Michael Finnissy’s Not Envious of Rabbits

HearThisInConcert-01Mouvement: Ensemble Phoenix & OpusNovus In Concert
Saturday, 06 October 2018 at 7:30pm
Yong Siew Toh Conservatory

Contributed by Cliff Tan (BMUS1, YST)

Michael Finnissy was born in Tulse Hill, London, in 17 March 1946. He was a young scholar at the Royal College of Music, where he studied composition with Bernard Stevens and Humphrey Searle. Finnissy also studied the piano with Edwin Benbow and Ian Lake.

Finnissy’s music is a continual exploration of the world around us, of what it could be, and what it has to offer. It is a revelation of the essential fact that there is nothing that one can do that is properly new as a composer. All one can really do is put what’s already out there together in new combinations. Finnissy thinks that all music is already there, that all musical ideas are ready game for him to deal with. Whether it’s flying over the Australian Aboriginal landscape, as in his orchestra piece Red Earth or transforming folk tunes from Britain, as in his Folklore pieces for solo piano, his music repurposes existing materials and casts them in new light. His 2011 revamping of Mozart’s Requiem welded together a string of different musical styles and references from Mozart’s death to the present day.

Finnissy found inspiration from the visual arts. He sought after ideas like collage and montage in cinema, and the concept of objet trouvé (found objects) in the visual arts. It did not seem controversial to Finnissy to use these ideas in the field of music as the visual arts had already dealt with that with figures like Marcel Duchamp. Finnissy once said in an interview, “I frequently refer to my models from that world of Russian-American David Hockney, Warhol and Stan Brakhage. These visual artists are as important, and maybe, in some ways more important than the hubble chain of musical influences: Satie, Debussy, Bartok, Xenakis.”[1]

Not Envious of Rabbits” was commissioned by CoMA (Contemporary music for all) for Open Score in 2006. CoMA was established in 1993 to encourage and provide opportunities for amateur musicians of all abilities to take part in contemporary music making. The score consists of four lines but the instrumentation is free. It is assumed that more than one player will play each line, but it is not out of the question to play them as a solo. This flexibility of instrumentation serves a practical purpose of the piece being performed by an ensemble of amateur players, where not every musician is going to be present at every rehearsal and performance.

The title “Not Envious of Rabbits” is from the fourth verse of a poem ‘Vertical Spaces’ by Colin Johnson.  The piece is a collage of emotions and dialogue in the head of a rabbit. The liberties given to the performers creates a sense of chaos, though bound by the strict rules of tempi and dynamics.  In fact, Finnissy requires the performers to play without dynamics throughout the piece. This effective combination of straight rhythms, stagnant dynamics, textural ambiguity and abrupt tempo shifts results in a weird force that drives the raucous whacky sound forward. What one gets is a type of character piece, depicting a rabbit jumping around, getting its head stuck, and struggling to free itself. In the poem, the rabbit compares its existence to a squirrel and critiques the different types of walls for climbing. As the poem concludes, the rabbit is content with just being a rabbit.

[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3ZMCOw4hAZA Transcription, Photography, Portraiture: Michael Finnissy in conversation with Cassandra Miller.

Categories Compositions

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