Mary Finsterer says she wants to write a Mass. As one of Australia’s finest composers, she’s entitled; composers have been making new musical settings of the Mass for the best part of 2000 years. But it is not such a common occurrence in the twenty-first century, especially not among composers with Finsterer’s impeccable modernist credentials.
Finsterer is that most interesting of figures – an artist in transition. Her first sketch for the Mass, a miniature for two saxophones performed in Berlin in May, bears the significant title Until, which the composer explains is directly related to her view of Catholicism.
“It is about anticipation … the Catholic tradition is all about that,” she tells me early one morning. “It’s about what happens next.” We’ve met in a coffee shop in Bowral, NSW, the composer having been delayed by last-minute baking duties – she likes her children to take fresh food to school.
Mary Finsterer’s journey to her Mass was more a matter of musical than spiritual exploration. And, like many composers, she found her musical priorities shifting when she started writing an opera. Opera, with its words and pictures, colour and movement, and dramatic rationale, challenges the abstraction of music. Pitches and rhythms may still have no intrinsic meaning, but they quickly borrow them from those other elements. If you write a sequence of chords and place them in the context of a seduction or a murder, then this is what the chords will come to signify. Finsterer has long put her music to images – her husband is the photographer Dean Golja, with whom she has collaborated more than once – but operatic narrative is something else.
There are also practical considerations in writing an opera. If you are setting words to music and are hoping your audience will be able to follow a plot-line, you will need your text to be comprehensible. Much 20th- and 21st-century composition is busy and intricate – certainly Finsterer’s was – but in pursuit of verbal clarity the composer must act like a scythe in a thicket, clearing a path for the voice. And then there’s the singing itself. Singers in operas have to memorise their parts, so the notes a composer writes had better be memorable.
One of the most famous examples of a composer being changed by writing an opera was György Ligeti, the 1960s purveyor of multi-layered orchestral scores in which a myriad intricacies produce dense clouds of sound (most conspicuously in 2001: A Space Odyssey). In the early 1980s Ligeti emerged changed from the slow business of composing his opera Le Grand Macabre. His next major work was a horn trio, subtitled (of all things) ‘Hommage à Brahms’. Ligeti’s trio didn’t actually sound like Brahms, but the surfaces of his piece were now translucent, the compositional mechanisms laid bare and the music told its story with great clarity. The piece also packed an emotional punch that was very hard to deny.
Mary Finsterer’s music was also once full of information and gesture. It is possible to listen to Nextwave Fanfare (1992), performed by the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, or the final stages of her pugnacious little violin concerto Constans (1995), performed by the solo violinist John Rodgers with the Australian Art Orchestra, in terms of their often implacable totality, but you can also switch focus and zoom in on individual elements in the teeming detail beneath the surface. The composer and writer Michael Hannan, reviewing Catch – a stylish two-disc compilation of Finsterer’s music up to 2002 – recognised the dichotomy; he went further, commenting on the “jamming” in the music and remarking that the pieces had “some kind of bizarre groove element working in them”. Finsterer remembers this review with gratitude: “I felt he ‘got’ the music, looking past the more immediate layers to find that the pieces were rooted in what I call ‘urban folk music’.”
It’s a good description, and you might add that Finsterer’s “urban folk music” was always rather fast and very noisy. In her work of late, however, she has allowed herself more time for events to unfold – her music no longer seems in a hurry. It is also noticeably quieter.
These things often happen to artists mid career. They have life experiences, successes and setbacks; they have children (Finsterer has two, both at primary school); they move to the country (she lives in the Southern Highlands of NSW); they get older (next year, she turns 50). Finsterer is well aware of how her changing circumstances have affected her music, particularly the way in which her children have disrupted her work patterns – remember most composers work at home – but, she points out, they have also helped her. “I had to lose a certain preciousness about what I needed in terms of the right conditions to compose – the right environment, the right amount of time,” she says. “My kids have helped me to be more creative in my approach. I love how they have brought this to my life.”
All of this might account for a certain maturity in her musical outlook, but the main catalyst, one suspects, was that opera. Commissioned by The Song Company and completed after five years’ work, Biographica (2011) has at its core an AS Byatt–like conceit in which a modern writer attempts the biography of the sixteenth-century Italian polymath Gerolamo Cardano and finds something in common with the subject. Finsterer describes Cardano as “a typical Renaissance man”.
“He published 125 books (with 112 more manuscripts unpublished at his death) and wrote on all manner of topics, including science, mathematics, biology, philology, astrology, numerology, architecture, astronomy, music, alchemy and gambling.” Especially gambling. Cardano’s weaknesses in this area do not make him an attractive character, but they endear him to the biographer, deeply in debt and drawn to Cardano’s main vice as a possible solution.
To prepare herself for the opera, Finsterer began researching the music of the Renaissance and soon found her own music drawing on the sounds of the sixteenth century. The composer had long made use of systems – series of notes, chords, rhythmic figures, all of different lengths and moving at different speeds, looped and overlapping. In Biographica, this technique remains more or less intact, but the nature of the musical materials is altered. The chords and bass lines are now more likely to be tonally related, so the repetitions come to resemble the ground basses of Renaissance music.
“I knew perfectly well that the research I had undertaken would take me in a different direction,” Finsterer admits. “That’s not easy … it’s not really the done thing to change style. But my desire to venture down the path of exploration became more important to me than the criticisms I might have to endure.”
In fact, rather than criticism, Finsterer’s new music has attracted plaudits. In 2009 her orchestral work In Praise of Darkness – a richly luminous procession through a Borgesian labyrinth, so far heard only in Europe – won Australia’s richest composition award, the Paul Lowin Orchestral Prize.
But there’s more to Finsterer’s new direction than research. Biographica, with a libretto by Timothy Daly, is a comic opera and in discussing it Finsterer refers to Mozart, pointing out that the style of The Marriage of Figaro is not that of The Magic Flute. In other words, Finsterer no longer feels constrained to write in a particular manner. The opera requires one sort of music; Shirley Barrett’s film South Solitary needed another. And now there’s the Mass.
At this point the Mass is just a notion, but Until – that saxophone duo, which is presently all that exists of the project – is already living up to its anticipatory title. With the addition of percussion, it has just morphed into a trio, in which form it had its Australian premiere in Sydney at the end of last month.
A little while ago in Australia, we invented the expression ‘emerging artist’ – a phrase rather like ‘developing nation’. It’s a bureaucratic label devised by the Australia Council for the Arts to signify promising young artists who no one much has heard of (and who might, therefore, receive smaller grants and think themselves lucky). But as Finsterer’s good friend, the composer David Worrall, once pointed out, the expression is a form of tautology, for “any artist who is not emerging is dead.”
Without a doubt, Mary Finsterer is emerging.
Until will be performed by Christina Leonard and James Nightingale of Continuum Sax on 9 November at Tap Gallery, Darlinghurst.
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