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

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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.

Resilient Music

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Listening to James Weeks’s recent CD Signs of Occupation (métier msv 28559) against the backdrop of the last few days, I find myself drawn to its sheer robustness as much as anything else. In sombre moments, I sometimes imagine what art, what music, would be left in the instance of a Station Eleven-type apocaplyse, and I take great comfort in the fact that much of what I love would or could survive, more or less indefinitely. Not everything, of course. All music recorded on electronic media would – ironically – become ephemeral, as the fuel ran out and the generators wound down, or were conserved for light and heat. Orchestral and large ensemble music – and opera – also fade through impracticality, or become radically transformed. In Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven a travelling band of actors and musicians cross a plague-ravaged North America, putting on scratch performances of Shakespeare at settlements on the road, and I can imagine versions of Don Giovanni or The Magic Flute surviving in such circumstances.

But the music with the most fighting chance would be that which made the least demands on resources: small ensembles, simple, portable instruments (no pianos!), all acoustic, flexible with regard to performance space, accommodating of untrained musicians, rewarding to play as to listen to, and in tune with its environment. Music that was, in these respects at least, close to folk music, and that addressed itself to a similar set of performance conditions.

There is a particular strand of experimental music that meets these criteria – a lot of it being composed in the UK, but far from exclusive to this country – and that I have begun to think of as resilient music. Weeks’s chamber pieces, several of them represented on Signs of Occupation, as well as vocal works like The World in tune are exemplary. Looping Busker Music (2013) on the métier CD, for example, is for a quartet of clarinet, violin, guitar and accordion and, apart from the inclusion of a tape of sampled field recordings, sounds truly resilient: simple, artless, imbued with the joy of its own existence. Furthermore, pieces like this, and the soprano solo Nakedness (2012, recorded on this disc) thematise within them their own material conditions, the way in which they come into being only because people have chosen to perform them and bring them to life.

Michael Finnissy (Weeks’s teacher) is an important influence on James’s compositional outlook, but while it can be extraordinarily muscular and materially self-aware, I wouldn’t always describe Finnissy’s music as resilient – it relies too much on expert performers (although there are notable exceptions, This Church being one). And while Weeks’s music is far from easy, I don’t believe its successful realisation depends upon expertise (and specialisation) – a product of a carefully managed, nurturing environment; so much as dedication – a product of desire and time, a very different proposition.

I suggested that a lot of resilient music can be found in the UK – and I would include Stephen Chase, Laurence Crane, Claudia Molitor and others in this group (what are we more worried about?). Rather than Finnissy, I would suggest Christopher Fox as a wellspring for this particular marriage of practicality and aesthetics. I’m going to write more about Fox’s music in another post soon, but works like Catalogue irraisoné (recorded by Weeks’s EXAUDI vocal ensemble; reviewed here) – indeed the whole of Everything You Need to Know (1999–2001) – or hearing not thinking (2006–8) seem to perfectly describe the conditions of a resilient music. The best of these pieces seem to grow from Cage’s inadvertent manifesto for a post-apocalyptic composition: that one should destroy all of one’s records; only then will one be forced to write music for oneself.

CD review: Klavikon (Leon Michener)

Klavikon: Klavikon

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When Richard James introduced a handful of prepared piano tracks on the 2001 Aphex Twin album Drukqs, it was widely perceived as an acknowledgement of James’s  admiration for the postwar musical avant garde; in particular, of course, John Cage.

On his debut album, Klavikon, Leon Michener – a pianist whose range encompasses modern jazz as well as much of that postwar repertory – brings things back full circle, preparing his piano in order to create haunting, mechanistic studies that recall James in the era of Selected Ambient Works Volume II and Richard D. James. There are, apparently, no overdubs here, and all sounds are made by the piano. If true, this is a work of considerable performing and compositional virtuosity (there are, surely, some reverbs and delays at work, unless my ears are being seriously tricked). It is also a thoughtful and enjoyable set from one of the UK’s most intriguing pianists: although it gets close to settling on a groove or emotional palette, it never quite does. Where Cage’s piano became a factory, or a gamelan, Michener’s is a digital workstation screen full of Max patches, an obscure nightclub in the hippest, strangest part of town. Different modernities, different exoticas.

