The first piece on the record, Kritik der Urteilskraft (Critique of Judgement), is a direct reference to the work of Kant, though it’s unclear exactly which Kantian ideas are supposed to be embedded in the piece. Short, dramatic gestures in a mild dissonance progress very gradually through the first two thirds of the work. The harmonies are certainly not tonal, but neither are they dodecaphonic. Out of nearly ambient textures erupt little melodic utterances, coming to a climax about 20 minutes in. Here things get quite loud, including some very aggressive, high flute notes. One could hardly call this music over-written, but it is also far from a “minimalist” kind of aesthetic. It feels as though there is a mature restraint over all of the music on the record, cautious not to say too much.
A Propos de Nice is a bit messier and was written as a score to a 1930 silent film of the same title by Jean Vigo. It is performed often without the film, though, Finnissy deeming it fit for listening to on its own. Not having seen the film, I can’t say much about how it might fit, but the music has an anti-narrative structure, fragmented and unnerving sometimes. One must come to terms with a moment-to-moment style of listening to appreciate its beauty.
The title piece, Unknown Ground, is the high point of the album. A long, first-person account of the struggles of growing up in America as a gay man is accompanied by a prominent cello part. Themes of repression, self-doubt, and the paranoia surrounding AIDS are all dealt with. While the text is quite expressive – especially the violent and climactic “Why the fuck me?” – the cello remains under control, though in an anxious, desperate kind of way. The restraint of the emotions attached to the topics makes the piece feel real, honest, and effective. Instead of screaming about everything, the cello sounds as if it has come to terms with what the narrator is lamenting. The feeling is not a coming to peace, but a learning how to manage the powerful emotions and uneasiness. It is easy to sympathize with the narrator as he goes through social struggles and eventually fights the deadly virus. This less melodramatic approach somehow makes the whole piece more genuine and more moving. It is a powerful work by the English composer, played and sung with dedication.