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Christopher FOX (b.1955)
stone. wind. rain. sun. for two clarinets (1989) [9:50]
Straight lines in broken times (4), for two bass clarinets and tape (1994) [8:08]
…or just after for clarinet (1984) [6:50]
Early one morning , for clarinet and bass clarinet (2014) [10:33]
Unlocking the Grid , for clarinet and playback (2015) [13:04]
Escalation , for contrabass clarinet (2003) [5:43]
Headlong, for E flat clarinet and square-waves (2007) [10:29]
Divisions for bass clarinet (1980) [8:57]
Heather Roche (clarinets)
rec. Performance Space, City University of London, 2017
METIER MSV28573 [74:02]

The fifth piece in this collection, Unlocking the Grid, was inspired by a visit Christopher Fox made to the Tate Modern in 2015 for a retrospective devoted to the late Canadian artist Agnes Martin (1912-2004). Her work seems to rely on symmetry, on vertical and horizontal lines, on subtle colouration and above all on a system of grids (here's an example). The piece’s title refers to Fox’s perception of the essence of each of Martin’s works seemingly being unfastened from its moorings (its ‘grid’) by the focus or concentration of the viewer. Fox’s piece doesn’t literally attempt to recreate this idea in musical terms, but it proceeds very slowly; long, static notes occasionally ‘touch’ and are reflected by similar, ‘played back’ content. I start my review with this piece because on first hearing I found it utterly unyielding, uninvolving and dull. I wondered what it was ‘for’. And while it does emerge as a little more interesting on repeated hearings, perhaps encapsulating the need for extreme concentration on the part of the listener (or in the case of Martin, the viewer), it raises interesting questions about what this kind of music IS for, and what recordings of it are for. Perhaps in purely aural terms then the piece could be seen to be about the distinction between ‘sensation’ and ‘perception’. Consequently, for this reviewer at least, it remains quite unclear if Unlocking the Grid is actually the least or the most interesting piece on this disc.

Having made that point, the other seven works, which we are told constitute Fox’s complete oeuvre for solo (or two) clarinet(s), all seem to offer something to more directly touch head, or heart, or both. Whether these works are experiments involving extended techniques, electronic effects, they are superbly delivered here by Heather Roche, while it is difficult indeed to imagine Metier’s recorded sound, which seemingly posed very different challenges to the engineer for each work, could be improved.

The collection opens with stone. wind. rain. sun. from 1989, a ten minute work for two clarinets (for the three ‘duo’ pieces on this album Ms Roche seemingly duets with a pre-recorded version of herself). The title evokes the (presumably imagined) experience of reading the landscape from above, in this case the hills of the Yorkshire Dales – the title perhaps alluding to the effects of weathering on the rock. This is certainly attractive and unusual music which canters along merrily at the outset before the pace slackens and the music becomes more reflective. As John Peel used to say when taken by surprise at the end of a track, it ‘ends rather abruptly’.

Straight lines in broken times (4) is a bracing duel between two bass clarinets and a tape whose grumbling, almost threatening material provides an oddly appropriate backdrop. I have often wondered why the bass clarinet doesn’t feature more frequently as a soloist in its own right – I love its over-ripe, weirdly percussive sounds – they feature here in abundance. On the other hand the melancholy and reflective …or just after refers to a line in Wallace Stevens’ oft-cited poem Thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird. This little piece is impossibly quiet and the sound of the player’s breath provides a fragile counterpoint. Those listeners who respond to Harrison Birtwistle’s masterly piece Melancolia will find that …or just after occupies similar emotional terrain. It is outstandingly played here, and unsettlingly beautiful. Fox clearly has a deep interest in and appreciation for all kinds of visual art, the duo Early one morning (here executed by clarinet and bass clarinet) actually alludes to the eponymous sculpture by Anthony Caro, to whose memory the piece is dedicated (see it here). This extremely static work derives from the presence of an extended, single note shared by the two instruments (effectively performing the role of a drone); this is what Fox describes as the ‘axis’ of the piece. In a musical allusion to the form of Caro’s sculpture, occasional multiphonics and extraneous notes act as ‘satellites’ drifting around it. Like Unlocking the grid which follows this work, it needs a bit of work on the part of the listener, but like the succeeding piece such efforts is repaid. I wouldn’t dream of playing this pair of works immediately one after another, though.

The three works that conclude the album offer up some fascinating timbral contrasts. The creepy Escalation for bass clarinet spotlights the rough-edged, grainy potential of the instrument. It evokes ascending a spiral staircase in a deserted, darkened folly, a few steps at a time. The busy Headlong features a duet between E-flat clarinet and what are described as ‘square-waves’ but actually seem to evoke the sounds of early video games. The clarinet spits out high regular pitches while the wave sounds provide commentary. Fox explains in the note that the music is built upon varying mathematical ratios – this is actually quite clear from listening. Alas the effect of the square-waves upon this particular listener was to elicit a strong desire to shoot my sound-system. The disc ends with Fox’s earliest (1980) work for clarinet, Divisions. This theatrical piece involves the player moving between three pages of music, selecting the material of their choice and improvising the links between them. It comes across as surprisingly coherent and musical given these parameters.

Heather Roche is a superb advocate for Fox’s clarinet works. As he makes abundantly clear in his notes, he has been inspired throughout his career by his good friend, the clarinettist Roger Heaton, and less directly by the late, great Alan Hacker. Ms Roche is certainly worthy of the composer’s heartfelt comparisons to these two wonderful players. While I have always found much to enjoy and admire in Christopher Fox’s music I feel this album offers much more of a challenge. Extended techniques aside, I feel it is quite impossible to listen intently to 74 minutes of contemporary solo clarinet music by a single composer without becoming desensitised to an unavoidable homogeneity of sound. Which brings me back to my original question; who, or what, are worthy collections such as this actually for? Completist admirers of the composer or clarinettists perhaps? For those of us outside those niche groups, while many of these works are fascinating in their own right, I am forced to conclude that a little at a time goes a long way.

Richard Hanlon

Previous review: John France



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