The Centre Is Everywhere

An album by Manchester Collective was recently released with the intriguing title The Centre Is Everywhere. It features a work of the same name by Edmund Finnis, alongside music by Philip Glass and Schoenberg.

Finnis’s piece is for twelve string players. It drew me in gently on the first listen – I found it both absorbing and enigmatic. But I was surprised that its mystical-sounding title was not explained in any of the record’s marketing, as far as I could see.

Curious to find out more, I got in touch with the Manchester Collective’s co-founder Adam Szabo, who kindly put me in touch with the composer.

As Finnis explained by email, the work owes its title to The Book Of The Twenty-Four Philosophers – a Medieval text which contains different definitions of God. The second of these definitions became quite influential in the following centuries:

An infinite sphere whose centre is everywhere and circumference is nowhere.

As one interesting paper describes, this idea of God as a sphere whose centre is everywhere has informed thinkers such as Meister Eckhart and Nicholas of Cusa. It was also taken up by the Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan for his concept of ‘acoustic space’ in media – the idea that information comes at us from all sides at once (like sound) and does not have a fixed boundary, whereas written information is sequential and closed off, an extension of the eye.

As Finnis described to me, he borrowed from this theological phrase because it seemed to fit the ideas he was thinking about – of foregrounds and backgrounds in music, and shapes and patterns passing between groups of instruments. And scoring The Centre Is Everywhere for twelve players – a highly divisible number – certainly gives plenty of room for playing with layers.

This music creates its own acoustic space. It uses a framing effect, in that it emerges out of (and back into) a void of whispering, pitchless bowed sounds. The piece does not so much begin as come into focus – at first tentatively, and then more fully. As if we’re tuning in to something beyond normal perception.

A bundle of lines shifts fitfully, trying to find a coherent shape. But it begins to build into longer breaths, as more layers intertwine. Many of the parts rise and fall in scales, others sound like broken-chord figurations – elements which in another work might be accompaniment material, supporting a main theme.

But there is no clear foreground, no main theme. Nothing seems to assert itself over and above the rest: instead the overall effect is of an exquisitely wrought kaleidoscope, in which our attention is everywhere. And that is where the principal fascination comes.

Finnis certainly knows how to exploit the resonance of strings, creating compelling ghostly shades and ethereal shimmers. And while he makes expressive use of dissonance, this piece falls very easily on the ear as it unfolds, expands, and recedes.

But if the centre of our attention is everywhere, then it is also nowhere. A natural consequence is that the piece doesn’t create memorable themes as such – instead it creates a memorably spatial impression. In that sense it seems to mirror the condition of deep contemplation, in which the structures of perception dissolve.

The Centre Is Everywhere is available on Bandcamp. Read more about Manchester Collective at Gramophone and Vents Magazine.

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