An interview with Douglas Finch

The first ever recording of Douglas Finch’s piano and chamber music is available on the Prima Facie label. Inner Landscapes: Piano and Chamber Music 1984-2013 (PFCD040) offers an exquisite and compelling portrait of this important Canadian-British composer. This is an interview about the album.

Interviewer: What prompted the making of this CD?
Douglas Finch: “It was the pianist Aleksander Szram, a student of mine (who has since gone on to become one of the most imaginative and successful champions of contemporary music), who initiated and led this project. It began with an idea to record the Fantasy on a Russian Folksong (1989) after a performance of the work at my 50th Birthday Concert at Blackheath Halls. We selected a number of my other chamber and piano solo works alongside it, and so this album comprises a range of pieces written from my early twenties up to a few years ago.”

I: Why did you use the title ‘Inner Landscapes’?
DF: “In choosing the chamber and solo piano works to be recorded, I decided to focus mainly on one aspect of my work which I keep coming back to – an idea of something spiritual or ‘numinous’ which can be perceived in certain situations in natural environments – a kind of epiphany. In my childhood, I began to relate the feelings I got from music to experiences in ‘nature’ – usually solitary – in the open prairie or woods, by still moonlit lakes, etc. But also, I 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 to form a multi-dimensional, inhabitable space for the listener.”

I: Does the image on the cover of this CD have some significance?
DF: “The cover of this album shows a painting, “Scorned as Timber, beloved of Sky”, by the Canadian artist Emily Carr. She has long been one of my favourite painters, 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. It isn’t so much the subject of these landscapes – after all, I am a ‘prairie boy’, who knew nothing of subtropical rainforests, mountains or sea when growing up – but rather her attitude towards them, the sense of her relationships to these domains, that I identify with so strongly.”

I: Is the idea of ‘landscape’ also reflected in the music on this album?
DF: Yes. The three trios (Ruins, Fantasy on a Russian Folksong, and Lamentations) all have some kind of reference to particular places. In the last movement of Ruins, for Flute, Violin and Piano, the circling fragments from Schubert’s The Crow from Winter’s Journey were inspired by a gloomy day walking around an old castle on the Rhine, while ideas for the Fantasy on a Russian Folk Song for Violin, Cello and Piano emerged out of the North Wales coastal town of Pwllheli where I wrote most of the piece, and where practically the whole of the wildly ecstatic final section came to me while walking on the beach during a fierce gale. The other Flute, Violin and Piano trio, Lamentations, written just after 9/11 has some relation to the image of the dystopian landscape Ground Zero in New York.

I: Is your music inspired by your personal experience?
DF: “Yes. For example, Lyric (for Piano) was conceived out of an epiphany-like experience walking outside of tiny Northern Manitoba town of Leaf Rapids where a particular blue light above distant pine trees seemed to be telling me something about the duality of nature – both frightening and consoling. Summer (Cello and Piano), on the other hand, was written for my wife Sian on the occasion of our wedding, and was played by us at the reception at her family home in North Wales, and is inspired both by the Snowdonia landscape and a poem by Dafydd ap Gwilym. Landscape IV is subtitled Ucluelet both in reference to the town where Emily Carr lived with the Yuu-tluth-aht people, and also from my own experience of the special aura of Vancouver Island’s west coast.”

I: Did the choice of instruments also influence you?
DF: “Absolutely. I have been repeatedly drawn to write for string instruments, and the flute reserves a special place in my compositional palate – certain colours conjuring up childhood memories of the prairies. I also keep returning to the sonorities of the piano. Landscape III (violin and piano) and Landscape IV (solo piano) both explore aspects of symmetry and proportion, and are the most technically difficult and complex of the pieces represented. The three Chorales (for solo piano) on this CD make some reference to the Lutheran Chorale tradition, as practised by J.S. Bach and Franck, but the pieces above all explore the piano’s overtones and natural decay – the slow deaths of struck, vibrating strings – which seem to be in accord with my predilection for themes of solitude, mourning and spiritual longing.”