Interview with Christopher Fox

Used by permission of the Publishers from ‘Christopher Fox’, in The Ashgate Research Companion to Experimental Music edited by James Saunders (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009), pp. 261–269.  Copyright © 2009

new-image1The draw of th experimental music canon for Christopher Fox as a young composer was its opening up of possibilities denied by various intransigent musical orthodoxies which surrounded him. Whilst at first listen the soundworlds of his subsequent compositions are somewhat disparate, in much of his music this is as a result of the collision of opposites: clarity and complexity, consonance and dissonance, rhythm and stasis, indeterminacy and fixation. It is this that binds his work at a deeper level alongside a sustained exploration of process in many guises, a strategy which underpins much experimental music. Indeed, there has been a marked shift in his recent work towards structural mobility and other indeterminate approaches to realizing material in particular, making this more explicit. His large-scale Everything You Need To Know (1999-2001) for up to ten players and voice(s) comprises 26 separately realizable compositions and can last from 5-85 minutes in performance. Whilst such modularity draws comparisons with the inauguration of modern experimentalism almost half a century earlier, Fox says these pieces offer order rather than anarchy, and it is perhaps that which sets them apart. I first became aware of his music in the early 1990s and was drawn to the sudden cuts between either subtly or extremely differentiated materials. The objectivity of this work was striking through its presentation of material in such a clear manner. Later, as my doctoral supervisor, the discussions we had helped shape my ideas on open form pieces at a time when we were both producing modular work, albeit in entirely different ways.

The interview was conducted by email from 5 November 2004 – 7 November 2005.

Some of your work seems to place an emphasis on recognizable structures and audible processes, and I wondered whether these served as a starting point for a piece, or if the material tended to appear first?

I would like to think that some pieces work in quite mysterious ways – but I am drawn to things, both in life and art, which seem to define themselves quite clearly at some level or other. The paradox, however, is that often something which appears straightforward will turn out to be quite complicated, and vice versa. It might even be worth risking a generalization and saying that things which have a consistent degree of simplicity or complexity will usually turn out be less interesting than those which work in different ways at different levels. I’m thinking for instance of the role of mountains in landscapes: the ones we can immediately recognize and name have very strong profiles but the detail of that landscape will include many forms which one does not see at first glance. The best pieces of Xenakis, or Feldman, or Beuys work like that. Equally there is that delight when one works through the initial complexity of a work to discover it is full of quite straightforwardly comprehensible individual elements. I’m just reading Joyce’s Ulysses properly for the first time and finding enormous pleasure in changing the focus of my attention – here the vocabulary, here the syntax, here the stylistic play – from section to section.

In my work I always start at the point where I have a sense of what it will be like to hear the whole of a piece. If structure and process are there in particular pieces it is because that it was I heard. I would also argue quite strenuously against a separation of ‘material’ from ‘structures and processes’. For me there is no such distinction: all musical material has structural implications and the processes I want to use evolve out of the character of the materials I choose to work with. Everything in an der Schattengrenze (2001-2), for example, radiates out from the way in which the piano is played; similarly in Canonic Breaks (2002-3) the sorts of rhythmic development I wanted to explore necessitated a collection of instruments in which timbral distinctiveness was much more than important than any other consideration.

I would certainly agree with the lack of distinction between material and process or structure, but you seem to be saying at least that it’s the material that primarily governs the way a piece develops. For me one of the interesting things then is the nature of the material you use, which varies to quite a large degree. Could you say a little about how you find and develop material, and whether there is something common to what on the surface seems quite disparate?

I agree that it can seem as if I write many different sorts of music and earlier in my career critics would say that this indicated that I had yet to ‘find my voice’. I would argue that there are some fundamental ideas about music that inform everything I do. The paradoxical relationship between clarity and complexity would be one. Another would be the co-existence of consonant and dissonant harmony. In the 1970s when I was a student the notion of some sort of historical imperative that meant that dissonance was more advanced than consonance was still very much in the air and in Darmstadt in the 1980s it still defined one of the main aesthetic battle grounds over which we fought. I have been interested in developing ways of using both and this happens in most of the things I write.
But there are also many different sorts of music that I want to write and I don’t believe that they can always all be drawn together within single spans of music. Indeed that sort of integration of materials implies a sort of homogeneity which I find at odds with the world in which I live. So some pieces are microtonal, for example, and others aren’t; some have a powerful rhythmic impetus, others deliberately dislocate any sense of forward movement.
I would also say that the finding and developing of material happens at the same moment. The ways in which material will unfold must, for me, be immanent in the material itself, so that in a sense the material only defines itself in my head at the point when I know what will happen to it. That discovery is in turn the result of a process that begins when I know what the piece as a whole will be, or, more accurately, when I know what it will be like to have experienced the piece. Once I know that I simply have to find what the stuff of the piece is made of. To a certain extent this is also determined by circumstances such as the dimensions of the piece and the nature of the performers and performance. As an extreme example from my recent work, a seven minute piece to be played in a mixed programme by Noszferatu is (for me at least) probably going to be very different from a twenty-five minute piece for Apartment House and I have to say that I revel in the challenge to my creativity that such different opportunities present.

