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.

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.]

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.

 

Quick and dirty review: Trond Reinholdtsen: Theory of the Subject

I’m in Oslo for a few days for the Ultima contemporary music festival. The lineup is stellar. I wasn’t here for the first week, so I’ve missed, among other things Young’s the Melodic Version (1984) of The Second Dream of the High-Tension Line Stepdown Transformer from the Four Dreams of China (1962) in a Setting of Dream Light (a piece that lasts almost as long as it takes to say its title), and Feldman’s Piano, Violin, Viola, Cello (the night before it was also performed, by a different group, in London). But tonight it’s Stefan Prins’s Piano Hero cycle, and Stockhausen’s Sternklang (in the Ekeberg Sculpture Park), so I’ll manage.

The highlight of the three concerts I saw yesterday was Trond Reinholdtsen’s bizarre, funny, exasperating yet ultimately convincing Theory of the Subject, a piano concerto with both those words are in inverted commas. You might remember Reinholdtsen from those witty conceptual music YouTube videos he made seven or eight years ago, in which he would create pieces by slapping music theory books together or rustling their pages. On the evidence of Theory of the Subject he has moved a long way in terms of ambition and scale, although the relationship of music to theoretical text – specifically in book form – clearly remains a preoccupation.

Theory of the Subject takes its title from Alain Badiou’s book, which in one section of the piece we can see the soloist (Ellen Ugelvik, shown on a live video feed) reading on a sofa in the Green Room, a concerned look on her face. Yes, the pianist is still backstage at this point, her part so far having been taken up by a manic Nancarrow-esque player piano. When she does eventually make it on stage, followed by the camera, it is to play just one note, which in a clever pastiche of 90% of mainstream contemporary music since Ligeti, turns out to be enough to set the orchestra on its own meandering path for the next few minutes. (Ugelvik, meanwhile, has returned to her sofa.)

While we watch her read, however, the orchestra plays a cinematic bed, suggesting anxiety and tension. Ugelvik goes up to the practice piano, attempts a few things – but we can’t hear them. The score on the stand is marked with absurd instructions – fingering single notes with two fingers from each hand, for example. The roving camera – reality TV style – takes us into the adjacent room where Reinholdtsen and his assistant are drowning in cables, computer components and orchestration textbooks. “This is the problem with a work like this,” mugs Reinholdtsen to the camera, holding up a nest of wires (I’m paraphrasing from memory). “There’s so much to organise. And I cannot find my Geist.” He gestures to the corner where someone is squatting with a sheet over their head, two holes cut out for eyes, and the word Geist written across the front. “Whoooooo,” goes the spirit.

I know what you’re thinking. And when I first read the description of the piece, I was thinking it too. (“The soloists’ role fluctuates between Maoist activism, depressive exhaustion (seen in a live video feed from the performer’s dressing room), resignation i the face of new technologies (represented by a player-piano that surpasses the soloist in mechanical virtuosity), and the total isolation from the public (retreating into a kind of shelter underneath the piano).”) I was also thinking it through the first few minutes of the work, as badly proofread slides (“kitchy,” “neo-classisism”) about conceptual art were project behind the orchestra. And I was still thinking it as the orchestra’s music became increasingly stylised, to the point that it well demonstrated the composer’s skill at pastiche, but was otherwise just filling time.

But then as the work got weirder and weirder, and Reinholdtsen continued to kick down the fourth wall (to the extent that wondered if there weren’t also fifth and sixth walls that people don’t usually bother about), it began to win me over. I started to forgive (or at least forget) the small errors around the edges. It helps that Reinholdtsen is a good comic on screen. And his understanding of the languages of both TV and the concert hall is exemplary (he has good jokes about both). Ugelvik also responded to her part, which is more David Blaine than Daniel Barenboim, extremely well. It struck me that perhaps this ultra-knowing, snarky, Stewart Lee or Chris Morris-esque approach to new music is more common in Norway – it’s a feature too of Lars Petter Hagen’s music, after all, and he is the festival’s artistic director – but it’s rarer in the UK, I think. The only examples I can think of off hand are comparatively po-faced; not nearly as silly as this. As it happens, I enjoy silliness and dumb gags as much, if not more, than contemporary music. I loved this.

CD review: Marianne Schuppe: slow songs (Wandelweiser)

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Marianne Schuppe: slow songs

Marianne Schuppe

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Eleven songs for voice and lute by the Swiss singer and composer Marianne Schuppe. The instrumentation taps a deep historical channel, back to Dowland and beyond. But Schuppe doesn’t pluck her lute. Instead she uses e-bows to turn a melodic accompanying instrument into an environment, an ancient combination updated to reflect a contemporary preference for objects over stories. The songs are simple melodies, sometimes folklike (ballads and laments more than dances), but with words and music full of unexpected, almost surreal twists: the images used include deer, feathers, sunhats and cameras; the music little scales and motifs, subtle modal shifts. The whole fuses traditional and modern, nature and technology, such that each is indistinguishable.

