On “WAM”, British composer Michael Finnissy plays with various elements of “musical culture” - rearranging and recontextualizing old “classics”, writing chamber music without traditional synchronicity, and allowing performers the freedom to reorder their pages of music. Through this deconstruction of classical conventions, Finnissy creates music that is endlessly surprising and wide-ranging in its emotional character. The performances feature Finnissy's longtime, close collaboration with clarinetist Michael Norsworthy.
|Michael Norsworthy, clarinet, Michael Finnissy, piano
|Michael Norsworthy, clarinet & percussion, Michael Finnissy, piano & percussion
|Mike, Brian, Marilyn & the Cats
Mike, Brian, Marilyn & the Cats
|Michael Norsworthy, clarinet, Michael Finnissy, piano
|Michael Norsworthy, clarinet, William Fedkenheuer, violin, Michael Finnissy, piano
|Giant Abstract Samba
Giant Abstract Samba
|Michael Norsworthy, clarinet, NEC Wind Ensemble, Charles Peltz, conductor
In all five of the works on WAM, British composer Michael Finnissy plays with various elements of “musical culture” - rearranging and recontextualizing old “classics”, writing chamber music without traditional synchronicity, and allowing performers the freedom to reorder their pages of music. Through this deconstruction of classical conventions, Finnissy creates music that is endlessly surprising and wide-ranging in its emotional character. The opening track, Finnissy’s evocative Clarinet Sonata, belongs to a set of sonatas that use works from the classical canon as historical models, rearranging musical material from composers such as Bach, Scarlatti, Beethoven, and Brahms. In the Clarinet Sonata, Finnissy takes the right-hand line from Beethoven’s Op. 110 Sonata and reverses it, bar by bar. While this musical material is altered, the classical four movement structure remains unchanged. L’Union Libre is an example of how Finnissy uses experiments with form and style to comment on artistic or philosophical ideas. L’Union Libre makes use of an untraditional approach to chamber music: a lack of vertical alignment between the parts, evoking Foucault’s notion of the “free union”.
In Finnissy’s self-described “group portrait”, Mike, Brian, Marilyn, & the Cats, the musical parameters are defined by a capricious whimsy. Finnissy gives the two instrumentalists six pages of music, instructing the clarinetist to order his or her pages in an unspecified manner. Finnissy further surprises us with a playful accompaniment of prerecorded “meowing and yowling” of cats. The album’s title track, WAM, explores pitch patterns and intervallic relationships found in Mozart’s music, while experimenting with yet another parameter of classical performance: spatial organization. Providing both interesting sonic and theatrical effects, the two obligato instruments relocate through the piece, playing at times from off-stage. The wild Giant Abstract Samba, juxtaposes a Brazilian samba rhythm with the clarinet’s wandering lines as Finnissy seeks to represent a “dialectical contrast” between these musical structures. WAM features masterful performances by the clarinetist Michael Norsworthy and Michael Finnissy on piano and percussion. They are joined by violinist William Fedkenheuer (Miró Quartet), and the NEC Wind Ensemble with Charles Peltz conducting.
