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Christopher FOX (b.1955)
Stone. Wind. Rain. Sun. for two clarinets (1989) [9:50]
Straight lines in broken times 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]

First a warning. Listening to this CD from end to end will give you a complete overload of clarinet. It not the sort of disc to put into the car stereo system for a drive down the motorway from Manchester to London, or for a Sunday afternoon motoring trip up into the Yorkshire Dales. Forget Copland, Mozart, Finzi and Weber. This is music that is more interested in sound and effect than melody.

Yet there is a distinct magic about virtually every piece on this retrospective of Christopher Fox’s clarinet music. Often I have been unable to put my finger on what it is that attracts me to his sound world. Everything tells me that it is out of my comfort zone, yet I enjoyed most of these pieces.

All eight works have been composed over a 35-year period beginning with the Divisions for bass clarinet (1980) and ending with Early one morning for clarinet and bass clarinet from 2015. Fundamentally, each work is for solo clarinettist, sometimes supported by tape or square-wave[?]. Where two clarinets play together, I guess that they have been double tracked.

I want to comment on five of these eight pieces. I alluded to the Yorkshire Dales above. That was fortuitous. The opening track Stone. Wind. Rain. Sun. for two clarinets, composed in 1989, has the limestone landscape of the West Riding as its inspiration: Fox states that he ‘has attempted to read through the limestone… from the air above down into the rock.’ The composer has not provided any technical commentary on this work; however, I guess that the music seeks to exude a sense of timelessness.

My favourite track on this CD is Straight lines in broken times for two bass clarinets and tape (1994). The raunchy tape part provides varied, almost animalistic sounds that haunt the mind long after the work ends.

In a completely different mood is the quiet, restrained ‘…or just after’ (1984), which was inspired by the poem ‘Thirteen Ways of looking at a blackbird’ by the American poet Wallace Stevens. The player just seems to throw notes and odd phrases into the air. I cannot begin to understand why I find this work compellingly beautiful.

I was bored by Unlocking the Grid (2015). Somehow this music just seems to go on forever. It is a very long and tedious 13 minutes. On the other hand, one could just sit back and chill, enjoying random sounds and effects.

The most far-out piece must be Escalation for contrabass clarinet (2003). It doesn’t do much, just a little rising phrase, but it does sound quite ‘groovy’ to a person of my age. Seemingly it was inspired by MC Escher’s ‘endless escalator.’

The sound quality of this CD is perfect, allowing the brightness and precision of the instruments to be clearly heard. As Fox uses virtually every ‘device’ known to the clarinet soloist, this clarity of sound is always present. The liner notes present a paragraph or two on each work, as well as a biography of the composer and the soloist.

Whatever the listener’s opinion is about these varied and multifaceted works, certain things will be clear. Firstly, Fox’s musical vocabulary is largely modernist deriving from the post-war Darmstadt movement. Yet there are other elements in here too. Occasionally, I have detected a touch of minimalism, nods to the progressive rock music, of his (and my) generation, advanced jazz and just now and again the hint of a tune.

As I noted above this CD will not appeal to lovers of mainstream clarinet chamber music. Yet if they are open to the fact that all music need not comprise just melody and traditional harmony: sometimes it can be an exploration of noise, timbre and effect. I think that they will find something of great interest on this CD.

John France



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