Book Review: Perspectives on the Music of Christopher Fox: Straight Lines in Broken Times

9781472428240

Edited by Rose Dodd. Ashgate/Routledge.

Christopher Fox is one of the UK’s most widely admired composers. His students and friends within music are many; and all speak of him with great fondness. He has maintained for several decades now an original, wide-ranging yet distinctive compositional voice. His influence, as a composer, teacher and writer, pervades the scene in the UK, as well as elsewhere (he has been an important inspiration to a number of Canadian composers, for example).

Yet his reputation, like his music, is understated. In 1998 Ian Pace wrote an important survey article for Musical Times (‘Northern Light’, Musical Times 139, pp.33–44), but until the publication of this book this has remained almost the only major English-language look at the composer (Philip Clark also wrote a profile piece for Gramophone in 2013, issue 15). Fox himself has written or spoken a few times about his music, particularly in recent years – essential readings include the essays ‘Hybrid Temperaments and Structural Harmony: A Personal History’ (Contemporary Music Review, 22/1–2, 2003, pp.123–39) and ‘Why Experimental? Why Me?’ (in James Saunders, ed., The Ashgate Research Companion to Experimental Music, Ashgate, 2009, pp.7–26), and the interviews with James Saunders in The Ashgate Research Companion, pp.261–9 and James Weeks (‘More Heat, More Light: Christopher Fox in Conversation’, Tempo, no.236, 2006, pp.13–19). This new volume also includes lots of Fox’s own words, in the form of one essay (‘Mapping the words: A composer’s view of the role of text in music’) and two interviews, both with former students, Claudia Molitor and Nikki McGavin (née Cassidy). Normally, placing too much emphasis on a composer’s own words would be a big no-no: the authority of the artist setting too rigid an agenda and closing down alternative avenues of interpretation. Yet Fox is too self-reflective a thinker for that to be a great concern.

Indeed, the chapters in this collection in which Fox is involved are among its strongest. The interviews with Molitor and McGavin, Fox’s own essay, and that by Bob Gilmore – one of the last things he would write – are lively and fascinating. (Gilmore’s in particular is a lovely tribute to his good friend and colleague, and achieves the miraculous feat of making a discussion of syntonic commas readable and even enjoyable. Only Bob.) The chapters by Björn Heile and Philip Thomas (on music theatre and the piano music, respectively) are learned yet full of insight; that by Stephen Chase contains as many choice nuggets of interpretation on John Zorn, Kevin Volans, Howard Skempton and others as it does on Fox himself. The chapters by Roger Heaton (harmony, and the early works for clarinet), and Monty Adkins (electronics) admittedly left me a little cold, but this is a stylistic criticism rather than a musicological one: both contain much that will be of great value to scholars of Fox and contemporary music, now and into the future. The only real oddity is the chapter by Dodd herself, which closes the book. Titled ‘Ecstatic and Dutch’ it looks at structuralist approaches to minimalism in Fox’s music. It is odd because after several chapters that argue for the unclassifiability of Fox’s stylistic palette (which ranges from Fluxus-like experimentalism to postminimalism), it is strange to conclude with a chapter focussing on Fox as an –ist of any stripe, although this is nuanced at the very end.

Minor gripes over, some things that I really enjoyed. Claudia Molitor’s interview, preceded by a short excursion on the status of notation within the realisation of music, is deliciously nerdy. Molitor opens up a (frankly unpromising) line of questioning about stationery, but pursues it doggedly until it leads Fox to fascinating and pertinent insights about the relationship of composer to performer, the idea of scores as maps, the unfortunate role of notation in keeping the audience at arm’s length, and the merits (or otherwise) of posting downloadable PDFs to your website. This is stuff any young composer should read and think about.

The importance of building relationships with performers returns again in Nikki McGavin’s interview, in which Fox makes the striking observation that ‘one of the things that makes composition such a rich form of music making’ is exactly the fact that at some time, thanks to the permanence of the notation, ‘there will come a point when the people who play the music will know it better than I do. At that point is the music “mine”, “theirs” or “ours”?’ (p.99).

In fact, Fox’s oeuvre might be described just as meaningfully in terms of those relationships – with the Ives Ensemble, Anton Lukoszevieze and Apartment House, Ian Pace, EXAUDI, The Clerks, and more – as by its works. It’s notable that one of the first extended pieces of writing on Fox, Pace’s Musical Times article, was by a performer, and two more, clarinettist Roger Heaton and pianist Philip Thomas, are represented here. Both bring insights into what it is like to play a composer whose music is so emphatically for doing. (A third, Lukoszevieze, appears as photographer of the cover photos.)

I could go on; there is a lot contained within this relatively slim volume, representing an economy of means and expression of which I’m sure its subject would approve. Ashgate’s pricing model means (again) that this book will remain out of reach for the general public, but if you have access to a university library, or lots of money (on Amazon it’s £75.99 for hardcover; £34.99 for Kindle) I can recommend this sustained and broad study of one of our finest composers.

Of further interest: here’s a short Radio 3 documentary on Fox’s re:play for cello and recording devices, with contributions from Fox, Lukoszevieze and Aleks Kolkowski.

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