Improvisation and interview with Michael Finissy

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This “composition” was completed for part of my BMus dissertation, however, it is not just contrived and esoteric for the sake of being so; it is part of several performances and interviews with performers who outline their stimulus in improvisation and how they approach a visual medium. There are some interesting performances and matching interviews and ultimately my interest lies in the concept behind improvising with (or without) a stimulus rather than treating the picture as a musical score.

Interestingly, Michael has improvised to visual stimulus before. He has also performed jazz, and improvised accompaniment to dance groups which was beyond my knowledge before meeting him. It was great to chat to him about music and to meet one of the most respected contemporary classical composers; a man who pioneered the “new complexity” movement, but hated the term itself.



A biography of Michael’s life, interests and undertakings:

Michael Finnissy was born in Tulse Hill, London in 1946. He was a Foundation Scholar at the Royal College of Music, London, where he studied composition with Bernard Stevens and Humphrey Searle, and piano with Edwin Benbow and Ian Lake. Afterwards, he studied in Italy with Roman Vlad.

Finnissy created the music department of the London School of Contemporary Dance, and has been associated as composer with many British dance companies including London Contemporary Dance Theatre, Ballet Rambert, Strider, and Second Stride. He has taught at Dartington Summer School, Winchester College, the junior department of the Royal College of Music, Chelsea College of Art, and is guest lecturer at many colleges and universities. 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 has been featured composer at the Bath, Huddersfield, and Almeida festivals, and his works are widely performed and broadcast worldwide. In February 1999 a festival at Harvard University, Boston, was devoted to his music, and several world premières took place at the 1999 Music Factory Festival in Bergen, Norway. As a pianist he is particularly associated with the commissioning and performing of new British work, including that of Elizabeth Lutyens, Judith Weir, James Dillon, and Howard Skempton.

In 1990 Finnissy was appointed President of the International Society of Contemporary Music. He was re-elected in 1993, and in 1998 was made an honorary member of the ISCM. In 1999 he was been appointed Senior Fellow of the KBC-chair in New Music at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium for two years. The appointment included the commission for a work for the Beethoven Academie Onbevooroordeeld Leven.

1996, Finnissy’s fiftieth birthday year, saw recitals of the complete piano music by Ian Pace, recordings of orchestral and chamber works on NMC and the publication by Ashgate of Unknown Ground — a detailed book about Finnissy’s music. A cycle of CDs on the Metier label which includes Folklore, Gershwin Arrangements, works for string quartet, Seven Sacred Motets, and most recently Kulamen Dilan has been released to great critical acclaim and further discs are planned.

Finnissy’s epic piano cycle, The History of Photography in Sound, the product of several years’ work and lasting over five hours, received its complete première in January 2001 at the hands of Ian Pace. History’s fame has been increasing ever since with numerous performances, both of the complete cycle or individual movements, in many countries and by pianists including Nicolas Hodges, Marilyn Nonken, Mark Knoop, and Philip Howard.

In 2003, Selected Movements of Great Masters received its US première and Ensemble Exposé gave the world première of Greatest hits of all time at the 2003 Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, while, in 2004, the London Sinfonietta performed In Stiller Nacht at the Festival Apsects des Musiques d’Aujourd’hui in Caen, France and a number of the composer’s pieces were featured at Huddersfield. In Summer 2005 Marilyn Nonken performed FolkloreKemp’s Morris and North Americal Spirituals in the USA.

In 2005 Michael Finnissy was the recipient of a British Composer Award for Molly-House, a work for ensemble. Winning the ‘Making Music’ category, it was written for COMA, for whom Michael was Artistic Director for their 2006 ‘Open Score’ project.

2006 was the composer’s sixtieth birthday year, and highlights included ‘The Finnissy Weekend’ – a series of concerts at the BMIC Cutting Edge series, the première of Brighton!, commissioned by the Brighton Festival and performed by Robert Murray and the Dante String Quartet, and a full performance of his epic piano cycle The History of Photography in Sound.

Performances continue to flourish worldwide and January 2008 saw the revival of his major orchestral workRed Earth! by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, chosen by Judith Weir to form part of her BBC composer weekend.

Earlier Finnissy works are published by United Music Publishers, and further information on other pieces can also be obtained from the British Music Information Centre.

Michael Finnissy

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