All the British composer Michael Finnissy requires for his idea of the interaction between the media of image and sound is a piano. Although any pianist playing Finnissy’s complete cycle The History of Photography in Sound is kept busy for almost six hours – and so far Ian Pace is the only one to have attempted it.
After those six hours, the enigma presented in the title is not completely resolved either. The combination of image and sound goes beyond the compositional technique that resembles film editing, and is anchored in several places, for example in Finnissy’s creation of musical perspectives that stipulate a specific point of view, or in his use and adaptation of aspects of art history in musical form. In the chapter Eadweard Muybridge - Edvard Munch he is concerned with the way that these two artists dealt in different visual media with the limitations of the image in depicting movement. With Munch, it is movement that surrounds the picture’s static central figure and is reflected in its expression. By contrast, Eadweard Muybridge, a generation older, had already created a prototype of the film camera in 1877, when the medium of photography was still new: in order to analyse the mechanics of a horse’s movement, he had a galloping horse photographed by several cameras triggered one after another – thus founding serial photography. Although it represents movement, Muybridge’s series of pictures is static. This contradiction also characterises Finnissy’s music, which is distinguished here by moments of oddly lifeless movement. In terms of content, the musical material that Finnissy uses in this chapter is, however, entirely unrelated: it places African American spirituals alongside Bruckner’s 3rd Symphony and Emmanuel Chabrier’s opera L’Etoile. The link between them is purely historical: the latter two works were both written in the aforementioned year 1877.
As a composer, Michael Finnissy, born in 1946, is counted as a member of the school of New Complexity. However, in his dense and multi-layered music he reworks a ludicrously rich and eclectic store of music by other composers, including those from the fields of entertainment and world music. In The History of Photography in Sound he is often concerned with the tension between the musical cultures of Western states and former colonies. In the chapter ›North American Spirituals‹ he confronts Western art music with various forms of African American music. Against the background of the history of slavery in America, an intended unease arises when Finnissy – without pathos and without resolution – bursts into spirituals familiar as North American church hymns like Steal Away, Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen or Go Down, Moses, intercutting their hopeful melancholy with snatches of intrusively upbeat ragtime.
The surreal effect of the simultaneity of contrasting musical worlds, the wild polymetrics and thunderous clusters repeatedly hammered down on the keyboard are reminiscent of Conlon Nancarrow, Henry Cowell and, of course, Finnissy’s idol Charles Ives.
Here Finnissy’s aesthetic of overload and granularity seems paradoxical: the wealth of individual detail is so expansive that one loses sight of them no matter how hard one tries. However, larger forces and movements are revealed as if looking on from the perspective of a great distance. Once one has persuaded oneself to let go of the details, an almost supernatural auditory spectrum opens up, as if one were looking down from space on everything that is happening on earth at the same time – an aerial photograph in sound, as it were. Here at the very latest, memories are awakened of the utopias of Charles Ives – and also those of Michael Wertmüller, who is at least as big a fan of Ives as Michael Finnissy.