The British composer's music blends electronic and orchestral textures, with shimmering strings and translucent soundworlds
A chorister at New College, Oxford as a child, Edmund Finnis went on to study with Julian Anderson at the Guildhall. He is fascinated by the possibilities of music in relation to space and scale, the result of which can be heard in recordings such as his The Air, Turning, winner of the BBC Music Magazine Premiere Award in 2020.
We spoke to Edmund Finnis in 2020 about his approach to writing music and his first steps into composition...
My first orchestral piece was an important experience. While studying at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, I was offered to write a piece for the Sibelius Academy orchestra. I remember walking into the hall during rehearsals; the experience of hearing that many people creating the sound was a watershed moment. That’s the first piece I was really proud of.
Edmund Finnis's preferred instrumentations
Moving between extremes of scale is thrilling for me. I’ve written a few solo pieces in the last year. There’s an intimacy that’s possible with solo writing – thinking about the minute gestures, breath and physicality of one person with an instrument. Carrying across those ideas into writing on a larger scale is something I often think about.
I have written a lot of string music. That’s partly because of the commissions, but it’s also because I love the possibilities of string instruments. I wouldn’t have been able to write The Centre is Everywhere for the Manchester Collective recently if I hadn’t written a series of solo pieces for strings. It came out of very in-depth thinking about the timbre of the cello, viola, violin, double bass and the potential overtones and different colours and shades you can create with an ensemble of them.
Edmund Finnis as a young chorister
Being a chorister made me take music very seriously from an early age. Edward Higginbottom, the director of music at New College, treated us as professionals and with the high expectations that come with that. I understood then that music was a profound and serious thing.
The composing process
I work with pencil and paper. I find that part of my imagination is not completely accessible when I’m looking at a computer screen. I’ve tried to overcome that, but I fully accept it now and don’t want to change it. I often play things on the piano or cello when I write, or sing things to myself. I try to imagine the experience of playing this music; I want to write things that are beautiful to listen to, but also satisfying for musicians to play.
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Edmund Finnis's The Air, Turning
‘The music of Edmund Finnis invites rather than demands attention,’ wrote Steph Power in her appraisal of this premiere recording of the British composer’s solo, duo and orchestral works. With music written from 2012-18, and expertly performed by clarinettist Mark Simpson, pianist Víkingur Ólafsson and others, Finnis sees the album as a ‘chapter of his life’, with different soundworlds created in each piece, but with a consistent motivating principle: to explore the space and scale of music.
We spoke to Edmund Finnis following his win at the 2020 BBC Music Magazine Awards.
‘The space of music fascinates me,’ he says. ‘What’s it made up of? It’s vibrating air – it’s literally air turning.’ The Air, Turning is the perfect name both for the title track and the whole album, which seems to breathe and shimmer from start to finish.
Finnis brings this microscopic level of detail to the fore most prominently in Elsewhere for violin and reverb, in which you can detect the hairs of the bow on each string. ‘I wanted the reverb to suspend the overtones of the harmonics in the air, so you can hear them in conjunction with the root notes,’ he explains.
In the works for larger forces, Finnis explores how themes interweave within a particular space. Parallel Colour, a work for chamber ensemble divided into two groups, has a double bass in the centre, which, he says, acts as a horizon line. ‘When I was in Latvia, the calm Baltic Sea looked like a mirror against the clear sky. I wanted to create music that reflects on itself like that.'
You can also buy The Air, Turning from the following outlets: