Early work



1 Nextwave Fanfare (1992)] 3’12

Melbourne Symphony Orchestra

Gunter Schuller – conductor

2 Nyx (1996) 11’50

Het Trio | Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble

David Stock – conductor

3 Cōnstāns (1995) 19’41

Australian Art Orchestra

Paul Grabowsky – conductor

4 Omaggio alla Pietà (1992) 5’16

The Song Company 

Roland Peelman – conductor

5 Catch (1992) 7’16

Sydney Alpha Ensemble

6 Tract (1993) 6’02

David Pereira – cello

7 Ruisselant (1991) 14’19

Le Nouvel Ensemble Moderne

Lorraine Vaillancourt – conductor

The music Mary composed from 1988 to 2008 was influenced by the innovations of 20th Century composers. These included Xenakis, Penderecki, Lutoslawski, Berio and her teachers Broadstock and Andriessen. Her award–winning instrumental and electronic music from this period was encapsulated on the double–disc compilation entitled CATCH, produced and distributed by ABC Classics|Universal label. The liner notes, written by the eminent Richard Toop, offer an insight into the thirteen works that comprise the collection. The artwork is by acclaimed artist and photographer, Dean Golja.



1 Sequi (2001) 14’31

Arditti String Quartet

2 Achos (1999) 8’44

Le Nouvel Ensemble Moderne

Lorraine Vaillancourt – conductor

3 Ether (1998) 9’18

Geoffrey Collins – flute

4 Kurz (2000) 3’19


5 Pascal’s Sphere (2000) 20’32

Le Nouvel Ensemble Moderne

Lorraine Vaillancourt – conductor

6 Sleep (2002) 23’28

electro-acoustic soundscape

Catch - Liner Notes by RICHARD TOOP

There is a certain stereotype according to which works by women composers are meant to be calm, static and reflective, at least in comparison with the macho antics of their male contemporaries. At the time Mary Finsterer began her career as a composer, in the mid-1980s, there were certainly Australian women composers who seemed to embody these more reflective values, but Mary was never one of them: from the start, her music was unabashedly full-on and hyperactive. Yet there is a certain paradox here. One thinks of certain visual illusions: the whirling car-wheel or electric fan whose accumulated speed suddenly makes it seem static, or the hillside stream that seems serene from a distance, but turns out to be chaotic when viewed from close up. This sort of ‘dialectic’ between extreme speed and stasis is central to Finsterer’s work (consciously so), and the works on this album offer many different instances of it.

The thirteen works gathered on these two CDs are not just a ‘Finsterer Retrospective’ (at the relatively tender age of 41); they also offer an insight into the way a gifted young Australian composer can respond to evolving opportunities, both local and international. For instance, in 1992 the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) commissioned a number of Australian composers to write short orchestral works that would be used as the opening items in particular orchestral concerts, and Finsterer’s work arose in conjunction with the Nextwave arts festival in Melbourne – hence the title. It may well be that what the ABC had in mind was a sort of popularising function: a series of short works that would present innately challenging young artists in a relatively non-confrontational context. Yet without actually rejecting such intentions, Finsterer found a nice way of standing them on their head; far from being a sort of “Young Person’s Guide to Mary Finsterer”, the Nextwave Fanfare is more like her own ‘guide to young persons’. She writes: “I wanted to create for the audience the feeling of being a child again – of going to the fair for the first time and seeing big whirling colourful objects like ferris wheels and big dippers – and being thrilled if not a little scared by these monstrous and strange mechanical animals.”

Accordingly, there’s a sort of deliberate ‘overload’, but not one that is intended to puzzle or alienate: simply dazzle and exhilarate. One aspect of this – almost as central to Finsterer’s work as the speed/stasis dichotomy – is the idea of repetition. In her music, repetition is rarely literal; instead, one tends to find several simultaneous ‘cycles’ allied to clearly identifiable textures and gestures. Not only are the cycles of different lengths, but they are constantly varying slightly, or starting at different points. So while it is clear that the same material is coming back time and time again, one can’t predict exactly when this will happen, or just where the starting point is.

Like Stravinsky before her, Mary Finsterer has a remarkable capacity to adjust the basic characteristics of her music to very different circumstances, without any sense of compromise. A case in point is provided by two works written one after the other: Cōnstāns, for solo violin and chamber orchestra, and Nyx (heard in the reverse order on this CD). Nyx (1996), was written for an ‘international benchmark’ ensemble specialising in the performance of the most demanding, complexly written new works; the Australian Art Orchestra, for which Cōnstāns (1995) was conceived, is essentially an ensemble of highly skilled improvisers. All of them can read music, but in this respect their capacities range from sound to exceptional (‘read anything, do anything’). So a primary task for Finsterer was to find a concept, and a structure, that not only accommodated these varying abilities, but also made something positive out of them. Wherever possible, she talked to individual members of the ensemble, checking out their special skills and preferences; one consequence of this was the decision to make the work a ‘concerto’ for the remarkable violinist John  Rodgers. The soloist is placed in the middle, with the rest of the ensemble basically split into two – saxophones and one piano to the left, brass and a second piano to the right. The antiphonal layout allows the players to ‘trade’ material throughout the piece.

The work’s title (Latin for ‘constant’) has two references: one personal, the other professional/technical. This was a difficult period in Finsterer’s life: for a period of almost three years, she was living in a large, windowless warehouse (attempting a rather utopian restoration), with builders coming in all the time: the  only way she could compose was to retreat for hours to a tiny room. The one constant benefit was the presence and support of her husband, the photographer Dean Golja, to whom the work is dedicated. As for the technical aspect, it’s not entirely unrelated to the personal one. Above all, it refers to the persistence of particular ideas throughout the work (including a single chord which is the starting point for all the harmony). But the broad formal design was also conceived as a dogged journey through a long tunnel, towards a light (a window?) that is finally reached in the concluding section of the work.


As is often the case in Finsterer’s longer works, there are three main sections; in this case each one starts relatively sparsely, and builds to a climax. At the start, the dominant elements are big, sharp violin chords, ‘traded’ wind chords that start softly and suddenly crescendo at the end (this too will become a favourite Finsterer device), and a descending figure that starts in the glockenspiel and ends in the vibraphone. After a while, new elements are added, including narrow violin glissandi that turn into harmonics, and material tossed to and fro between the pianos. The second part initially features rather ‘bouncy’ marimba chords, along with percussion and double basses; but gradually elements from the first part return. The solo violin is largely absent during this part; at the start of the third part, it again ‘clears the decks’ with a strident solo passage, and from that point to the final climax, it is rarely out of the limelight.

Having finished Cōnstāns, Finsterer felt drained. Yet she had another major commission outstanding, for the Dutch trio Het Trio (whom she knew from a period in Amsterdam, studying with Louis Andriessen) together with the Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble, and drained or not, this was scarcely an opportunity for a young composer to pass up. Het Trio is an almost legendary ensemble (not least through the involvement of Harry Spaarnay, who virtually reinvented the possibilities of the bass clarinet), and the Pittsburgh group was in the process of acquiring a similarly stellar reputation.

In a way, the situation seemed bizarre – and precisely this turned out to be a positive factor. If Cōnstāns had an element of ‘groaning under the weight’, with Nyx it was more a matter of saying: this is just ridiculous, and deciding to respond with humour. Nyx is conceived as a concerto grosso, namely a piece where a small group of soloists interact with the ensemble. At the outset, each of the three soloists acts almost as if the two others weren’t there. The pianist constantly plays chorale-like chords with the right hand, and filigree figures with the left; the flautist is more mercurial, more ‘bird-like’, while the bass clarinettist simply plays when he feels like it (which, after three initial flourishes, is not for quite some time). Here, the ensemble largely has a ‘back-up’ function. In the second part of the work (as with Cōnstāns, there are three in all), the textures are stripped right back, and are generally more unified. Again, as in Cōnstāns, first in the bass clarinet and piano, and then in the rest of the ensemble, but here the distinction between second and third sections is not so clear. The music becomes increasingly frantic and glittering, ending in an almost impossible whirl of virtuoso activity.

A word here on titles: from student days onwards, Finsterer has been attracted by titles from the ancient world, and especially from Greek mythology. Back in her school years, Ancient History was a favourite subject, and even today, she still finds herself drawn to titles that – as she sees it – form a bridge between the distant past and the present. On the whole, though (as with Nyx), the titles come after a work has been written – she prefers them not to ‘get in the way’ while she is still composing. As for this one, Nyx (according to Hesiod’s ‘Theogeny’) is the mythological goddess of the Night, and daughter of Chaos.

If the high spirits of Nyx have a certain cathartic element (at least for the composer), those of Catch (1992) are more straightforward. This is simply a lively ‘fun’ piece, though it’s far from easy to play. The basic proposition is not unlike the one used later in Nyx: the three players start with their own distinct materials, but more and more, they become drawn into what the other players are doing, and try to ‘catch up’ with them (there’s also a reference here to the vocal ‘catch’ that was popular in England from the 17th-19th centuries).

With the Omaggio alla Pietà for six voices and percussion, written in the same year as Catch, one moves to more serious territory. Like the Nextwave Fanfare, Omaggio was the result of a collective project. Roland Peelman, the director and conductor of the Sydney-based Song Company (a vocal sextet) invited 13 composers – mainly younger ones – to contribute to a joint Stations of the Cross project, performed in a very resonant space attached to the harbourside Museum of Contemporary Art. The participating composers  seem to have approached the project with varying degrees of seriousness, but given her strong Catholic background, Finsterer produced an extremely intense work that was probably the ‘standout’ of the evening, and certainly one of the very few contributions that went on to have an existence in its own right.

The musical design of the Omaggio involves a degree of symbolism worthy of a renaissance motet. The principal text is a sequence of six poems (Songs for Mary) by the Australian poet Jacinta Le Plastrier; three of these are Mary’s first person laments, and are entrusted to the contralto, while the other three are commentaries, sung by the two sopranos in a sort of ‘fractured unison’.  So at any moment there are two texts being sung simultaneously, the contralto’s vocal line being almost continuous, while those of the sopranos are more fragmentary. The male voices are absent at first; they only enter when the female voices have completed their first poems, and when they do so, what they sing are not Le Plastrier’s words, but Latin fragments from the Easter sequence “Victimae paschali laudes immolent Christiani” (Christians, to the Paschal Victim offer a sacrifice of praise), accompanied by tubular bells. There are thirteen of these evenly spaced fragments, symbolising not only (presumably) the Stations of the Cross, but also, the composer says, the pillars of a church, since the Church is, in so many respects, founded on the Crucifixion. With the thirteenth fragment, the church is built, and the male voices join the sopranos at the start of their third poem (while still interspersing Latin fragments), while the ‘church’ resonates on in the tubular bells. The percussion parts (which conceptually include the clapping of the vocalists) symbolise the ritual/tribal element that underlies so many communal expressions of grief.


The title of Tract for solo cello (1993) might suggest is a particularly hardline, forthright piece, and to a degree that’s true. But there’s another meaning implicit in the title. One talks of a ‘tract of land’, and here, as in Cōnstāns, there’s the underlying idea of a journey. But in this case, the journey is one that constantly returns to its point of origin, and this is reflected in the composer’s fascination with the many different places on the cello strings that produce the same note (through harmonics), as well as in the constant returns – after and in the midst of frantic activity – to the cello’s bottom note.

The last piece on the first CD – Ruisselant (1991) for chamber orchestra – is also the earliest in this compilation, but no less significant for that. Although one can never predict exactly when talented young composers will write the first piece in which their musical personality fully emerges from the chrysalis of earlier works, these days it tends to be in their late twenties, and that’s how it was here. In many respects, Ruisselant was Mary Finsterer’s ‘breakthrough piece’, partly because it provided her first significant overseas premiere, but above all because in this work, so many aspects of her subsequent music start to fall into place. Yet the piece came about almost by accident. Dr Richard Letts, at that time director of the Australian Music Centre, phoned to ask if she would be interested in a competition being mounted by the Canadian new music group Le Nouvel Ensemble Moderne. She submitted a folio, was selected, and found herself with nine weeks to write a substantial piece.

Ruisselant (in French, as a tribute to the ensemble that had commissioned it) means ‘streaming’: primarily, it refers to flowing water, but there are also broader implications. Initially, after sending her piece off to the Nouvel Ensemble Moderne, the young composer was full of self-doubt (this was, among other things, the first piece she had composed without having an instrument to check things on). But looking more closely at the score, it became clear that all sorts of things had fallen into place. The very notion of ‘streaming’ provided a sort of key: bands of sounds, sometimes evolving and sometimes not, but always with some kind of complex ‘inner life’.

