in her early 40s, Mary Finsterer already has a considerable
output to her credit. The present compilation of works written
between 1991 and 2002 provides a sampling of her compositional
achievement so far. Judging by what is to be heard here, her
music brims with energy, invention and much aural imagination.
It also displays considerable variety, which adds to the interest.
Her music may sound brutal and restless at times; and I was
not surprised to learn that she studied in Amsterdam with Louis
Andriessen. This is clearly to be heard in the highly virtuosic
Nyx (1996) written for the Dutch chamber ensemble
Het Trio (Harrie Starreveld, Harry Sparnaay and René Eckard)
that she got to know when in Amsterdam. It is also there in
Constans (1995) written for the Australian Art
Orchestra, an ensemble consisting mainly of skilled improvisers.
Both pieces display a formidable energy, although I found Constans
too long for its own good. To a certain extent, the short choral
piece Omaggio alla Pietà for mixed chorus and
percussion (uncredited in the notes and cover) and Catch
for small ensemble are in same vein, redolent of Andriessen’s
hard-edged sound-world. Omaggio alla Pietà is
a splendid choral piece, a minor masterpiece, compact but full
of energy and imagination. Catch is rather more
straightforward and playful, at least by Finsterer’s standards.
Tract for solo cello is a brilliant, awfully demanding virtuosic showpiece
exploiting the instrument’s full range, sometimes bringing so-called
spectral music to mind; much of her music does this. The music
spirals restlessly until it is abruptly brought to a stop.
Ruisselant, composed in 1991, is the earliest piece here. It is also what Richard
Toop describes as Finsterer’s “breakthrough” piece. The title
(Ruisselant, i.e. “flowing”, “streaming”) is rather
misleading and should not be taken at face value. The music
flows, but forcefully, with many sudden outbursts and with irresistible
energy. It suggests magma flowing down a volcano’s slopes rather
than gentle pastoral brooks. The music, however, displays Finsterer
hallmarks: irrepressible vitality, instrumental virtuosity and
formidable aural imagination, which – for the present writer
– often brought Turnage and late Tippett, albeit spiced by Boulez,
Sequi for string quartet, superbly played by the Arditti String Quartet
for whom it was written, is one of the most recent pieces recorded
here. It is a substantial work in three continuous sections
(another formal Finsterer hallmark), the title of which sums
up the compositional procedure used; musical development continually
evolves from one idea to the next (pace Richard Toop
again, in his excellent and informative insert notes). Needless
to say, the music fully exploits the celebrated virtuosity and
commitment of its dedicatees to new, often complex music. However,
the most important thing, as in that of some of the more recent
pieces, is that it is much more goal-oriented than in, say,
Nyx or Constans, which are - on
the whole – more fragmentary or episodic. This will be all the
more evident in what I consider one of the finest works here,
Pascal’s Sphere for ensemble and electronics.
This is a mature, substantial work in which Finsterer’s imagination
is evident from first to last. Before completing this major
piece in 2000, Finsterer composed Achos for ensemble.
At that time Achos bore the title of the later
piece. While working on Pascal’s Sphere, the composer
withdrew the earlier piece that Irvine Arditti had heard and
liked. He was disappointed when he found that it had been withdrawn.
Eventually, thanks to Arditti’s persuasion, the composer put
the piece back in her catalogue, albeit with a new title Achos
(i.e. “anticipation”). Although it may be regarded as a try-out
for Pascal’s Sphere, it works satisfyingly on
its own. Pascal’s Sphere, of course, refers to
the French philosopher’s Pensées, but also to an essay
by Borges. I hasten to say that I do not know either Pascal’s
or Borges’ texts; and I do not think that such knowledge of
these literary works really matters to appreciate Finsterer’s
piece. However, a sentence from Pascal’s Pensées may
serve as a guideline for the music. “The eternal silence of
these infinite spaces strikes me with terror.” The addition
of electronic soundscape to the ensemble considerably enhances
the evocative strength of the music, which fully achieves what
Varèse had been aiming at during his composing life. I am in
no doubt about it, Pascal’s Sphere is a major
work, and one that puts Finsterer firmly onto the present-day
Australian musical map. A splendid piece.
very title of Ether clearly tells us what to expect
from this brilliant study for solo flute, in which – as in Tract
– the composer explores the many possibilities of modern instrumental
writing. This includes advanced playing techniques, but never
gratuitously. There are some arresting echo effects (I wonder
whether they are electronically processed or not), that suggest
counterpoint and evoke the capricious character of air in an
almost graphic manner. Successful but also demanding. Geoffrey
Collins rises magnificently to the occasion.
Kurz for viola, clarinet, cello and piano is the only piece by Finsterer
that I had ever heard before. True to its title, it is a short,
fanciful piece that moves along capriciously, not without a
pinch of salt.
most recent piece is the electro-acoustic soundscape Sleep
(2002) superbly engineered by Kimmo Vennonen. This beautiful
Nocturne in all but the name is part of a multi-media happening
involving video and projection by Dean Golja (the composer’s
husband), a sculpture by Kate Murphy, and movement by Wendy
Morrow and Trevor Patrick. I suppose that the full impact of
the piece can only be achieved when seen and heard “in the flesh”.
I am no particular fan of electro-acoustic music; but some pieces
in that genre succeed in riveting my attention. Sleep
is one of them, for it is tastefully made, and very successful
in evoking “the idea of sleep as a time ... where the unconscious
mind wanders through an undulating terrain of dreams and fragmented
memories” (the composer’s words). It is attractive although
– I suspect – a bit too long for some tastes. (Incidentally,
it is the longest work here.) I was impressed by it.
nearly forgot that this generously filled compilation from Mary
Finsterer’s output opened brilliantly with her short, exuberant
Nextwave Fanfare in which the music rushes headlong
and relentlessly at great speed. It is all over in a little
over three minutes!
recorded performances come from various sources; and I suspect
that a number of them are live recordings, but – if so – you
hardly notice it. All the pieces are performed by musicians
who have a long working association either with Finsterer’s
music or with complex contemporary music. Judging by what is
to be heard here, these readings are as committed and convincing
as possible; and this wide-ranging compilation is the best possible
introduction to her vital, highly personal sound-world. I look
forward to hearing more of her music. An important release.