[Here’s an interview in Vice in which Michener talks about his practice.]

Something experimental for the weekend

News of two tasty treats in London this weekend, organised by John Lely and featuring US West Coast composers Laura Steenberge and Michael Winter:

7.30pm Friday 7 October 2016 @ IKLECTIK
LAURA STEENBERGE – The Chant Etudes
MICHAEL WINTER – for Sol LeWitt
JOHN LELY – All About the Piano
MICHAEL WINTER – room and seams
TIM PARKINSON – No.3, No.4, No.5 (2016)
JÜRG FREY – Circular Music No. 6
Performed by Mira Benjamin, Angharad Davies, Anton Lukoszevieze, Tim Parkinson, Laura Steenberge, Michael Winter.
Tickets £7/£5
Old Paradise Yard
20 Carlisle Lane (Royal Street corner) next to Archbishop’s Park
London SE1 7LG
3.30pm Sunday 9 October 2016 @ Hundred Years Gallery
 
LAURA STEENBERGE – The Chant Etudes
MICHAEL WINTER – tergiversate
JOHN LELY – Second Symphony
MICHAEL WINTER – for Sol LeWitt
CHRISTIAN WOLFF – Another
MICHAEL WINTER – necklaces
Performed by Mira Benjamin, Angharad Davies, Dominic Lash, Anton Lukoszevieze, Tim Parkinson, Laura Steenberge, Michael Winter.
Tickets £5
13 Pearson Street
London E2 8JD

Music After the Fall

It’s official!

My book has a webpage! Music After the Fall: Modern Composition and Culture Since 1989 will be published in February 2017 by University of California Press. And it will look like this:

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That’s Roseanne Hunt of ELISION, surgically attacking her cello in a performance of John Rodgers’ TULP: the body public.

Still some way to go before the book hits the shelves, but this feels like a big moment. Here’s the official blurb:

Music after the Fall is the first book to survey contemporary Western art music within the transformed political, cultural, and technological environment of the post–Cold War era. In this book, Tim Rutherford-Johnson considers musical composition against this changed backdrop, placing it in the context of globalization, digitization, and new media. Drawing connections with the other arts, in particular visual art and architecture, he expands the definition of Western art music to include forms of composition, experimental music, sound art, and crossover work from across the spectrum, inside and beyond the concert hall.

Each chapter is a critical consideration of a wide range of composers, performers, works, and institutions, and develops a broad and rich picture of the new music ecosystem, from North American string quartets to Lebanese improvisers, from electroacoustic music studios in South America to ruined pianos in the Australian outback. Rutherford-Johnson puts forth a new approach to the study of contemporary music that relies less on taxonomies of style and technique than on the comparison of different responses to common themes of permission, fluidity, excess, and loss.

To purchase, request an exam copy, or find more information, please visit Music After the Fall at University of California Press.

And for details of launch events, etc, stay tuned.

Three releases from Huddersfield Contemporary Records

Founded in 2009, Huddersfield Contemporary Records (HCR) continues to go from strength to strength. Not only as a showcase for what is surely now the powerhouse for new music in UK academe, but as a record label in its own right.

Ending today (30 September), NMC is offering 20% off all HCR releases. Get yours now.

To help you on your way, here are reviews of the three most recent releases.

Diego Castro Magas: Shrouded Mirrors (HCR10 CD)

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The Chilean guitarist Diego Castro Magas is a PhD candidate in performance at Huddersfield. A former student of Oscar Ohlsen, Ricardo Gallén and Fernando Rodríguez, he has in the last decade or so become a specialist in contemporary repertoire (his first release, in 2009, featured the first recording of Ferneyhough’s guitar duet no time (at all), with his Chilean colleague José Antonio Escobar).

A performer clearly keen to push his instrument’s repertory to its limit (witness his remarkable realisation of a kind of nostalgia, written for him by the composer Michael Baldwin), on Shrouded Mirrors he takes on more conventional challenges – in whatever sense music by James Dillon, Brian Ferneyhough, Michael Finnissy and some of their younger admirers, Bryn Harrison, Wieland Hoban and Matthew Sergeant, might be considered ‘conventional’.

