Image: David Yeo
The piano’s overtones and natural decay – the slow deaths of struck, vibrating strings – seem to be in accord with my predilection for themes of solitude, mourning and spiritual longing.
So says composer-pianist Douglas Finch, whose CD Inner Landscapes is released on 1 June by Prima Facie. It’s not surprising to find the piano at the centre of his compositional thinking. Finch is, after all, an accomplished pianist – one that I’ve been compelled to praise before. Every piece on Inner Landscape features piano, although Finch himself is not the performer here. Aleksander Szram, one of Finch’s former students and the leading force behind this CD, explains in the liner notes:
To study the piano music of Douglas Finch is to immerse oneself in a microscopic environment of piano resonance, to be alert and sensitive to the slightest vibration of the piano string, the tiniest nuance of fading sound […] something Douglas seems determined to capture at every opportunity.
The piano allows Finch to build on his skill as an instrumentalist and adds a great deal to his compositional voice. Inherent decay – the constant threat of being engulfed by nothingness – helps impart both fragility and strength at the same time. Finch’s pianistic soundworld can be deeply searching, confidently striding over the jaws of silence. It can also slip gently into the abyss, often drifting with delicate, poignant resignation.
The piano’s natural habit of constantly wanting to cross the border between sound and silence allows Finch to be playful, using resonances and surprise juxtapositions to keep the music afloat. These aren’t flashy. Composers pull similar techniques from the standard box of tricks all the time, seldom amounting to more than trite special effects. Not so with Finch. True, the way he triggers resonances can be quite surprising at times, but the musical and expressive purpose always becomes clear. The loud chords in the second Ruins piece, for example, jump out at you with no warning or context. In their wake they transform the field of expression, turning the surrounding music’s melancholic, almost docile sound into something far more intriguing, perhaps even sinister.
Finch is able to draw a lot of drama from the piano, much more so than with the other instruments, which sometimes struggle to find the same physical or emotional intensity. Their expressive arcs aren’t as wide, their tonal contrasts less varied, at least in the pieces on Inner Landscapes. It would perhaps have been nice to hear some works without piano, which might have given this side of Finch’s voice more room to assert itself.
Broadly speaking, the music on Inner Landscapes is presented with the earliest first and the more recent pieces towards the end. Again broadly speaking, I prefer the more mature pieces. The earlier works are fine as they are, but lack the distinctiveness of Finch’s later work. On this recording, the turning point in that chronology for me is Landscape III from 1998. Its extremely clear alternating structure makes the form easy to comprehend, but the music is less predictable than earlier works. The repeated alternation offers a space for contemplating the ideas, which become more interesting as the piece develops. The third appearance of the opening theme is very special. The violin writing here is some of the most interesting on the CD and the pianistic subtleties are incredibly atmospheric. This glorious moment opens the final phase of the work, where its well-established structural components begin to have a big influence on one another. Here we begin to get a real sense of drama, beautifully heightened by the terse but delicate coda. Finch has great aptitude for composing endings that imply ‘solitude, mourning and spiritual longing’.
An important feature of Inner Landscapes, one made very clear by the cover artwork, is a connection with the paintings of Emily Carr. Personally, I find talking about music in relation to painting very tricky. It never seems to work out well! For instance, the paintings of Rothko don’t conjure the same response in me as Feldman’s music, despite an explicit connection. Debussy’s music, meanwhile, completely puts me in the same mindset as impressionist paintings from the same era, despite the composer’s well-known distaste for such comparison. For Finch, Carr is a long-held favourite. ‘I think because of the feelings of loneliness and quiet rapture that are communicated by her landscape paintings of the west coast of British Columbia’. I don’t get the same feeling from Carr’s paintings, which I’ve never thought of as remarkable anyway. Oddly enough, an exhibition at the Canadian High Council in London currently shows some of Carr’s paintings alongside work by other Canadian artists. I found some of the other art more closely related to Finch’s music than Carr’s. But these are personal judgements. Where I do agree with Finch is how much his music evokes a feeling of ‘inner landscape’ and his ability to express the themes of solitude and reflection so powerfully.
