Post-Experimental Survivor: Finnissy the Experimentalist

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It is generally acknowledged that despite the urge to gather composers within some kind of ‘school’ or aesthetic family, composers such as Brian Ferneyhough, Michael Finnissy, James Dillon and others are at least as distinct from each other as the degree to which they share commonalities. Detailed study of their music over decades since only serves to emphasise the differences. Finnissy, however, was perhaps always the most uncomfortable fit amongst the composers with whom he was most often associated, at least in writing and popular perception. This essay positions Finnissy as champion of, and aligned and critically engaged with, the music of the so-called experimental tradition, from Ives, through Cage, to recent developments, predominantly within North America and the UK.
As well as examining a number of works which explicitly reference the music of the classic experimentalists, such as John Cage, Christian Wolff and Cornelius Cardew, aspects of Finnissy’s compositional technique and language which most clearly reveal the influence of experimental music, such as the use of assemblage, chance, borrowing and cut-up, and indeterminacy are discussed. Finnissy’s distinct application of these techniques are discussed not only for their innovations but for also the way in which they reveal fresh perspectives upon the experimental tradition itself, enlarging and questioning the normative terms of reference employed by the discourse. Although a range of works for solo piano and ensemble are referenced, discussion is focused upon Folklore (1993-4), Recent Britain (1997-8) and Post-Christian Survival Kit (2003-5).
Informing discussion of the relationship between Finnissy’s own work and the experimental tradition are Finnissy’s activities as a performer – as pianist, conductor and director. His commitment to the piano and ensemble music of, amongst others, Laurence Crane, Howard Skempton and John White, challenges assumptions of stylistic unity and coherence, as well as questioning conventions of form, harmony and technique. Performance practices more usually relating to experimentalism are considered in the context of Finnissy’s own music, as well as his own performances of other music. My own experiences and interpretative approaches performing the music of these composers and others, including that of Finnissy himself, closely shapes my discussion of performance issues here. Finally, the network of composers, performers and modes of practice pertaining to the experimental tradition is considered as more extended, diverse and multi-faceted than conventionally considered in the light of Finnissy’s deep engagement with the music and its culture.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationCritical Perspectives on Michael Finnissy
Subtitle of host publicationBright Futures, Dark Pasts
EditorsIan Pace, Nigel McBride
Place of PublicationAbingdon & New York
Number of pages19
ISBN (Electronic)9781351031547
ISBN (Print)9781138491977 , 1138491977
Publication statusPublished - 21 May 2019

Publication series

NameAshgate Studies in Theory and Analysis of Music after 1900

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