In a note appended to the score of Folklore, Finnissy describes his country of birth as “insular and conservative, institutionalized, despiritualized, tawdry and corrupt”. Beneath contempt, in other words. Yet he continues to live and work in England despite attractive offers from the USA, the Netherlands and elsewhere. This deep ambivalence is apparent in his music. Not only does he make little or no attempt to reconcile differences, more often he seems determined to accentuate them. Modal melodies from the folk tradition drift over billowing chords that are dense, harmonically ambiguous and often profoundly unsettling. Elemental or atavistic violence seems always to be lurking somewhere in the background. Finnissy reinvests folk tunes with the musical equivalent of a complex psychology; his transcriptions countervail against the cosy, sanitised, skipping-round-the-maypole version of rural life in bygone days that organisations such as English Heritage promote.
The ‘Polish Dances’ on ‘Folklore’ date from 1955; Finnissy was only eight years old, but he’d been composing for half as many years. His transcriptions, even then, were bristling with implications. If, as he has said, his response to music was primarily sensuous rather than intellectual, it was nonetheless critical – the melodies were addressed and caressed and, in the process, transformed. This process is also discernible in the tiny ‘Svatovac’ (1973-74), both sets of Australian Sea Shanties (1983), ‘Lylyly Li’ (1988-89), and in more Romantically-inclined ‘autobiographical’ pieces such as ‘My love is like a red red rose’ (1990).
The major work on this disc is ‘Folklore II’ (1993-94), which Finnissy has described as “an investigation of different modes of presence” and “a distant memory, an assemblage, a critical elaboration, an opposition of conjunctions, an open-ended investigation, a palimpsest, a self-portrait.” Somewhat more insouciantly, he said, “I stole the tunes and messed them around a bit.” ‘Old songs deranged’ as Charles Ives put it. But this kind of messing around owes something – political and social as well as musical – to Cornelius Cardew and Christian Wolff, too. Finnissy acknowledges them both; also Michael Tippett, whose use of the Afro-American spiritual ‘Deep River’ in the oratorio, A Child of Our Time, inspired Finnissy to weave several meditations and improvisations around this melody. Considerably less violent than his magnum opus for piano, English Country-Tunes, Folklore is a free-floating, irresolute and luxuriant piece, thoughtful rather than daydreamy, which on subsequent hearings seems to offer different perspectives on the material.