Hoban’s Knokler I (2009) takes perhaps the most radical approach, using a multi-stave tablature notation and a very low scordatura to distort the sound and physical familiarity of the guitar as much as possible. Based on a poem by the Norwegian poet Tor Ulven, it emphasises the physicality of the guitar (knokler meaning bones in Norwegian), as well as the poem’s collage of images. But whereas many composers working in this fashion (including some of those on this CD) produce music of sharp prickles and vertiginous drops, Hoban writes a queasy, unpredictable melting that is distinctive and strangely attractive.

Sergeant’s bet maryam (2011) is a characteristic blend of the headlong and the eldritch, and (like other works by Sergeant) takes its title from an Ethiopian church – this one a small, rock-hewn building on the Labilela World Heritage site. A feature of the church is a pillar that is reputedly inscribed with the Ten Commandments, the story of the excavation of Labilela, and the story of the beginning and end of the world. Deemed too dangerous for mortal eyes, however, the pillar has been veiled since the 16th century, which Sargeant’s piece expresses through the use of a melodic cycle within the piece that is variously exposed or veiled.

Also notable is Bryn Harrison’s M.C.E. (2010), which is quite the loveliest Harrison piece I have heard in some time. Perhaps a source of its particular expressive clarity is that it is named after M.C. Escher, an artist whose work shares much with Harrison’s own.

Of the pieces by the three ‘senior’ composers, Ferneyhough’s Kurze Schatten II has been recorded several times. I know two versions by Geoffrey Morris, released in 1998 (on Etcetera with ELISION) and by the Australian Broadcasting Company in 2000. Castro Magas’s version is the slowest of all three (a relative term), and as a result contains more space; but it also features sharper angles between the music’s intersecting planes (most clearly heard in the third movement’s tapestry of knocks and stabs). The result is more fragmentary, an emphasis found more explicitly in Ferneyhough’s later music, and a thrilling take on a familiar work. Finnissy’s Nasiye (1982, rev. 2002) dates from the period when the composer was writing many solo works based on folk musics from around the world. Nasiye is based on a Kurdish folkdance, which gradually emerges, movingly and with great dignity, from the deeply personalised context Finnissy has given it. The album’s title piece was composed in 1987 by James Dillon, and is a proper slice of old-school complexity, given eloquent justification by Castro Magas’s playing.

Philip Thomas: Beat Generation Ballads (HCR11 CD)

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At Huddersfield, Castro Magas’s supervisor is Philip Thomas – a pianist currently on a remarkably prolific recording streak. His own release for HCR concentrates on two major works by Michael Finnissy: First Political Agenda (1989–2006), and Beat Generation Ballads (2014), the latter of which Thomas premiered at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival in 2014.

Like its predecessor, and topical relation, English Country-Tunes, First Political Agenda begins with thunderous sweeps across the keyboard. What grows out of their dying echoes, however, is somewhat different: not the ironically distorted pastoralism (those never-quite restful open spaces) of English Country-Tunes, but a darker, rougher manipulation of raw materials. Its second movement draws on the Benedictus from Beethoven’s Missa solemnis, while the third – ‘You know what kind of sense Mrs. Thatcher made’ – performs a Chris Newman-esque détournement on Hubert Parry’s theme for William Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’, flipping the ultimate musical signifier of England on its end, flattening it and rendering it distressingly mute: a ghastly, heart-stoppingly empty reflection on the ‘sense’ of Britain’s most divisive Prime Minister.

Beat Generation Ballads contains further references to Beethoven (and, in its 30-minute final movement, Finnissy’s first extended use of a variation form), as well as Allen Ginsberg, Irish Republican protest songs, Bill Evans, the bassist Scott LeFaro, and the poet Harry Gilonis. In its short first movement, ‘Lost But Not Lost’, it also features music written when the composer was only 16, a typical gesture of Finnissian self-archaeology.

There’s far too much to consider here in what is supposed to be a short review, but works are major statements, not (I think?) previously recorded, and are done justice by Thomas’s intelligent and critically reflective performance.

