A week of “The History of Photography in Sound”

I decided yesterday that I would listen to Finnissy’s 5-1/2 hour piano work The History of Photography in Sound (1995-2001) over several nights this week. Pianists perform it in it’s entirety in concert, but my brain doesn’t have the stamina to listen at length what theirs has to perform.

My daily notes while listening

There are several resources available:

Wikipedia lists the sections as:

  1. Le démon de l’analogie [28′]
  2. Le réveil de l’intraitable réalité [21′]
  3. North American Spirituals [24′]
  4. My parents’ generation thought War meant something [36′]
  5. Alkan – Paganini [14′]
  6. Seventeen Immortal Homosexual Poets [34′]
  7. Eadweard Muybridge – Edvard Munch [26′]
  8. Kapitalistisch Realisme (mit Sizilianische Männerakte en Bachsche Nachdichtungen) [68′]
  9. Wachtend op de volgende uitbarsting van repressie en censuur [17′]
  10. Unsere Afrikareise [31′]
  11. Etched bright with sunlight [29′]

Ian Pace’s website lists them in five “books”, with differences in some titles (however, the Wikipedia titles appear on the CD back cover):

  1. Book 1: Le démon de l’analogie
  2. Book 2: Landscapes
    1. The wakening of intractable reality
    2. North American Spirituals
  3. Book 3: Portraiture
    1. Alkan — Paganini
    2. Seventeen Immortal Homosexual Poets
    3. Eadweard Muybridge — Edvard Munch
  4. Book 4: Documentation
    1. Unsere Afrikareise
    2. Click!
  5. Book 5: Etched bright with sunlight

The gold standard recording is Ian Pace’s from Nov 2013. See also his website and an interview from Seen and Heard International. Pace’s recording is available for purchase and download at various sites:

The performance I’ll be listening (am listening) to is Annie Li’s from The Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance’s New Lights Festival on 17 Jun 2019.

According to a tweet (Masha Salali, @MahsaS_Piano, 2:55 PM, 16 Jun 2019), Annie Li is the 4th person in the world and the first female to have performed the entire History of Photography.


  1. Ian Pace, Jan 2001 (referenced above from The Guardian article)
  2. Mark Knoop, 18 Aug 2002
  3. Augustus Arnone, 23 Mar 2015
  4. Annie Li, 17 Jun 2019

There’s an interview with her at Meet the Artist (Annie Li, pianist). In it, she references playing a Finnissy work that was written for her, Fifth Political Agenda, which you can listen to below along with an opening interview with Finnissey answering questions about the work.

I may add notes below, but I do not expect to be able to offer any great insight. See you on the other side.

Notes throughout the week:

  • Monday (52′) – Le demon de l’analogie (French: The demon of analogy) and Le reveil de l’intraitable realite (Google translate from French: The awakening of intractable reality) – Clarity of the different voices, note the contrapuntal writing, use of plainsong and chorale.
  • Tuesday (25′) – North American Spirituals – More plainsong, expecting musical quotes but not picked up on first listening.
  • Wednesday (49′) – My parents’ generation thought War meant something – Many musical quotes, even though I did not recognize them I could tell they were quotes (?). Alkan – Paganini – Much less virtuosic (on first hearing) than what I was expecting compared to the virtuosity of other sections.
  • Thursday (38′) – Seventeen Immortal Homosexual Poets – Very tonal, different voices seem to stay in their register, cf. English Country-Tunes where melody is spread across registers. At this point, I am already interested in re-listening soon. There is just too much to take in.
  • Friday (26′) – Eadweard Muybridge — Edvard Munch – Beautiful beginning, more tonal work. His use of silences between phrases–sometimes with silences longer than the phrase–was evident in the first section. Predictably, Muybridge clear-voices, Munch jagged. Clarity of voice still amazing. Props to Ms. Li. Next section is 70 minutes so it will have to wait till Saturday.
  • Saturday/Sunday (68′) – Kapitalistisch Realisme (mit Sizilianische Männerakte en Bachsche Nachdichtungen) – possible translation from German: Capitalistic Realism (with Sicilian male nudes in the style of Bach) – Arrhythmic absolute lack of meter, more tonality, contrapuntal (Bachsche). But then long sections in 12/8 or 4/4. It getting easier to get immersed in his sound world. Sections reminded me of the texture from the “murmuring” section of English Country-Tunes, starting at the end of page 30. It ends by just fading softly away.
English Country-Tunes, May and December, pages 30 and 31 with “Remaining tranquil, gently murmuring” section starting at the bottom of page 30
  • Monday (78′) – Wachtend op de volgende uitbarsting van repressie en censuur (Google translate from Dutch: Waiting for the next outbreak of repression and censorship) – pointillist, for lack of a better term. Unsere Afrikareise (German: Our trip to Africa) – Lyrical 3-voice opening, spare rhythmic sections like quotations from Bartok folk transcriptions, switching between radio stations then overlapping, halting pointillist phrases with long pauses in between, closes with wistful farewell. Etched bright with sunlight – fanfare of multiple chordal tunes ascending the keyboard then down, quieter section with fragments of the first (?) repeated, organic transitions between sections rather than abrupt shifting, softly played counterpoint into a frantic coda.

Etched bright with sunlight is a masterpiece. Astounding work and performance focus.