Michael Finnissy completed The History of Photography in Sound, his thematically interlinked cycle of 11 solo piano pieces, with a combined duration of over five hours when played back-to-back, in 2000. I was present at Ian Pace’s 2001 premiere of the complete cycle and my thoughts 12 years on are that our brains would have seriously flipped had we known then what we know now about photography was about to be revolutionised by embedding cameras into mobile phones, and that manipulating images was but the right piece of computer software away.
But perhaps by 2001 I did have a camera on my phone? I honestly can’t remember. And that’s history as Finnissy understands the term. Events forgotten, muddled, misremembered, dredged up suddenly, for better and/or worse, as events impinge upon our consciousness. Photography as a retrospective score of our lives; but scores are open to interpretation and wilful manipulation.
And the rest is noise, music buckling under the weight of association, sounds swirling everywhere. Finnissy keeps his cultural aperture forever wide-angled, ideas and sounds papped ferociously. Ives began his Concord Sonata with a snapshot of the opening motif of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Finnissy begins the first chapter, ‘Le démon de l’analogie’, by reshooting that Beethoven/Ives sonic image from a radically detached angle: other lighting, different perspectives. And, believe me, if you could see Finnissy’s score – chapters tagged with titles ranging from the plain-speaking such as ‘North American Spirituals’, ‘Seventeen Immortal Homosexual Poets’, ‘Alkan- Paganini’, ‘ Unsere Afrikareise’ to the more poetic ‘Le réveil de l’intraitable réalité’ and ‘Etched bright with sunlight’, references to Bach, Sullivan, ragtime, Debussy, Berlioz, Beethoven, Meyerbeer and Offenbach et al written between the staves, his sources all named and framed – you’d grasp the scope of the enterprise.
But unless you chose to seek the scores out, HoPiS must ultimately stand up as a compositional object, a thing designed to make sound. Ian Pace is Finnissy’s David Bailey, each note shaded to perfection, structures translucently and sharply lit, defining sonic images of our time. In ‘North American Spirituals’, references to Tippett leap out like online pop-ups. But ‘Unsere Afrikareise’ fesses up that dealing with ‘trophies’ from indigenous African music is a problem for any Western composer. Your photograph of your Auntie Pat is never going to mean as much to me as my photograph of my Auntie Pat. Made as powerfully by environment and emotional context as by pianos and cameras, sounds and images can never be neutral.