In the context of earlier pieces on this CD, the three-part form of Ruisselant (albeit with a brief coda at the end) might seem like something to take for granted; but in fact, this is where Finsterer came up with the formal model which she has often returned to since, in various ways. After a loud opening chord (which was to become something of a Finsterer trademark), the principal ‘stream’ is that provided by the strings, which almost always play shimmering harmonics. Other prominent elements, at least initially, are chains of four or five ascending chords in the piano, and held wind notes with a sudden crescendo at the end. After about a minute, the latter two drop out, but they’ll be back. Their place is taken by gradually evolving melodic lines in the first violin, celesta and (to a lesser degree) piccolo, and bit by bit, the rest of the ensemble comes into play.

There’s a sort of climax – chains of ascending figures – and then the second section commences. There’s a paradox here (one that Ligeti too is fond of): the tempo is actually much faster than in the first section, but at first it doesn’t seem so, because not so much is happening – this is a typical early instance of Finsterer ‘stripping back’ the texture of a second section. The most enduring ‘stream’ here is the microtonal chords (multi-phonics) being played by the wind instruments, punctuated by short, sharp string chords (which had actually already begun at the end of the first section). Again, new levels gradually come into play (brass ‘fanfares’, piano figures in octaves etc.) and create another climax leading into a final section, initially dominated by more sharp string chords. Bit by bit, elements from the previous sections come into play, with the piano providing an increasingly flamboyant commentary.

Sequi for string quartet (2001) was written for the Arditti Quartet, undoubtedly the most celebrated present- day string quartet specialising in ‘radical’ new music. Mary Finsterer had first met the first violin, Irvine Arditti, in 1998; she had a premiere at the Zagreb Biennale, and by happy coincidence, the Arditti’s were there too, staying in the same hotel. Since Melbourne Festival director Jonathan Mills had already commissioned her to write a string quartet for them, there was an excellent pretext to start talking. In general, however, Finsterer’s preference is not to work with the interpreters prior to the composition process (Cōnstāns was an exception, because of the players’ jazz/improvisation orientations), but to complete the work in time to discuss (and perhaps modify) the work prior to the rehearsal period. That’s how it was with Sequi. First the piece was written; then there were discussions with the Quartet about possible modifications and improvements.


The Latin title Sequi means ‘to follow’, and as the composer writes, this refers “to the elemental process of compositional procedure, and the continually evolving nature of musical development from one idea to the next”. But abstract as that may seem, here to a very personal element was involved. Mary Finsterer had just given birth to a first child. She writes “Such an experience makes us reflect on the artless instinct that guides us through the significant moments in our lives. Following this I became intrigued as to how it might be possible to explore the idea of ‘purpose’, as a simple concept that would provide a subliminal motivational device for the construction of the piece”. To this end, she sought to “strip back complexity”, not in the sense of resorting to simplistic materials and idioms, but of trying to ensure that each of the basic materials is as clearly formulated as possible.

Once again, the work is in three continuous sections. The outset of the first section (which lasts about six minutes) presents a pair of contrasted, constantly recurring ideas. The first is a sharp, plucked rhythmic figure in which notes are rapidly tossed from one instrument to another. The second is a quieter, shimmering figure in quarter tones over the narrow range of about a major third, which always starts in the first violin, with the other instruments usually joining in later (for Schubert fans, this may well sound like a microtonal reminiscence of the start of the C minor Quartettsatz), and every now and then the cello sounds a sort of scratchy fanfare at the very top of its range. Gradually a narrow falling glissando starts to come into play, and shortly before the end of the section, the first violin indulges ever more frequently in a wild sequence of double-stops (a kind of anarchic barn dance texture).

The second section (about five minutes long) brings a set of new, but partly related elements: these include ricochet glissandi, in which the bow bounces over the strings, hammered-out figures in viola and cello (usually with five notes per beat in one instrument against four in the other), and sustained violin chords that break up into tremolo and glissandi. Perhaps the most direct reference is to the plucked figure that opened the work: but here, what bounces to and fro between the instruments is not a pizzicato note, but bowed triple-stops. Towards the end of the section, these last two elements become particularly prominent.

