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Michael Finnissy’s music has been appearing on the Métier label for some time now. Piano Concertos was also performed by Ian Pace. Lost Lands and The Church [sic – it’s ‘This Church’] are also among a few of the titles which have appeared. To gain a little of the flavour of The History of Photography in Sound there is a Seen and Heard report here of its performance in 2001. The term ‘long awaited’ applied to this nicely presented release seems entirely applicable.

The online blurb on the Métier site also suggests that this is “a very accessible piece”, but even for someone like me with a lifetime’s experience of listening to and performing contemporary music, I doubt the word “accessible” would be the first to spring to mind.

What is The History of Photography in Sound ?

This is hard to sum up, even while attempting to find answers from the chunky 100 page booklet. “The title remains enigmatic and polysemic”, we are told, and hope begins to wither. If we can’t even clarify the title where do we even start with the music? There are extensive notes by pianist Ian Pace, and information about the gestation of the work and challenges in its performance is useful and interesting. The notes go into very detailed analysis and this is not the place to attempt any kind of synopsis. It should suffice to say that there is a great deal going on here, though it will inevitably take numerous listening sessions to get to grips with the many references and their manifestations in Finnissy’s music.

So, are we up for a challenge?

I will admit to finding this review one of the more daunting prospects I’ve faced in many years. I’ve always liked the idea of large-scale works for solo instruments, and piano works from the likes of Messiaen, Rzewski and Stevenson count among some of my favourites. The reality when it comes to well-known examples such as Sorabji’s Opus Clavicembalisticum is however in my case more often than not one of regret. I regret raising my expectations, and embarking on inhabiting a world of expression which demands respect and admiration both in terms of creation and performance. Actually it results in friction-burns; rubbing against something which communicates vast intellect and incredible achievements, but is actually pretty horrible to have to listen to for a very long time.

Such feelings are entirely subjective. I will take my rap on the knuckles from everyone out there who will disagree with me and regard me as a cultural barbarian. The admission I have to make from the outset is that, even after numerous listening sessions and a good deal of inner searching, I don’t like this piece or set of pieces.

The History of Photography in Sound is an appealing title and drew me in, but much of the actual music works on my soul like water droplets bouncing off something super hydrophobic. It seems I have The History of Photography in Sound- phobia.

Frank Zappa once said, “Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible.”With this I am in total agreement. Michael Finnissy’s scores are challenging to the eye let alone to the technique of the aspirant performer. Deviation from the norm is very much the order of the day if your norm is Bach, Mozart and the younger Beethoven. Ian Pace’s remarkable, superhuman skill in getting around the notes of these pieces and the stamina required to perform work of such range and duration is phenomenal. Listening again to the strangeness, deliberately inexpressive open intervals and angular lines of Le demon de l’analogie I can’t escape imagery of a musician gone mad: one who has lost his way entirely, and who seeks but cannot find comfort in the sound of the piano and its infinite cosmos of note-combinations, any note-combinations. Moments of clarity and quasi-beauty occur as if by accident, as do outbursts of frustration. Simple naivety rubs shoulders with filigrees of intense sophistication, structure with a sense of random chaos. Thoughts scatter as soon as opportunities for logic are offered, and sickness reigns, and goes on… and on… and on… for hours… and hours.

‘Deviation from the norm’ is relative, and if your line of appreciation runs from, say, Charles Ives through Henry Cowell to perhaps someone like Iannis Xenakis or Brian Ferneyhough then the world of Michael Finnissy will be nothing hugely out of the ordinary. I have no particular difficulty with music of any specific genre, but The History of Photography in Sound leaves me with the impression of a work of art preserved and held up for its perceived cultural significance rather than something which delivers a moving legacy of the times in which it was written or the immutable will of the composer to deliver a message of incredible power and emotional impact. Another composer quote, this time from Detlev Glanert, says that music “must tell you something about your life and something about what you are … If it does not, it will die.” The huge booklet for The History of Photography in Sound tells us a great deal about what we are being told, why and how. While I am a fan of analysis and a staunch enemy of anti-intellectual standpoints, I am also in this age of music streaming and downloads a sceptic of compositions which demand volumes of explanatory text – frequently absent in these forms of listening – for the delivery of a rounded appreciation of their content. The background and literature of The History of Photography in Sound gives us all plenty to get our intellectual and imaginative teeth into, but the music remains what it is – seemingly endless reams of relentless meandering “till the heart is sick and the brain benumbed, As well as the weary hand.”

There are differences between the movements. Le demon de l’analogie put me in a bad mood at the outset, but the expressive time-tripping world created in aspects of My parents’ generation thought War meant something make it one of the more involving pieces. Granitic darkness turn some of the Seventeen Immortal Homosexual Poets into impressively powerful figures in the earliest of the eleven pieces to be composed. The sparing lines and sustained contrasting shape of Eadweard Muybridge – Edvard Munch is an interesting juxtaposition identified with shifting perspectives and intriguing vanishing points.

Occupying a single disc, Kapitalistisch Realisme would be an incredible statement in its own right, let alone just one part of an entire cycle. This is summed up as “three large sections connected by two interludes [with] symphonic dimensions and grandiosity of conception” with heroic threads of Beethoven, Bach and Busoni throughout. More introverted but also troubled spheres are developed in Wachtend op de volgende uitbarsting van repressie en censuur , which translates as ‘waiting for the next outburst of repression and censorship’. Sublime beauty of sound introduces Unsere Aftikareise or ‘Our African Journey’, and this filtering of African and other folk music for a time creates a special atmosphere. Etched Bright with Sunlight is quite a clearly defined finale kicked off with dense and driving patterns, the brightness of light shimmering through the upper range of the piano.

With excellent sound and Ian Pace’s remarkable playing, this work is something which demands our attention and admiration. I’ve tried, but aside from the few movements and passages singled out I’m afraid this is the kind of thing which these days would have me straining to escape the concert hall. My intention is in no way to dismiss The History of Photography in Sound as anything less than an artistic marvel. I would never insist that music should of necessity be pleasurable or entertaining, or that it should impart some kind of spiritual experience, or indeed that it should have any ‘function’ at all as such. Music can take itself too seriously but there is always a place for seriousness, and if there is one thing I have no doubts about it is Finnissy’s absolute sincerity. I can fully appreciate that his meticulous but intensely abstract music goes far beyond the vapid and the ephemeral. My suspicion however is that it bends so far in the opposite direction that it almost reaches full circle, perhaps approaching the disposability of acute aversion in a strange opposite circle which eats its own tail in something akin to the phenomenon of elevator music. Alas, I’ve already blown all my chances of rapprochement with supporters for this work but I’m too old to care, and meekly await the inevitable tirades about my crass ignorance. I sincerely hope and trust that the great Mr Finnissy is also beyond caring what anyone says about his music. I raise a glass to his prolific and uncompromisingly gloriously modernist creativity, but fear my own digestion has been shattered in the attempt to appreciate The History of Photography in Sound . You must try for yourself and make up your own mind.

—Dominy Clements