CD reviews: Finnissy and Susman

[With apologies: these have been sitting in my drafts folder for a long time.]

Darragh Morgan and Mary Dullea’s recording of music for music for violin and piano by Michael Finnissy is another addition to Métier’s long-running Finnissy series. Six pieces are featured, from the 30-second Jive to the 21-minute Violin Sonata (written for Morgan in 2007). Apart from Mississippi Hornpipes of 1982, all the pieces were composed in the 00s. This is the complete works for violin and piano (so solo violin works like All the trees they are so high (1977), or Ének (1990) aren’t included here), and in Amphithéâtre des Sciences Mortes and Molly House it includes pieces for flexible or alternative forces. On three tracks Finnissy himself also plays as a second keyboardist.

In his sleevenote, Morgan describes Mississippi Hornpipes as ‘notoriously difficult’, and its technical challenges are obvious to hear. Finnissy describes it as a ‘cut-up’ of American fiddle tunes, and it audibly prefigures his approach in later, longer works such as Folklore and North American Spirituals (indeed, lots of The History of Photography in Sound). The difficulties aren’t limited to getting through the notes though; the multilayered characteristics of each different folk transcription have to be brought out too – in both their unity and their diversity. Morgan and Dullea do a superb job with razor-sharp articulation and a watchful ear against needlessly highlighting the tunes when they do peep through.

The Violin Sonata is a representative of what I think is a relatively recent development in Finnissy’s music (maybe I’m wrong?) of building not so much from a transcription, or even transdialection of an existing (folk or art) source, but extrapolating outwards from it. So Finnissy’s piece exists in a sort of horizontal relationship to its predecessor, rather than a vertical one (although in truth both are diagonal to an extent). The Grieg Quintettsatz (also released on Métier) comes most directly to mind as a comparison. I like it anyway. It has that surreal, hallucinatory quality of much of Finnissy’s music, in which reality is glimpsed through a rain-soaked windscreen. Métier have released some landmark recordings of Finnissy’s music in the past, and this is a worthy addition.

OCTET‘s debut album, released on belarca last June, is a portrait of music by its artistic director, William Susman. There’s an obvious debt to Glassworks-era Philip Glass, but the music is deliciously more mellifluous than that; the first movement of Camille has a Stereolab-like groove, Even in the Dark has a post-midnight languor. Piano Concerto doesn’t do much for me as a concerto, but it has other good ideas to make up for it. The line-up of OCTET is basically stripped-down big band, and the timbres of sax, trumpet, trombone, and bass, as well as a drum kit playing typical drum patterns, do a lot of work in defining the music’s particular character. An album that falls between several stools – classical minimalism, cool jazz, avant pop – but makes a comfortable place to sit nevertheless.

CD review: André O. Möller with Hans Eberhard Maldfeld: in memory of james tenney (Wandelweiser)

André O. Möller with Hans Eberhard Maldfeld: in memory of james tenney

Hans Eberhard Maldfeld and André O. Möller

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Is there such a thing as a “Wandelweiser sound”? Perhaps for a while a decade or so ago, but I sense this is becoming increasingly less true. Yes there remain certain familial connections, but these have less to do with specific techniques or even aesthetic preferences, and more to do with more or less shared concerns about the relationship of sound (material) to context. As has been pointed out to me recently, it’s not easy to fit works like Michael Pisaro’s ricefall (2) or White Metal into a stereotype of extreme quiet and long silences.

in memory of james tenney I (one just second) is thirty minutes of tromba marina drones played at the interval of a just second. Really nothing else. I am reminded very much of a comment I once heard that a lot of Wandelweiser is “meditation music for people who don’t like to meditate”. There’s nothing to do with pieces like these, it seems, except sit still and get deep inside the sound. Except that this is a really noisy, raspy kind of sound, that makes one feel really self-conscious as a home listener. Extreme and long, yes, but not quiet, not silent. What is this? What am I doing? Can my neighbours hear this, and do they think I’m mad? Breaking through to the interior of this sound takes a deal more effort than for, say, a Manfred Werder recording. Which may be the point.

But then what do you find when you get there?

Yes, there is lots of harmonic complexity, plenty of beating patterns, that sort of thing to get yourself lost in. The timbre of the tromba marina itself is also highly perforated, so there’s a really grainy rhythm, thousands of micro-pulses, to sink into as well, which you don’t get with, say, sine waves. It’s not necessarily an unpleasant place to be, but it is very different from the Wandelweiser stereotype.

The other pieces on the disc explore a wider range. in memory of james tenney II begins with almost a counterpoint between the two instruments as they shift notes against each other before settling on a particular interval. imojt IV (reprise) is by far the shortest, at just two minutes, a bagatelle of a single lolloping arpeggio pattern. The last piece on the disc, imojt V (when eight is seven), is the most active, a melange of insectoid buzzes, glassy harmonics and thunder-like bass rumbles.