Amphithéâtre des Sciences Mortes the effect is relatively subtle, Dullea’s prepared piano, aided here by Finnissy playing an additional keyboard, forming a strange little ‘gamelan’ of sorts, positioning quasi-random bursts of activity around the violin’s foreground phrases more as colouration than counterpoint. Despite being evidently strung together so loosely, the piece manages to maintain a coherent and consistent whole.
The Violin Sonata that concludes the disc is arguably the most coherent piece of all. Cast as a diptych, its distinctly neo-romantic first movement is rapid and robust but for all its thorough-going exploration of sonata principles is somewhat vague. The second movement could hardly be more different, quick-fire staccatos displaying an increasing sense that what we’re hearing is in fact cut-up/fragmented lyrical material (perhaps from the preceding movement) which the violin in particular is trying to piece back together and/or recapture its spirit.
On the one hand, the longest work on the disc, Molly House, a 2004 work for “unspecified ensemble (with soloists, keyboards and electric household-gadgets)”—the latter here manifested as a detuned harpsichord and a collection of household appliances—could easily be described as an essay in the most dramatic disorientation. A frankly discombobulating composition where the violin’s imploring central lyricism is surrounded, afflicted, intruded, coloured and embellished by a litany of alarming noises that push the ‘counter’ of counterpoint to its extreme, Finnissy makes its fundamental strangeness a positive virtue. The music’s wonderfully bizarre expressive cut and thrust is given a weird veneer through its continual cut-and-paste demeanour, as though pieced together from multiple fragments of salon music, resulting in a downright weird piece that seems to be reinterpreting its own compositional DNA at every moment. Easily one of the composer’s most engagingly entertaining pieces, Morgan, Dullea and Finnissy are all clearly having a whale of a time in this delirious performance which is easily the highlight of the disc.