I’m interested in how this works in pieces such as your Generic Compositions where the results are more open-ended. Although the structure of events in each piece is fixed, the synchronization and resultant sounds will always be different. How did you go about developing the material, and structure, for these pieces?

The recurrent element in all these pieces is the isolation of aspects of instrumental behaviour. This is something I do in virtually every piece anyway but in the ‘Generics’ it became the foreground. So each Generic has a very clear technical focus – for example, clusters in two, bow rhythms in four, unstable fingerings in seven – and what we listen to is the interaction between the playing technique and the acoustic structure of the instrument. I used self-similarity as the main way of organising material, deliberately leaving the formal organization of each piece as ‘cool’ as possible so that the listener’s attention will go to the sounds rather than to the architecture. This coolness also makes it possible to overlay different Generics – they’re all sufficiently transparent to avoid getting in one another’s way. In quite a few of them there are also opportunities for players to pause so that they too can listen to what other players are doing in multiple-layer performances.

On the other hand there are quite wide differences across the set (originally seven, then I wrote an eighth for Anton Lukoszevieze’s BachBogen and there is still the possibility of adding a few more). The first (percussion), second (keyboard), third (plucked), fourth (bowed) and sixth (valve instrument) will always tend to be immediately recognizable because they have quite clear pitch or rhythmic identities. Five (sliding), seven (woodwind) and eight (multiple sustaining strings) leave the player free to translate notations which specify the shape of events but not the sounds which constitute those events. The difference between a trombone version of 5 and a double bass version of the same score can be very different.

Self-similarity is a feature of much of your recent work. Could you explain how it operates here, and its role in your music in general?

I discovered the potential of self-similarity through Tom Johnson’s music and, most helpfully, when one of my MA students (Mary Wilson) did some analytical work on mathematical applications in his work. I liked the level of complexity that self-similarity produced in his rhythmic and melodic construction – one’s ear can detect some sort of rule-based pattern-making but the patterns resist immediate aural analysis, which seemed to me to offer some kind of halfway point between chance operations and minimalist systems. I think the Everything You Need To Know (2000-2) pieces were the first to use self-similarity and it’s become a regular part of my compositional arsenal ever since, with Canonic Break providing probably its most sustained and (deliberately) audible use in my music so far. Like Tom Johnson I use it as a technique to produce rhythmic and melodic proliferation, usually starting with a group of two elements (one rhythmic value and another shorter value, or one upward interval and one downward interval) and then finding a simple formula to make the relationship between them proliferate. In the violin piece I’m writing at present I am working with a set of self-similar rhythms which evolve out of the rhythmic grouping 1 2 1 2 2 (1 = quaver, 2 = crotchet), a bit of found material (a rumba, I think). Using the principle that, as the pattern proliferates, 1 becomes 2, and then 2 becomes 1 + 2, the next generation of the rhythm is 2 1+2 2 1+2 1+2, and the one after that is 1+2 2 1+2 1+2 2 1+2 2 1+2. It’s hard to describe in words but it’s quite easy to see evidence of it, if not to detect exactly how it’s working, in lots of the recent music.

To what extent do you intervene in such processes: once the formula is established, how do you deal with the end results? I’m thinking of how with someone like Tom Johnson, the process becomes the piece.

As you say, Tom Johnson tends to use such patterns in a very rigorous way; I use them more as material to be placed within the overall composition, often using chance operations to cut across them. I’m quite comfortable with this because by their nature these materials are self-similar so that interrupting them won’t necessarily sound like an interruption and also, because the generations of the chains which I tend to favour are the longer ones, it’s quite hard to hold them in the memory for long enough for anomalies to be apparent.

The analogy occurred to me last week during the EXAUDI recording sessions when I had to listen to a lot of my music from across 25 years, that I seem to work in a way not dissimilar to that of a sculptor like Antony Caro, who talks in terms of bringing together a collection of materials that he feels somehow belong together in the piece he is thinking of making. The creative process then is about finding ways of getting these materials into relationships which relate to the ideas behind that particular piece. Of course at the end part of the satisfaction is discovering not only that lots of the material remains unused but also that the piece has become something different from those first intentions.