Michael Norsworthy, clarinet (all tracks)
Michael Finnissy, piano (tracks 1-4, additional percussion track 2)
William Fedkenheuer, violin (track 4)
NEC Wind Ensemble, Charles Peltz, conductor (track 5)
Dr. Scardo, engineer (Tracks 1-2)
Patrick Keating, engineer (Tracks 3-5)
Michael Norsworthy and Michael Finnissy, producers (all tracks)
Charles Peltz, co-producer (track 5)
Tracks 1-2 Recorded at Southampton University on 7/1/2011
Tracks 3-5 Recorded at NEC Jordan Hall, 6/1/2006 (tracks 3,4) and 11/1/2002 (track 5)
Press page photo credit -- Claudia Hansen
Michael Norsworthy’s unique voice on the clarinet has made him a sought after soloist and chamber music collaborator and garnered praise from around the globe for performances that explore transcendent virtuosity and extremes of musical expression. As one of the most celebrated champions of the modern repertoire, he has premiered over 150 works in collaboration with a veritable who’s who of composers including Babbitt, Birtwistle, Carter, Ferneyhough, Finnissy, Gompper, Lachenmann, Lindberg, Murail, and Rihm among others in leading venues such as Carnegie Hall, Vienna’s Musikverein, Moscow’s Tchaikovsky Hall, Lincoln Center, The Casals Festival, and the Aspen Music Festival. His discography can be found on the Albany, BMOP/sound, Cantaloupe, Cirrus, ECM, Gasparo, Mode, Navona, New World, and New Focus labels. He is principal clarinet with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, Professor of Clarinet, Director of Contemporary Music Performance and Chair of the Woodwind Department at the Boston Conservatory. His teachers include Elsa Ludewig-Verdehr, Eric Mandat, Kalmen Opperman, and Richard Stoltzman. Norsworthy is an artistic advisor for Henri Selmer Paris and an artist clinician for Vandoren SAS and plays on Selmer Paris clarinets and Vandoren products.http://www.michaelnorsworthy.com
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 ofL'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. - Ron Schepper, textura 2.26.16
Michael Finnissy was born in Tulse Hill, London in 1946 and studied at the Royal College of Music. He later studied in Italy with Roman Vlad. He went on to create the music department of the London School of Contemporary Dance, and has been associated as composer with many notable British dance companies. He has also been musician in residence to the Victorian College of the Arts, the City of Caulfield in Australia, and the East London Late Starters Orchestra. In 1999 he was made Professor of Composition at the University of Southampton.
Finnissy became known for the political side of music, and he believes that all music is ‘programmatic’ to some degree, that is, a composition exists in not just the composer’s mind, but inside a culture that reflects both the extra-musical and purely musical concerns of the composer. Music, far from being unable to express anything other than itself (as Stravinsky said) is a force for change. This engagement with political and social themes became more frequent as his career progressed. For example, the influence of homosexual themes and concerns began to enter his work; as in Shameful Vice in 1994, and more explicitly in Seventeen Immortal Homosexual Poets in 1997. (Cross, Jonathan. 2001, “Finnissy, Michael (Peter)”. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell. London: Macmillan Publishers. Updated by Ian Pace, 26 May 2010, Grove Music Online, edited by Deane Root.)
On WAM (released on January 8, 2016), Finnissy plays with various elements of “musical culture” – rearranging and recontextualizing old “classics”, writing chamber music without traditional synchronicity, and allowing performers the freedom to reorder their pages of music. Through this deconstruction of classical conventions, Finnissy creates music that is endlessly surprising and wide-ranging in its emotional character.
The opening track, Finnissy’s evocative Clarinet Sonata, belongs to a set of sonatas that use works from the classical canon as historical models, rearranging musical material from composers such as Bach, Scarlatti, Beethoven, and Brahms. In the Clarinet Sonata, Finnissy takes the right-hand line from Beethoven’s Op. 110 Sonata and reverses it, bar by bar. While this musical material is altered, the classical four movement structure remains unchanged. L’Union Libre is an example of how Finnissy uses experiments with form and style to comment on artistic or philosophical ideas. L’Union Libre makes use of an untraditional approach to chamber music: a lack of vertical alignment between the parts, evoking Foucault’s notion of the “free union”.
In Finnissy’s self-described “group portrait”, Mike, Brian, Marilyn, & the Cats, the musical parameters are defined by a capricious whimsy. Finnissy gives the two instrumentalists six pages of music, instructing the clarinetist to order his or her pages in an unspecified manner. Finnissy further surprises us with a playful accompaniment of prerecorded “meowing and yowling” of cats. The album’s title track, WAM, explores pitch patterns and intervallic relationships found in Mozart’s music, while experimenting with yet another parameter of classical performance: spatial organization. Providing both interesting sonic and theatrical effects, the two obligato instruments relocate through the piece, playing at times from off-stage. The wild Giant Abstract Samba, juxtaposes a Brazilian samba rhythm with the clarinet’s wandering lines as Finnissy seeks to represent a “dialectical contrast” between these musical structures. WAM features masterful performances by the clarinetist and Michael Finnissy on piano and percussion. They are joined by violinist William Fedkenheuer (Miró Quartet), and the NEC Wind Ensemble with Charles Peltz conducting.
