Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Michael Finnissy - Solo Piano

It fascinates me no end how certain music makes people respond. Depending on what it is, some people cry, some smile, some dance, some reflect. Some styles of music inspire tangible feelings of discomfort, and in some, a strong urge to punch someone or something.

Michael Finnissy's 1990 album "English Country Tunes for Solo Piano" is a record that is both amazing and frustrating all at once. Music, for the most part, has rules, constructs and syntax like any other artform. This is music that takes the rulebook, but it doesn't throw it out the window - it covers it in petrol and puts a match to it.

This is where it gets tricky for some. Most people who have heard a lot of music are used to the conventional rules of music, even if they are oblivious to what they are. We like harmony, melody, rhythm - most songs create unity through repetition, and thus the constant repeating of rhythms of phrases makes us feel comfortable. Finnissy's album rejects all of these, or at least plays the opposite of all of them.

This is semi-improvised music that lacks melody or harmony in the traditional sense. For that reason alone, it is enough to drive some people to distraction. However, I believe that is exactly the reason why this music is so amazing. Jazz primarily is a style of music where a melody is taken in it's pure form, and then manipulated into something new, fresh and exciting. This music is old English folk tunes that have been stretched, contorted, fed through a paper shredder and then randomly re-glued back together to make new music.

Some music leads some people to imagine scenes or colours when they hear it. Some pop music may conjure up thoughts of sunshine or long hot summer days. Other tunes may conjure up thoughts of rain or grey, overcast weather. Finnissy's music is at times dark and pensive, and then on a whim can turn absolutely kaleidoscopic. Sometimes both are running at the same time. Over the length of the album it can get quite a tiresome listen.

"So," I hear you ask, "if this music is so divisive and so uncomfortable, why should we listen to it?"

Good question. Herein lies the key: this is music that has turned accepted musical convention on its head. This is music devoid of the rules that constrain certain styles of music. In an age where everything feels cookie-cutter perfect and lacking in soul, this is music that is truly free and creative in ways beyond what most can imagine. The freedom employed in this music makes it a liberating listen. This is the purest expression of the composer's soul: forget the rules, this is pure and unadulterated, unrestricted creativity. It is truly liberating to listen to. Lie on the floor and close your eyes and listen - the colours that are conjured in the mind are amazing.

But it is a tiring exercise: This is not music that will lull a listener to sleep or put one in a trance-like state. This is music that, by design, requires the listeners undivided attention from the outset until it's finished. It grabs you by the throat and doesn't let go for the entire 50+ minutes. You have to pay attention. This is not background music. This is music for close listening, and if you're game, you will be rewarded for your efforts.

One cannot help but become a more perceptive listener and and broadened horizons after hearing this album, and that is nothing but a good thing.

Give it a shot, but give it more than 30 seconds. You won't be disappointed.


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