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.

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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.

Review of Chris Fox/EXAUDI: Catalogue irraisoné now online

My review of Christopher Fox’s Catalogue irraisoné, performed by EXAUDI and released on Métier, is now online at Musical Pointers:

Christopher Fox’s Catalogue irraisoné, for solo voice or vocal ensemble, teeters on the edge of music. It consists of the simplest forms almost entirely drained of content and context. Of the 12 short pieces, some are unadorned speech, some simple, nursery rhyme-like melodies, some have sparse percussion accompaniments. There are no harmonies, no expansive tunes, no rhythmic complexities, very little development.

Continue reading here.

Conservative modernism

Very nice article by Chris Fox in the Guardian this weekend – thanks Colin H for the pointer. Ostensibly it’s about Schoenberg, but the real value is in Fox’s cautionary remarks on the sort of mainstream modernism marketed around the globe as ‘cutting edge’, in place of the real thing:

In retrospect, the most striking feature of the postwar period was the way in which Schoenbergian modernism hardened into the dominant orthodoxy of new music. Adorno had argued that Schoenberg was the true musical heir of Beethoven and Brahms, and Adorno’s arguments persuaded generations of composers to adopt the techniques pioneered by Schoenberg. Not to do so was to risk being thought old-fashioned or worse: in The Philosophy of Modern Music, Adorno dismissed Britten and Shostakovich as “feeble” and “impotent”. From Tel Aviv to Toronto, Cambridge to Cape Town, post-Schoenbergian composition became the lingua franca of new music, studied in the academies, commissioned for concert halls and opera houses. Even those composers who chose not to adopt this way of musical speaking could turn its ubiquity to their advantage: composers of bad tonal music explained their lack of success as evidence of institutional prejudice; composers of interesting tonal music (mostly minimalists) could celebrate success achieved in the face of the same prejudice.

The result has been a peculiar form of quasi-modern music that still survives today. It has the superficial characteristics of Schoenberg’s version of modernism – angular melodies, uneasy harmonies, abrupt shifts of tone – but, lacking the expressive necessity that propelled Schoenberg towards his new musical language, it has none of the fervent urgency of the second string quartet. This paradoxical music, conservative modernism or modernist conservatism, has its merits. It is often very skilfully made and, for those who acquire the taste, it can seem very tasteful. It sounds like modern music and is assiduously promoted as modern music by much of the classical music industry. Its disadvantage is that, when heard alongside the modernist masterpieces of the first decades of the 20th century, it just sounds vapid and dull.

One hundred years after the premiere of the second string quartet, Schoenberg’s musical legacy is a somewhat mixed blessing. His own works, particularly those of the early atonal period, retain the disturbing, kaleidoscopic vision that so upset the Viennese public a century ago. But the subsequent institutionalisation of the techniques he developed in those decisive months has produced hour upon hour of greyness, convincing generations of listeners that new music is always dull and often difficult.

There are two ways of reading this passage: one, and probably the more common, is to see it as the latest in a line of manifestos for audience-friendly, non-difficult, non-dissonant music.

But, knowing what I know of Fox’s music and his writing, this doesn’t sit right with me. For a start, the equation of ‘non-dissonant’ with ‘non-difficult’/’audience-friendly’ simply isn’t tenable – as many examples of difficult consonant music and non-difficult dissonant music attest. A second reading sees this passage as a call for the promotion of music that is actually more challenging. Not necessarily atonal, but not necessarily tonal either – narrow technical definitions get us nowhere in matters of aesthetic appreciation and should not be used to divide good from bad in this way. What does divide the good from the bad, Fox argues in this alternative reading, is ‘expressive necessity’ over ‘superficial’ ‘quasi-modern[ism]’, ‘disturbing, kaleidoscopic vision’ over ‘hour upon hour of greyness’. Too much of the music that is put promoted by ensembles and institutions in order to fulfill a real or imagined obligation to present new music falls under the latter descriptions and it is, simply put, not good music. This is the stuff that orchestral subscribers and Proms goers and YouTube users and Sunday supplement readers think is contemporary music (because that’s what they’re told) and quite rightly decide that it is stuffy, uninspiring and not for them. The trick is to show them how wrong they are: the underpublicised new music ghetto is full of composers ten times more interesting than this. It won’t be for everyone – why should it be? – but it will mean a lot more to those who it does touch, and isn’t that worth more?