-- David Leone, musica kaleidoscopea, 2.29.16
The other recent release dedicated to Michael Finnissy‘s music is the product of a collaboration between the composer and clarinettist Michael Norsworthy. WAM, released on US label New Focus Recordings, explores five works composed during the last 25 years, three of them written specifically for Norsworthy, and all but one of which are recorded here for the first time. The main theme, for want of a better word, running through the collection is an examination of what constitutes a meaningful musical ‘connection’ between discrete performers and types of material. With respect to individuated, partially- or wholly-asynchronous parts, this has been a recurring feature throughout Finnissy’s career (manifesting in many of the works covered in my recent Lent Series), and this disc clarifies the concomitant fact that sense and/or coherence become very much more subjective and potentially problematic within such a context.
This is especially apparent in L’Union Libre, (1997), where busy piano and percussion lines are clearly independent to the point where they sound like two separate pieces simply being played simultaneously. A sense of connection between them is hard to discern, deliberately so (very occasional notes from a pair of bass drums seem entirely arbitrary), and it’s only towards the end—when the players together become sparse and quiet—that things seem finally to cohere. This slow, almost wilfully delayed bonding is interesting in itself, but there’s equally a veneer of frustration from the experience. More questions abound in title work WAM (1991), in which Finnissy repurposes material by Mozart in order “to explore the pitch-patterns and rhythmic-patterns differently, and take them on different adventures”. The piano takes centre stage throughout, flanked by a pair of obbligato instruments (clarinet and violin, Norsworthy joined by William Fedkenheuer), and immediately one’s forced to ponder both the relationship between the players, as well as Finnissy’s own relationship with Mozart. The latter’s presence is an oblique one, heard more in hauntingly fleeting glimpses of something that acts as a trigger to remembrance, yet where actual memories remain stubbornly on the tip of one’s hippocampus. To an extent this is reinforced by the tangential offerings from the obbligati, sometimes seemingly fuelling the piano part, other times wistfully ignoring it entirely, and later sounding from afar off, performed off-stage, lending their material a ghostly quality. It’s strange to be so engrossed and discomfited at the same time. In many ways, exactly the same thoughts and sensations arise from the splendidly-named Mike, Brian, Marilyn & the Cats (2004), a work that curiously foreshadows the Third String Quartet in its use of pre-recorded animal sounds, namely Mike Norsworthy’s feline pets. Again, clarinet and piano have independent parts (comprising six pages, each lasting a minute); the piano plays through in a fixed order, whereas the clarinet chooses its own order after the first page. In contrast to L’Union Libre, and to a lesser extent WAM, the sense here of connection, and beyond this, dialogue, is very much stronger (no doubt initially reinforced by that first page)—but what of the cats?! A recurring refrain of achingly cute mews and miaows, their first appearance seems to partially derail the clarinet part, making its quasi-diatonic material fall into microtonal ruts, but over time this ostensible cause-and-effect is proved merely coincidental, throwing into doubt the cats’ relevance beyond a rather charming and somewhat surreal intrusion into the ongoing conversation. Which, come to think about it, is precisely what cats do, all the time.
