Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Composer Michael Finnissy in eight questions

We asked our composers a series of questions based around their musical likes and dislikes, influences, challenges, and various other things on the theme of music and their careers. Each month we will bring you answers from an OUP composer, giving you an insight into their music and personalities. Here’s what OUP composer Michael Finnissy had to say:

Which composer were you most influenced by?

Charles Ives, when I was twelve or thirteen. I think Anthony Hopkins introduced the Concord Sonata in his BBC Radio ‘Talking about Music’ series, from which I learned so much about aesthetics and the craft of composing.

Can you describe the first piece of music you ever wrote?

The first piece I ever wrote was called ‘The Chinese Bridge’, I was just over 4 years old, and had been told the ‘story’ of the willow-pattern pottery. The piece was one line long, clumsily pentatonic, and all in the middle octave of the piano. I thought my mother’s sister had kept the music-book it was written in, but in several moves of house it got lost.

Have the challenges you face as a composer changed over the course of your career?

The main challenges for a composer, to maintain integrity and authenticity, take quite a battering from the UK ‘music business’ — pressures to conform, to be intelligible, to be ‘amusing’. Teaching keeps me up to speed, but I still suffer terrible uncertainties and depressions. Being stubborn, intensely obsessive and passionate probably helps. None of this ever seems to get any better.

Image Credit: ‘Music Sheet, Note, Pocket Watch’, Photo by Tentes, CC0 Public Domain, via pixabay.

What is the last piece of music you listened to?

The last thing I listened to properly was some Chinese traditional music, wonderfully played on a recent visit to Taipei. But I am half-way through watching a DVD of a slightly irritating production of Richard Strauss’s ‘Die Liebe der Danae’, having to close my eyes to focus on the sound.

What might you have been if you weren’t a composer?

You don’t choose to be a composer, it’s what you are put here to do. My parents wanted me to teach English. I had to fight.

Is there an instrument you wish you had learnt to play and do you have a favourite work for that instrument?

I only played the piano ‘by accident’, and if I had chosen the viola (the sound of which I love), could I have endured the stupid jokes and insults? I would have liked to sing well, but was told I sounded like a corncrake.

What would be your desert island playlist? (three pieces)

Busoni’s Doktor Faust, Stravinsky’s Les Noces, and Tippett’s The Midsummer Marriage. All singing, all dancing. I would also hope to have the scores of a couple of late Beethoven quartets, Matthijs Vermeulen’s 2nd Symphony, and — right now — some of the Voices and Piano pieces by Peter Ablinger, which I need to investigate further!

How has your music changed throughout your career?

Oddly enough I never intended to write the same piece over and over again: so of course I think my music, and my life, has changed, and I’ve been lucky enough to get older and research a bit more deeply. But in other respects it is said that ‘leopards don’t change their spots’. I am thinking about the NEXT piece, not my ‘career’! Working in a university has made me aware that there are many people better qualified than I am, and musicians who – if they are interested – can better tell you HOW my music (and anyone else’s) has changed.

Featured Image Credit: ‘Music Piano Keys’, Photo by geralt, CC0 Public Domain, via pixabay.

Recent Comments

There are currently no comments.