Music often seems to occupy a space and time of its own. Michael Finnissy’s piano cycle The History Of Photography In Sound, stretching across five and a half hours, may appear superficially to exist in that kind of monumental isolation. Yet in practice this complex and stimulating work is embedded within a range of discursive contexts that actively run counter to any sense of a detached magnum opus.
Ian Pace, who gave the first complete performance at London’s Royal Academy of Music in January 2001, supplies nearly 100 pages of commentary in the accompanying booklet, and a greatly extended version of his text is available online. Finnissy derived particular compositional impetus from the writings on photography of Walter Benjamin, Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag, and the 11 chapters of this substantial addition to piano literature offer illumination comparable to those essays.
Interpreted by Pace with superb dedication, Finnissy’s musical montage mixes autobiography with philosophical reflection and critique, quotation, sharp observation and personal conviction. Commenting self-reflexively upon the language of the piano, this intricately allusive music issues a committed challenge to our own responsiveness and literacy.