Composed in 2002, Giant Abstract Samba is a much more straightforward process of transition between extremely contrasting modes of expression. Aided by the forces of the NEC Wind Ensemble, conducted by Charles Peltz, they establish an infectiously boisterous samba that abruptly and repeatedly breaks down, tilt-shifts and jump-cuts into an altogether less incisive, threadbare environment that comes across almost like a fin-de-siècle doppelgänger. The process is gradual and over the course of its 13-minute duration increasingly immersive, particularly as the opening samba becomes a more and more remote memory (possibly glimpsed through ‘echoes’ or resonances of a distant consonance), and the work enters a soft, introspective kind of lyricism that’s extremely lovely but, towards its close, startlingly strange. It’s a compellingly powerful piece. The disc’s opening work is also the longest and the most recent, Finnissy’s 2007 Clarinet Sonata. On this occasion the composer borrows the right-hand from Beethoven’s Piano Sonata #31, each bar of which is reversed, “occasionally with some edits and substitutions”. Above this, the clarinet pursues a pensive, searching line, allowing its connection to the piano to remain entirely fluid. Although it follows the four-movement form of the Beethoven, Finnissy establishes in the opening section the general approach and atmosphere that pervades the work as a whole, which is soft, sedate, restrained (both instruments occupying for the most part the treble register) and above all unhurried. It’s so nice to spend nearly 20 minutes with music that doesn’t feel constantly urged and coerced the whole time; there’s a certain kind of aloofness in the work’s demeanour, but this arises more from the intensely intimate soundworld it inhabits than anything else.
These last two works perhaps speak with more immediacy as far as their connectivity and coherence are concerned, but the challenges posed by the other three works are never less than fascinating and thought-provoking. From time to time there’s something of the uncanny valley about them, but to what extent this is endemic in the music itself or the way one grapples to find or fabricate relationships within it, or both, is impossible to say. In their own way, they continue to do what Finnissy has always done best: fundamentally question aspects of music that we far too readily take for granted. - Simon Cummings, 5against4.com, 4.2016
It’s hard to get a better resume than Michael Norsworthy if you are a contemporarymusic-loving clarinetist. He teaches at Boston Conservatory, advises for Henri Selmer Paris, and he was taught by Opperman, Stoltzman, and Mandat. Michael Finnissy’s compositions put Norsworthy’s credentials to the test with rapid changes in expression, articulation, and tone. The 19-minute Clarinet Sonata follows a familiar four-movement form but, harmonically, is far from familiar. The piano is often an aggressor in the piece, with the clarinet emitting placating, soothing long tones in the latter half. ‘Mike, Brian, Marilyn, and The Cats’ brings recordings of meowing cats into the clarinet repertoire and allows the clarinetist to shuffle five of its six pages of notated music. The quarter tones and poorly recorded cats don’t mix well. Wam has both Michaels playing percussion in addition to their instruments and adds a violin. The clarinet and violin also perform from “off stage” while the piano begins loud and boisterous but slowly retreats to softer and slower material. - Kraig Lamper, 6.30.2016
Intriguing and absorbing music for clarinet by Michael Finnissy, a reflection of a 20 year friendship and a continuous dialogue with musical culture
This disc, on New Focus Recordings, of music for clarinet by Michael Finnissy performed by clarinettist Michael Norsworthy includes three piece specifically written for Norsworthy. Michael Norsworthy (clarinets and percussion) and Michael Finnissy (piano and percussion) perform Finnissy's Clarinet Sonata, L'Union Libre and Mike, Brian, Marilyn and the Cats and are joined by violinist William Fedkenheuer for WAM. Finally Nosworthy is joined by the New England Conservatory Wind Ensemble, conductor Charles Peltz for Giant Abstract Samba.
The Clarinet Sonata is one of four sonatas that Finnissy wrote in 2006/2007, each taking a different historical model. For the Clarinet Sonata Finnissy used Beethoven's Piano Sonata Op.110. The right-hand line of Beethoven's sonata appears bar for bar in the piano part of Finnissy's sonata, but each bar is reversed, occasionally with edits and substitutions. Finnissy's own note on the piece refers to the clarinet surfing across the top of the piano part. The sonata is in one movement but its different sections reflect the markings of Beethoven's sonata. The clarinet part is lyrically expressionist but with some jagged edges, and it intertwines with the piano to create a rather absorbing, almost dialectical, discourse. On first listening the differentiation between the different sections was not always obvious, but the latter part of the piece is rather intense leading to a quiet ending.