Heather Roche: Ptelea (HCR09 CD)

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This is the oldest of these three releases; that is, it is the one that has been sitting on my desk the longest. Another Thomas student (she completed her PhD at Huddersfield in 2012), the Canadian-born clarinettist Heather Roche needs little introduction among followers of new music in the UK or Germany, where she now lives. One of the most energetic younger players on the scene, she is a founder member of hand werk, has hosted her own competition for young composers, and writes a widely-read (and actually useful!) new music blog.

Ptelea features works by six composers with whom Roche has formed important artistic relationships: Aaron Einbond, Chikako Morishita, Martin Iddon, Martin Rane Bauck, Pedro Alvarez and Max Murray. As first recital discs go, it’s an unusual one: several of the works are hushed affairs, for deep, close listening. No overt virtuosity here – Morishita’s Lizard (shadow) the closest thing to a ‘typical’ recital piece, albeit a contemporary one – although there is clearly much going on just out of earshot.

The repeated, breathy multiphonics of Bauck’s kopenhagener stille (2013), for example, will appeal to fans of Wandelweiser; Murray’s Ad Marginem des Versuchs (2015) to admirers of Lucier and Sachiko M. Einbond’s Resistance (2012) opens the disc with barely more than the noise of air passing through the bass clarinet’s deep tube, and even this is only gradually augmented with the sounds of keys and, eventually, tones. Yet the work is also infused with the sounds of political protest – marches recorded in New York in 2011–12. Played through a speaker in the clarinet’s bell, these slowly emerge in their own right, a weird progeny of the instrument itself.

Iddon’s Ptelea is yet another a quiet affair. Using Josquin’s Nymphes des bois as a framework, Iddon constructs a slippery polyphony out of an impossible monody – a single instrumental line grouped in such a way that not everything can played at once. Difficult to describe in brief (here’s Iddon’s score), but like much of Iddon’s music a surprisingly simple idea brought to its full fruition.

For me, Iddon’s piece is the stand-out track (I really must get round to writing up his CD on another timbre from a couple of years ago), although Pedro Alvarez’s Instead (2013) comes close for creating something distinctly different from a typical solo clarinet work – odd blocks that nod towards minimalism and Zorn, if anything, although that isn’t giving much away. A strange disc, then, with some strange composers – but all the better for it.

 

Who wants to listen to Radio 3, then?

On Friday, the Guardian‘s Charlotte Higgins wrote on the dilemma and plight of Radio 3 (After 70 years, Radio 3 needs a rethink. It’s time to unleash the composers), which she summed up as:

Should Radio 3 appeal to the many or the few? To what extent should it reach out to capture new audiences? What if that attempt is seen as a dereliction of its duty fearlessly to bring listeners the best, no matter how “difficult” it is?

Radio 3 is faced with the Catch-22 of supporting a difficult artform with minority appeal, while trying to avoid charges of elitism and license fee profligacy. Yet it has repeatedly failed to answer this question, she argues, because it is approaching the debate from the wrong direction. Composers themselves, she says – particularly those under 50 – don’t think of Radio 3 as their natural home. They (and their music) might occasionally appear on the station, but they don’t tend to listen to it. And if composers – presumably the most clued-in, open-eared of all Radio 3’s target demographics – don’t listen, then why would anyone else?

Higgins’ article has prompted a number of letters to the paper, some of them printed here. I rather like one or two of the ideas suggested: moving Hear and Now out of the graveyard slot, for example, or greatly increasing the number of living composers featured in Composer of the Week. The suggestion of creating a new channel devoted to the broadcasting of live music of all types also strikes me as the kind of imaginative rethink that may be needed to get the BBC’s music broadcasting out of its R1, R2, R3, R6 boxes.

Not every response is quite so creative. One reader writes:

If we hand over Radio 3 to the composers, perhaps there should be a discrete programming time for them, as there is for jazz. If we have enough notice, we music lovers can then switch off and turn to our CD or vinyl collections for the duration.

Of course! What sort of classical music lover would have an interest in what the composers of today think about or enjoy or would like to share?

I don’t pretend to have the solution to the ails that Higgins identified in her original article, but I dare say this sort of thinking lies at the root of the problem.