The final section refers back to the first even more clearly, but stands it on its head, so to speak: if the first section seemed to operate from the top (first violin) downwards, this one is driven from the bottom (cello) upwards. And there are all sorts of other ‘reversals’. For example, in the first section, the violin’s main figure was ethereal and continuous; here, the matching cello figure is rugged and fragmentary, and when the first section’s rustic double stops return, they do so first in the cello and viola. The last bars bring back the ‘fanfare’ from the first section in emphatic form.

There’s an indirect Arditti connection with Achos for chamber ensemble (1999), which, like Ruisselant, was premiered by Le Nouvel Ensemble Moderne. It is a preliminary version of part of Pascal’s Sphere (of which more below), and originally, that’s what it was called. Following further work on Pascal’s Sphere, Finsterer withdrew this early version. But then, in 2002, Irvine Arditti mentioned that he had heard the piece three years earlier, said how much he liked it, and was disappointed when he found it had been withdrawn. So the composer relented, and the piece has once again been allowed a life of its own, with a different title. The Greek word ‘achos’ means an ‘anticipation’, which is exactly what Achos was in relation its successor. There’s no need to catalogue the correspondences between the ‘before’ and ‘after’ versions, but the continuous celesta passages and descending string glissandi at the start of Achos have a particularly clear reflection in Pascal’s Sphere.

The next two pieces are for smaller forces. Ether for solo flute (1998) joins a whole tradition of ethereal, ‘cloudy’ pieces for flute, including works by James Dillon and Salvatore Sciarrino, in which there’s an implicit basic image that seems to rule out any notion of strong metres and sharply focussed rhythms. And initially, so it is with Finsterer’s piece, which was written with the outstanding flautist Australian Geoffrey Collins in mind. The piece begins with a haze of harmonics and ‘whistle tones’; but bit by bit, this is invaded by more sharply profiled figures.

Kurz (2000) for clarinet, piano, viola and cello is, as it German title implies, ‘short’. In some ways, this three- minute piece follows a similar course to Ether, though it is more lightweight and divertimento-like in character. At first the texture seems nebulous, with the viola and cello working in close conjunction (glissandi and brief rapid figures) but the clarinet and the pianist’s two hands all going their separate ways. Soon, though, the clarinet starts interspersing some perky rhythmic figures, and eventually the pianist’s right hand decides to join in too.


The title of Pascal’s Sphere (2000), for chamber ensemble and electronic music, refers on the one hand to a passage from the 18th century French philosopher’s Pensées, but also, more directly, to an essay by the Argentinean author Jorge Luis Borges. In it, Borges traces a lineage reaching back to the ancient Greeks in which the universe (and later, God) is described as having its centre and/or circumference nowhere and everywhere. Borges notes that whereas earlier authors seem to have accepted this as a matter of course, for Pascal it becomes not only awe-inspiring but also frightening: he writes of “a fearful sphere”, which naturally echoes one of the most famous lines in the Pensées: “The eternal silence of those infinite spaces strikes me with terror”. While the game of the interchangeability of centre and outer edge may not be new in Finsterer’s work, there is, here, a conscious (albeit ‘behind the scenes’) engagement with its scarier aspects– a ‘dancing on the edge of the abyss’ that is most apparent in the sort of ‘danse macabre’ that the winds perform towards the end of the work.

One notable technical aspect of Pascal’s Sphere is its incorporation of electronic music, albeit mainly in the background: in the score, Finsterer describes it as an “electro-acoustic soundscape”. Her contact with electronics goes back to the late eighties, where she used a small synthesizer to accompany the performances of illusionist Terrence Dansic (to whom Ruisselant is dedicated). But that was still ‘primitive’ equipment: over the past decade, the sophistication, user-friendliness and, not least, affordability of computer music programmes has created a completely new situation for composers who want to explore this domain without making an exclusive lifetime commitment to it. Yet Finsterer’s preference still lies with ‘live’ instruments: she says that in any situation where instruments and electronics were involved, the instruments would have to take precedence.

