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Christopher FOX (b. 1955)
Topophony, for improvising trumpet and drums with orchestra (2015) [23:40]
Topophony, for orchestra (2015) [23:45]
Topophony, for improvising saxophone and synthesiser with orchestra (2015) [21:12]
Alex Dörner (trumpet)
Paul Lovens (drums)
John Butcher (saxophone)
Thomas Lehn (synthesiser)
WDR Symphonieorchester/Ilan Volkov
rec 2016/17, Philharmonie, Köln, Germany
HAT[NOW]ART 211 [68:55]

In an entertaining article for The Guardian published in May 2015, the composer and theorist Christopher Fox considered the history of the orchestra and the ritual of the concert from the composing perspective. He traced the suspicion of modern artists to writing for the medium, citing the time-consuming agonies involved in producing a score, via the limited rehearsal time, the unenthusiastic players, the quarter-filled halls and the one or at most two performances that a piece would get before being forgotten. Reading it one cannot fail to empathise with many modern composers’ antipathy to orchestral composition and the consequent enthusiasm to write for smaller groups and ensembles.

Encountering Fox’s article triggered my recollection of the 2005 premiere of James Dillon’s superb (in my view) piece Via Sacra, which was savaged by critics at the time as being performed with consummate apathy by the RSNO under Alexander Lazarev (Paul Kelbie's article from The Independent). Seemingly it took a decade or so to overturn this attitude to new orchestral music north of the border and one of the main triggers has surely been Ilan Volkov’s Tectonics festival, established in Glasgow in 2013 to explore the common ground between improvisation and new ‘composed’ music. One imagines Volkov would have been well aware of the Dillon debacle – at the time he was principal conductor of the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. One wonders indeed if this was one of the original impulses behind Tectonics. Either way, the festival has firmly established itself as a highlight in the Scottish cultural calendar, and Volkov’s missionary zeal was clearly crucial in persuading Fox to write for the orchestra.

By any consideration ‘Topophony’ is an excellent name for the three pieces here, elegant and absolutely precise. The music consists of a scored, fixed, orchestral soundscape which lasts between about 20 and 25 minutes. Volkov asked Fox to produce a score which could accompany one or more improvising soloist. Nina Polaschegg’s eminently sensible note tells us that the composer was initially unconvinced, but within twenty-four hours he had worked out a formula: he would create a fixed ‘landscape’ in orchestral sound through which improvisers could freely navigate, as Fox says “ ….rather like when we walk in the mountains. We can choose this path or that path, we can camp here, swim in this stream, eat over there and each time it will be different for us, but the mountains don’t change.” The premiere featured the improvising harpist Rhodri Davies and the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and was a great success; and the present disc presents three different manifestations of the same piece. One is the purely orchestral ‘Topophony’ ; the other two feature pairs of improvising soloists, trumpet and drums (Alex Dörner and Paul Lovens) in the first case, and saxophone and synthesiser (John Butcher and Thomas Lehn) in the second.

So the listener is immediately faced with a choice – does one play this disc straight through, in the presented order of first improvised version, then orchestral version, then second improvisation? Or should one be more circumspect? I really wanted to get to know the ‘area’ first, so I went for the purely orchestral version (the second track), and I feel this was the right choice. Fox again: “Underlying the music is a series of thirty-nine interconnected harmonies and, as in the formation of a natural landscape through eruptions and erosions, fragments of the harmonies are layered on top of one another, so that across the piece as a whole there are all sorts of connections, congruences, similarities.” So what we have is a slow moving, serene, stately score which I found to be extremely beautiful and compelling in itself. I don’t want to make allusions which undermine the composer’s vision but I do know that Fox has lived and worked in the North of England (at the Universities of York and Huddersfield for example) for much of his career and that he is fond of the northern landscape. As one deeply familiar with this place I find it impossible not to see brooding fells and dark skies. The orchestral Topophony is darkly coloured, granitic and oddly unsettling, in the way that moving further and further away from the sanctuary of one’s parked car might feel as the weather becomes more threatening. One breathes the air and feels an odd sense of liberation, but there’s tangible apprehension in this music as well. Inevitably the work involves slow moving chordal shifts, mostly dark-hued, low winds, brass and strings. There’s no piercing shafts of sunlight in terms of twinkling tuned percussion say, but who needs it, when the landscape itself is so grand and imposing? The listener is forced to listen intently, and picks up on impressive features, as tuttis reduce to solos, and low subterranean growls arise almost imperceptibly.

The instructions to the improvising soloists could not be more straightforward; they are told to start playing after the orchestra has begun and to finish before it ends – walkers need a landscape to explore, after all. They are also asked to listen in (and crucially not to play) at no more than one orchestral rehearsal, in order to give themselves just a cursory understanding of the terrain to be traversed. The first of the three versions presented on this disc features Alex Dörner on trumpet and Paul Lovens on drums. Here the soloists are placed within the orchestral body and apart from each other. Dörner and Lovens both come from a free-jazz background so one knows not to expect much in the way of conventional playing. At no stage do their interjections overwhelm the orchestral backdrop. They tend to make brief interjections and commentaries based on a fascinating array of extended techniques – one frequently forgets one is listening to a trumpeter and a drummer. I have often felt intimidated by free jazz but that is certainly not the case here; the soloists’ contributions here amount to making individual and occasionally collaborative marks on Fox’s fixed terrain. As this version of Topophony proceeds the improvisers seem to gain in confidence and make their presence felt a little more but the listener remains well aware of the timeless, monolithic landscape that broods over the proceedings.

While there is only a five second difference in the duration of the two versions I have considered thus far, the second version (track 3) featuring John Butcher’s saxophone and the synth stylings of Thomas Lehn lasts two and a half minutes less. Not that the listener is remotely aware of this. I would argue that there is perhaps less of a spirit of ‘collaboration’ apparent in this manifestation of the work than in the trumpet/drums version. The individual contributions here seem more diffuse and abstracted, more angular and even assertive if not quite in opposition to each other. There are aural ambiguities aplenty for the listener though which in many ways increase the fascination of the piece in this guise. Which instrument is doing what? Bird noises and mysterious vocal sounds could be emerging from either. The amplification of the synth does occasionally threaten to submerge the orchestra. Inevitably though, each performance of Topophony will by definition be different, and presumably this account is simply a product of what emerged on the day. The performance seems none the worse for it.

So ultimately we get three versions of a fascinating, flexible piece. In each case the landscape seems oddly more familiar, and yet the photographs of each visitor’s trip are disarmingly different. The sounds produced by each of the four solo musicians by turn surprise, beguile, occasionally alarm and even reassure. One gets the feeling that the superb musicians of the WDR Sinfonieorchester were truly committed to the project, while these three renderings of Topophony each cohere impressively under Ilan Volkov’s protean direction. The recording is superbly detailed yet projects a palpable warmth. It’s another feather in the cap for Werner X Uehlinger’s visionary and indispensible Hat Art label.

Richard Hanlon



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