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.