L'Union Libre was first performed in Moscow in 1997. The title come from Michel Foucault's History of Sexuality. The clarinet and the accompaniment are effectively independent, Finnissy describes the piece as a 'kit' comprising solo part and a set of independent accompaniments; the accompaniments comprise both piano and percussion. The result is rather a complex texture as the busy and rather decorative piano part weaves round the more lyrical clarinet. The advent of the drum is rather a surprise.
Finnissy's programme note does not explain who Mike, Brian, Marilyn and the Cats are, he simply says that the piece was a group portrait written in 2004. Again there is a controlled element of randomness in the work, as the order of the pages of the piano part are not specified (except for the first page), whilst the timings of the appearances of Mike's cats (pre-recorded meowing) is precise. The result is complex and characterful, and the addition of the meowing of the cats makes the whole completely delightful.
WAM stands for Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the figure behind the piece. Finnissy, in his note, talks of how 'it is possible to take Mozart's music, and do something else with it, to explore the pitch patterns and rhythmic patterns differently and take them on different adventures'. The piece is written for piano and two, unspecified obbligato instruments (here Nosworthy's clarinet and William Fedkenheuer's violin). The two obbligato instruments move about, sometimes off-stage sometimes one, whilst the piano part starts loud and fast and gradually retreats to slow and quiet. The opening has the hugely dramatic and busy piano almost drowning the lyrical clarinet and violin. There is a gradual sense of the clarinet and violin coming forward, and more of a sense of dialogue with the piano develops, though you feel that the piano only has half an ear on them and prefers to go its own way. Then as the obbligato instruments advance, the piano retreats in the aura picture leaving the two instruments almost as solo.
Giant Abstract Samba is a large scale piece for clarinet and wind ensemble, here Michael Norsworthy and the New England Conservatory of Music Wind Ensemble, conducted by Charles Peltz, and the same performers gave the work's premiere in Boston in 2002. The work is in two parts, the first section being a samba and the second a gently drifting, pulse-less meditation. The samba is a fabulous up-tempo ensemble piece with the clarinet just one amongst equals. The musical material here makes reference to the Gavotte in C minor, Op.23 by Camille Saint-Saens. Then with the move into the more thoughtful second section the clarinet comes to the fore and there is a sense of slow unwinding.
In his booklet note Michael Finnissy talks about how all the pieces deal, at a conceptual level, with the complex business of 'Musical Culture' and all should perhaps carry a question mark to complete their titles. Each piece is in dialogue with a cultural artefact, and one of the absorbing things about the music is trying to perceive the fragments of the original left in Finnissy's work. But above that there is a highly absorbing sense of discourse, partly this is with the past, but overall it is a discourse between the performers and between them and the listener. The sonata, Mike, Brian, Marilyn and the Cats and Giant Abstract Samba were all written for Michael Nosworthy, and to a certain extent the disc is a reflection on Norsworthy's almost 20 year friendship with the composer. The performances from Michael Norsworthy, Michael Finnissy and the other performers impressively absorbing in their own way. I found this a fascinating and highly intriguing disc. — Robert Hugill, 8.12.2016
Finnissy’s artful wriggling can infuriate. His flavor of complexity can be mistaken for goofiness. Or maybe, it’s the other way around: Sometimes I don’t mind hearing the story being typed up rather than actually reading it. Until we are told that the Clarinet Sonata’s piano part is derived from Beethoven but played backwards with additional modifications, all we hear is earnest noodling. L’Union Libre asks the clarinet and piano duo also to play percussion, and Mike, Brian, Marilyn & the Cats adds a tape of mewling felines. The schemes that generate the music are obscure and we can only hope the players take some enjoyment in the material.
WAM adds violin to the duo, and as the title implies takes Mozart as its starting point even though recognizable pitches and rhythms are rubbed out. The clarinet and violin wander around the stage enhancing the sonic aspect. It is welcome that the Giant Abstract Samba suggests a samba (or any driving rhythmic dance that might include percussion); however, the steam escapes and we are left with a clarinet skating over wind ensemble interjections and other flotsam.
-Grant Chu Covell, 12.2017, La Folia