Of the particular use of electronics in this piece, she says: “It performs various functions. In the first part the ambient sound of ‘air’ is to give the illusion of vast space – of ‘aloneness’ in an environment that is immense. The second part, which is largely composed of granulated sounds originating from a harp glissando, is to give a warmth to the piece as a counterbalance to the first part. The final part comprises waves that surge up to ‘cut through’ the blocks of continual and unrelenting tutti sections. I did this to create angles that pitch themselves against the solid lines created by the orchestra and in doing so emulate in some way the disquiet felt by Pascal.”

From this one could partly – but only partly – deduce the characters of the work’s three sections. The first is actually in two parts: an initial one with a sequence of crescendoing drum passages (during which the electronics become ever more apparent) and ‘rapid yet static’ passages for the whole ensemble, then a second dominated by a vibrant, almost Varèse-like trumpet figure, as well as the celesta ‘streams’ and string glissandi already familiar from Achos, and held notes in the winds with swirls of grace notes at the end. The music becomes ever more tense, until it is suddenly cut off by a vibraphone passage that initiates (and pervades) the second section. Here too, everything moves at lightning speed, but in a more fragmentary, shimmering sort of way. The third movement is initially dominated by extravagant woodwind flourishes and an incisive, jagged brass ‘fanfare’ (not so remote from the ritualistic world of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring). Progressively, earlier materials are reintroduced, and as at the end of Nyx, though with a far more apocalyptic tone, the music accumulates to a point of near saturation, but with the electronic ‘cross-cuts’ having the last word.

Mary Finsterer also applies the term “electro-acoustic soundscape” to Sleep (2002), the final and most recent piece on this album. It was just one dimension of what was billed as a “postmodern nocturne”, which also involved video and projections by Dean Golja, a mattress-like sculpture by Kate Murphy, and movement by Wendy Morrow and Trevor Patrick – “She” on the floor, and “He” suspended in the air.

One’s  initial ‘ambient’ impression of Sleep – rather at odds with other works in this collection – soon turns out to be misleading. In fact, there are not only the same long-arched cycles as before – here as a kind of slow, irregular breathing – but also all kinds of dense, cumulative activity. The composer writes that “the intention of this work is to emulate the idea of sleep as a time where, even though the body and mind are in a restful and slow state, it is a time that is filled with activity, as the unconscious mind wanders through an undulating terrain of dreams and fragmented memories. Sounds of breath have been abstracted, and placed amidst the texture to create the impression of unending continuity, and to offer a sense of layering between the outer and inner worlds.” The result is an increasingly engulfing musical experience.

Richard Toop

Executive Producers Robert Patterson, Lyle Chan Editorial and Production Manager Hilary Shrubb

Recording Engineer & Mastering Jon Russell Booklet Design Imagecorp Pty Ltd

Photography Dean Golja Selected works from the series: Last Light

Mary Finsterer thanks:

Dean Golja / Wil Golja / Monica Finsterer / Jon Russell / Barbara Mobbs / Richard Toop / Peggy Glanville-Hicks / Peggy Glanville-Hicks Trust / Nick Hampton / James Murdoch / Shane Simpson / Irvine Arditti / Arditti String Quartet / Andrew Kurowski / BBC Recording Department / CBC Radio / Gunter Schuller / Melbourne Symphony Orchestra / Nextwave Festival / Paul Grabowsky / John Rodgers / Ann Moir / Australian Art Orchestra / Geoffrey Collins / David Pereira / Belinda Webster / Tall Poppies / Roland Peelman / The Song Company / Harry Sparnaay / Het Trio / David Stock / Pittsburgh New Music Ensemble / Pittsburgh Digital Recording and Editing Company / Sydney Alpha / Patricia Pollett / Perihelion / Artworks / Michael Lynch / Lorraine Vaillancourt / David Clark / Le Nouvel Ensemble Moderne / Radio- Canada / Australia Council / Jonathan Mills / Melbourne Festival / Robyn Archer / Adelaide Festival / Luce Beaudet / Barbara and Bruce Laswell / John Davis / Anna Cerneaz / Hanna-Mari Latham / Australian Music Centre / Richard Letts / David Worrall / Michael Smetanin / Conservatorium of Music, University of Sydney / Louis Andriessen / Brenton Broadstock / Linda Kouvaras / Faculty of Music, University of Melbourne / Monika Evers / Arne Hanna.

® 2004 Australian Broadcasting Corporation. © 2004 Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

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