Michael Finnissy & Michael Norsworthy: WAM
New Focus Recordings

When I first started encountering the name Michael Finnissy, I'd typically find the term “New Complexity” (and the name of fellow British composer Brian Ferneyhough) not far behind. While definitions for the label vary depending on the source consulted, all seem to agree that music of highly complex notation is involved and that it's often fiercely abstract, dissonant, dense, and/or microtonal, the sum-total of which makes the prospect of listening to the music more daunting than inviting.

I won't presume to know how Finnissy feels about the label, but I suspect he'd prefer to be disassociated from it; in that regard it's perhaps telling that the mini-bio included in WAM, his recording with clarinetist Michael Norsworthy, assiduously avoids any mention of the term. Certainly there's nothing about the hour of chamber music on the disc that should be cause for alarm; far from alienating, the five compositions are a consistently accessible bunch, and there's even a bit of humour present. Political and cultural issues are broached but not heavy-handedly; the title of L'Union Libre, for instance, comes from Michel Foucault's History of Sexuality, and one presumes that the notion of “free union” has as much to do with gay rights as anything of a more general political nature. To illustrate the “free union” idea, Finnissy purposefully structured the piece so that it would include a lack of vertical alignment between its parts (clarinet, piano, and two bass drums); the piece, despite the free-floating pathways followed by the instruments, nevertheless turns out to be fascinating, musically speaking, no matter its unconventional design.

There's no question that the material is highly sophisticated and informed by Finnissy's deep understanding of his forebears' music (in the delicately drifting Clarinet Sonata, for example, the right-hand piano line of Beethoven's own sonata appears bar for bar, though each one has been reversed with some edits and substitutions, and Bach, Scarlatti, and Brahms also serve as reference points; the title track, on the other hand, draws upon pitch patterns and intervallic relationships found in Mozart), yet no advanced degree in musical education is required for one to derive listening pleasure from the recording.

With Finnissy and Norsworthy having known one another for almost twenty years, their mutual affection is evident throughout, and in fact Finnissy wrote three of the five pieces for his collaborator. As someone who has premiered over 150 works by composers such as Babbitt, Birtwhistle, Rihm, Lachenmann, and Ferneyhough, Norsworthy's well-equipped to take on the challenges of Finnissy's material, and while much of the release centers on the clarinet and piano playing of the two artists, the album's also enhanced by the presence of violinist William Fedkenheuer on one track and the NEC Wind Ensemble on another.

In contrast to the generally restrained character of the Clarinet Sonata, the title piece, WAM (Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, in other words), explodes in a dazzling fireball of violin, clarinet, and piano gestures (though it gradually settles down); as arresting is the treatment of spatial organization, with Fedkenheuer and Norsworthy taking up different locations during the recording process (even off-stage) and audibly distancing themselves from the microphone. Another surprise arrives at the end when Giant Abstract Samba lunges from the gate with an exuberant, jazz-inflected swing that's arrested somewhat by the “dialectical contrast” imposed between the ensemble and Norsworthy's oblique clarinet lines. Such playfulness is refreshing; not only do we have Finnissy allowing performers to reorder pages of music, he also includes felines in Mike, Brian, Marilyn, & the Cats, though in a gesture that almost seems self-mocking in its exactitude he clarifies that “(t)he prerecorded meowing and yowling of Mike's cats appears twelve times, for three seconds each time.”

March 2016