…Amid the emotional and musical sophistication (and, in the piano pieces, two-fisted tumult), a vein of simplicity often runs through Finnissy’s music. Such is the case with the three pieces called ‘Plain Harmony’ (1993-95) which open the disc of music for string quartet. Actually, the CD title is something of a misnomer; the strings very rarely cohere into a ‘traditional’ quartet. (Finnissy obviously has no intention of bolstering our cultural expectations.) ‘Plain Harmony’ has, for example, no score, only four part books – the four instrumental voices sound simultaneously, but at no point do they sing as one. The vigorous hymnic lines, rhythmic unisons, and dissonance presented as though it were concordance, make for a bracing experience. This is a rough-hewn and extremely sturdy music, profoundly honest about what it is and what it’s doing.
The extraordinary complexities of ‘Nobody’s Jig’ (1981) and ‘String Quartet’ (1984) make a nonsense of the idea of perfect performance. But that doesn’t mean Finnissy relinquishes control of the material; nor that clarity of purpose is downplayed. The musicians have to work very hard, and even the listener is required to do his bit. For the first seven minutes of ‘String Quartet’ the instruments inhabit the extreme upper register, weaving virtually inaudible microtonal lines and dense chromaticisms. Initially, this is baffling: what is going on? Then, without any kind of signposting, the instruments spring into focus. By which time, of course, you’re really listening, concentrating like mad, attuned to the slightest shiver of bow on string. The weird thing is, the trick works every time. ‘String Quartet’ may be the most unrelaxing piece of music I’ve heard of late. And that, though it sounds like nothing of the sort, is a compliment!