I keep coming back to an idea of something spiritual or ‘numinous’ which can be perceived in certain situations in natural environments. I also started to feel that the experience of listening to music was like inhabiting an inner landscape – that the intricate web of associations, memories and sensations brought on by the properties of sound and rhythm weren’t just about feeling or narrative, but came together from a multi-dimensional, inhabitable space for the listener.
The way these themes manifest themselves in Finch’s music varies. The Kurtag-like Ruins, for example, is a mini collection of short pieces. The fourth is a glorious expression of ruin, both as a landscape and as a solitary emotional state. Fine threads tie the music of the final bars to its surroundings with a special kind of fragility, filled with longing – an untold story – like an abandoned spider’s web grasping delicately at the environment around it.
In Lyric for solo piano, composed in the same year, the forces at work are less filigree. We feel as if the music has two gravity fields. The more lyrical voice is frequently pulled upwards until it bangs its head on the ceiling (as it were), while warm dimly lit chords are repeatedly pulled to the depths of the low register. Finch opens a captivating space in the middle of the texture, which keeps collapsing (and that’s no bad thing). Frequently the two gravity fields interact, each a black hole to the other, siphoning off ideas and drawing strings of material across the open space at the heart of the soundworld.
The standout piece on the disc is another for solo piano. Ucluelet (Landscape IV) manages to be warmly familiar and intriguingly distant at the same time. It could easily be an allegory for so much in life. Finch and Carr’s preoccupation with isolation finds multiple expressions here, from the feeling of all detail drifting away to the almost alienating strength of the tenor-register melody that dominates the climax. Ucluelet is a perfectly wrought piece of music.
I also really like Summer, which is lyrical, crystalline and beautiful. Its length leaves me wanting more but keeps me oddly satisfied. It’s as if I’m comforted by the music’s onward journey – out of earshot – wherever that will be. The mystique of its unanswered questions is the key to its charm.
Chorales I, II and III, which are scattered across the disc, work well as individual pieces. However, they become something completely different when heard back-to-back. As a three movement single work (which is not, I don’t think, how they’re conceived) they chart the slow transformation of a cluster of ideas. That process goes in no particular direction. In fact, the three chorales could cycle forever. The association with the history of homophonic choral music is easy to hear. But, unlike the rigorously directional nature of western harmonic traditions, we aren’t led to predetermined conclusions, nor through predictable phrase structures. There’s an element of rhapsody expressed, like so much of the music on this recording, in a language that tends towards the plaintive. That said, there are jubilant moments in all three Chorales.
The solo piano works on Inner Landscapes tend to be stronger, but the best ensemble piece is undoubtedly Lamentations. Its second section starts to become almost wearing, but to wonderful effect. Its transformation in the distant heavy-footed strides of the third section is both ominous and powerful. A slow glide back to earth from the knotty heights of its climax proves to be a wonderful experience. The simplicity of the violin part towards the end is some of the most expressive writing for the instrument on the whole disc and yet another example of Finch’s ability to write a deeply moving conclusion.
The playing on Inner Landscape is exemplary. These are top-notch musicians. Aleksander Szram is really the star of the show owing to the weight (and omnipresence) of the piano. But Caroline Szram’s cello in Summer is incredibly moving. Similarly, Lamentations wouldn’t have the expressive impact it does without Lisa Nelson’s alto flute or Mieko Kanno’s violin.
Inner Landscapes is released on 1 June 2016 on the Prima Facie label. It can be purchased from the Prima Facie website, iTunes or major high street CD shops in the UK.
A launch event takes place on Monday 20 June at The Forge, Camden, London. Tickets are £15, which buys you admission to a performance, a free glass of wine and a copy of Inner Landscapes.
The CD features the following performers: