You might think a piano cycle lasting more than five hours is asking too much. But when the music is as endlessly fascinating, engaging, challenging puzzling, beautiful, thought-provoking and charming as Finnissy’s, it is not a hardship. Written between 1997 and 2000, The History of Photography in Sound presents 11 ‘chapters’ exploring notions of memory and the way in which our perspective on the past changes over time, among other complex ideas.
Although it includes an abundance of found materials, the chapters are not pictorial in the manner of, say, Pictures at an Exhibition . Nonetheless they do explore various subjects, as is clear from titles such as ‘North American Spirituals’. My parents’ generation thought war meant something’ or the scintillating final chapter, ‘Etched bright with sunlight’. These richly coloured tapestries last around 30 minutes, though the study in transcription and virtuousity of ‘Alkan-Paganini’ is much shorter, while ‘Kapitalistisch realisme’ lasts more than an hour. On disc the work will inevitably be sampled in chunks, but listening to the entire cycle with just a couple of breaks, as at the premiere, enriches the experience.
In addition to the premier, Ian Pace has given many complete performances, so this extraordinary work could scarcely be better served. Pace provides an extensive and informative set of booklet essays detailing the work’s genesis and performance issues as well as a detailed commentary on each chapter. His intimate acquaintance with the totality of History is apparent in his commanding performance. Pace’s continuity within overlapping fragments of ‘Eadweard Muybridge’, for example, is striking, and his control of the gradual buildup in the first section of ‘Unsere Afrikareise’ is masterly. This is a magnificent achievement for both composer and performer.