Sick Puppy is the sort of acronyn that Steve Drury gets from his Summer Institute for Contemporary Performance Practice at the New England Conservatory Summer School. I got back from a trip to southern regions in time to catch the last half of this year’s installment, which featured Michael Finnissy. Wednesday night’s concert included Unknown Ground, a piece for baritone with violin, ‘cello, and piano. The work was written in 1990 for a concert which intended to be a part of the Brighton Festival of that year as a fundraiser for a center for AIDS treatment in Russia. As it turned out, due to Section 28, the Thatcher government law that forbade the use of government funds for the promotion of homosexuality, it had to be presented as a fringe event which was not officially part of the festival. The texts for the cycle are excerpts from interviews with English AIDS sufferers, both prosaic and full of psycho-babble, alternating with seriously literary poems by gay Russian poets. I’m always impressed by Finnissy’s success at setting the texts–I would find the flatness of the interview excerpts a probably defeating difficulty. The use of the instruments is modeled on that of the Shostakovitch Blok songs; every song having a different instrumentation. The music reflects various concerns of Finnissy’s. Two examples: the first song, for baritone and ‘cello, in an imaginary folk style, evocting the pribroch of scottish piping; the last two songs are reminiscent of the style of the String Trio. The performance was strong, but maybe not as completely dramatic as one might have wished. The concert also included a performance by faculty member Jeffrey Gilliam of a piece by Isang Yun and the first piano sonata of Gorecki, neither of which of much particularly interest, at least for me.

I was not able to be at the Thursday concert which I would very much like to have heard. It included a the premier of a Finnissy piece for clarinet and piano (played by Finnissy and Michael Norsworthy) and a performance of In C by Drury’s Callithumpian Consort, along with performances of the Boulez Sonatine and pieces for soprano and ‘cello by Finnissy and Birtwistle. Friday’s concert included a rivetting performance of Finnissy’s Hinomi, for percussionist, by Scott Deal, as well as Finnissy’s Strauss Waltzes for piano played by Shannon Wettstein, and concluded with a performance of Bartok’s Sonata for two pianos and percussion. I’ve never quite got this piece, and I still didn’t then.

The program ended on Saturday with a marathon concert performed by fellows and faculty of the program. It started at 5:30 and when I left a little before 11:00 there seemed to be about two hours more to go. There were lots of Finnissy pieces, including another–it seemed to me more poetic, certainly different, but no less masterly–performance of Hinomi by Matthew Jenkins, Ulpirra for solo bass flute, played by Christine, two of the Verdi Transciptions, played fabulously by Steve Olsen, Tango #4, played by Corbin Calloway, WAM played by Finnissy and Norsworth with William Fedkenheuer, and Post Christian Survival Kit, an open form sort of theater piece whose sense pretty much completely alluded me. I also heard performances of Stomp by Pamela Marshall, Composed Improvisation for Snare Drum by Cage, and Songbirdsongs by John Luther Adams, which I enjoyed, and a chunk of Makrokosmos III by Crumb which I would have just as soon missed, although it was played about as well as one could imagine.

I like Finnissy’s music a lot, and I’m always happy to hear any of it that I can. It doesn’t seem either as well known or as often performed in this country as it should be.

For anybody who’s curious about it and inclined to look out for it, I’d recommend the String Trio (there’s a recording on Et Cetera which also includes Cantaena and Contradanze and which is very hard to find, Multiple Forms of Constraint for string quartet, which is on a Metier disc of string quartet piece by Finnissy, played by the Kreutzer Quartet, This Church, also on Metier, and Red Earth for orchestra (including two didjeridus) on NMC. There are also recordings of piano music by Nicolas Hodges (including two chunks of the five hour long History of Photography in Sound) on Metronome, by Ian Pace, and by Finnissy himself, both on Metier.
I also particularly like Banimbir, Plain Harmony, and Seventeen Immortal Homosexual Poets (another section of the History of Photography in Sound), but I don’t think there are commercial recordings of them available.

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