You mentioned found material, and its use has been a feature of much of your work (particularly where the provenance is explicit). How important are intra-musical links in your work?

I think there are two aspects to this in what I do. On the one hand I have often made my music out of bits of other people’s music, on the other hand, even when I am not using specific pieces of existing music, I often take some element of an existing musical practice as a compositional starting point. Often these practices are, as it were, ‘given’ by the medium or, more particularly, by what previous musicians have done with that medium. Richard Rijnvos recently suggested to me that one of the things that makes me relatively unusual within the world of art music composers is that, according to him, I write music that very clearly acknowledges the possibility of there being different genres and I am certainly interested in responding to generic ideas about different musical situations.
One of the clearest examples is Themes and Variations (1992-6), the set of six ensemble pieces I wrote in the mid-1990s for the Ives Ensemble. There is no explicit found material in the sense of music borrowed from other sources but each movement offers a radical reconstruction of the possibilities of the available instruments, starting very obviously with the first piece, ‘memento’, in the world of the late 19th century piano quartet and gradually moving to something very remote in ‘string quartet’, the last piece. Appropriately the instrumentation for this last piece is not the normal string quartet but violin, viola, cello and double bass. My method in a situation like this, where I wanted ‘memento’ to sound familiar, is not to attempt pastiche or quotation but to create music out my own memories of what the Schumann or Faure piano quartets sound like.

In other pieces I have made much more direct use of existing music, although I do this a lot less frequently than I did when I was younger. Then I used to spend hours in music libraries transcribing bits of useful material before transforming them into my own music. Gradually I’ve come to realize that it’s the transformational process that interests me most, not the identity of the sources. It’s more important that listeners should be aware, however vaguely, of some sort of generic link from my music to something they already know, than that they should be able to give a specific name to that connection.

Why do I do this? I have always been interested in the way in which part of the act of listening involves finding a personal context for the music one is hearing and I am interested in playing my own compositional role in fixing that context. Also, and without wanting to be falsely modest, I think the world already has so many fascinating ways of making music that it’s just as interesting for a composer to make his own use of things that already exist as it is to attempt to invent new ones. There are lots of models for this, of course, amongst the work of composers who have had a big influence on me. Stravinsky and Kagel are obvious examples of composers who borrow and recycle but I love pieces like Cage’s Hymns and Variations (1979) too and I was delighted to discover that when Christian Wolff began writing his wonderful Exercises (1973) he was attempting to respond to early minimalist pieces like the Riley Keyboard Studies (1967-8) which Cardew had introduced him to.

This is certainly the case with your electroacoustic pieces, particularly the Three Constructions (after Kurt Schwitters) (1993/1998), where the sampling is clearly more overt. What differences of method do you find working in this medium, as opposed to acoustic music?

The collaging of materials in the Schwitters pieces was itself a given really, since his method of working was centred on found materials. But what drew me to him in the first place was, I suppose, in part this similarity in our ways of working. I’m not sure I have a particular modus operandi in the studio though. MERZsonata is like it is in part because I had to make the piece very quickly in an unfamiliar BBC Radiophonic studio and so I based the piece around the sampling capabilities I found there, coupled with the archival resources of the BBC library.

In other pieces which use studio technology I’ve worked in quite different ways, using sequenced synth pre-sets in the first part of More things in the air than are visible (1993-4) and unedited real-time field recordings in the third part of the same piece (found materials again, however). In ZONE (2002-4) I’ve used very precisely tuned sine waves, while klaxonik from Alarmed and Dangerous (1996) and the version of chant suspendu (1997-8) with CD both used granular synthesis to stretch acoustic sounds. The one feature throughout though is the avoidance of what one might call orthodox electroacoustic transformation of sounds. I avoid this for the same reason that I don’t use the gestural language of mainstream ‘new music’ – I just don’t find them interesting and I don’t know why their use persists when the best pieces using that vocabulary and syntax were made 40 years ago.

I should also say that I like the social dimension of music-making. I like best the time spent in rehearsal with musicians making my music come alive – it’s what I look forward to most when I am at my desk alone. Consequently it’s perhaps no surprise that I have made a number of my studio pieces with other people sitting alongside me and in many instances taking quite significant creative decisions of their own. Alarmed and Dangerous owes a lot to the brilliant radio producer, Alan Hall, who effectively directed the whole project. Also, in klaxonik the computer transformations behind the trumpet were created by Jo Thomas – I gave her the source material, told her how I wanted it to sound and sat beside her when we mixed it, but it was she who gave the piece its wonderful texture. Similarly in The Grain of Abstraction (1997-9) Rob Scorah did things to my source sounds which were much more radical than I had imagined but were eventually intrinsic to that work’s peculiar strangeness! Arguably, this is yet another sort of found material: responding to the set-up of a particular studio, or the predilections of a colleague, is like coming to terms with the nature of a particular instrument or ensemble. A lot of the music I like best from the last 50 years is the product of similar accommodations: Miles Davis putting musicians together in a studio with just fragments of material, the Beatles working around the limitations of the Abbey Road four-track, Stockhausen making Telemusik in an unfamiliar Japanese studio.

In his profile of your work Ian Pace describes it as having a ‘latent narrative’, and I wondered to what extent you agreed with this statement, particularly given this emphasis on collage and block construction in much of your work (not that these deny narrative)?

I think there are narratives latent in everything that human beings do. Certainly I am very conscious when I make music that it is above all a time-based medium and that whatever my music does it will be interlocking (or not) with other human beings’ attentions. I have always seen it as my principal compositional aim to leave my listeners in a different state from that in which they began – anything less would seem to be a waste of all our time. How to make this difference? That varies from piece to piece but here are three very different examples:

In BLANK (2002) the music has an intensity that comes from the absence of pauses (it’s made up of long, continuous tones), registral focus (it’s in a narrow pitch band), and purity of intonation (it uses just intonation). It seems to spend a long time doing the same sort of thing before beginning to change quite near the end. For me it’s a piece which ends on the verge of catastrophe, about to fly apart, and its form means that that catastrophe can only happen in the listener’s imagination – it’s a narrative that they must finish for themselves.
In Prime Site (1997) there are seven sections which don’t obviously relate to one another in a moment to moment sense but whose interrelationship may be understood after the piece has finished, if the listener chooses to think about it. This is perhaps less a narrative and more a way of viewing a multi-dimensional object. It’s a version of what elsewhere I have called my ‘compendium’ form – a collection of possibly quite diverse sorts of music organized around a central subject which may be stated but often isn’t.

The recent choir piece Open the gate (2004) has a more conventionally ‘musical’ narrative in which accretions are gradually stripped away from the underlying plainsong melody – reverse variations, a form I like very much.
At the heart of all this though is my belief in form as something which should be expressive, both of changing emotional states and ideas. This it seems to me is true of all good music, a belief which marks me out as an unreconstructed modernist I suppose.

Could you explain how you work on a practical level?

I work any time, anywhere and I work every day. If I don’t I quickly become quite bad tempered – writing music is what I do and it’s really my primary indicator of how I am.
I work primarily on paper at a desk (or on a table, or on a train, or wherever I am). Occasionally I play fragments of pieces at a piano, mostly to reassure myself that the sense of pitch relationships in my inner ear is still working and to enjoy the sensation of real acoustic sound. I really don’t play the piano well and one of the key influences on my early musical development, the harpichordist Virginia Black, suggested that if I tried to write at the piano it would inhibit my imagination. I also use the piano in what I suppose is a deliberately alienating way, often playing passages in the wrong octave to avoid any confusion with how the piano sounds and how the music will really sound.
Until last year I always copied everything by hand in ink onto transparent paper, designing the page layout myself, and using a photocopier to make the finished score. I still use this method for some pieces but where it’s possible (i.e. if the notational demands are sufficiently conventional) I now use Sibelius software. I don’t compose at the computer and I don’t use playback, both of which I am convinced are the enemies of musical imagination! Like Feldman I believe in hand-made music.

Of course, none of this says anything important about how each piece is written. The process of composition for me is, I think, about discovering the piece I want to hear in a particular setting and then creating the means (usually a written score) by which this can happen. The current piece, for example, is for solo violin. I don’t know the playing of Farran Scott, the violinist who will play it first but I do know the occasion, part of a day of new music all commissioned by Queen’s College, Cambridge to relate to an early 18th century cabinet of scientific curiosities in the College, Vigani’s Cabinet. The cabinet has many things in it but the drawers of pigments are particularly striking, still wonderfully vivid, and my piece is called ‘iridescence’. So, in a way I started with three found objects, the solo violin (Farran is the College’s Musician in Residence), a tray of brilliant colours and the context of an afternoon of new pieces, most of them probably quite short, so that the audience has the opportunity to move between different venues in the College and re-hear pieces if they want.

I wanted to write music that might be heard as refractive, so there is a recurrent set of pitch relationships (which proliferates, once again through the use of self-similarity) and a rhythmic cantus firmus (more or less a rumba rhythm!) which underpins everything. Each is heard through the other and each changes slightly all the time. The result (and the piece is nearly finished) is music that uses formations quite familiar from older music but which never coalesces into anything that really is familiar.

The context for Iridescence suggests it is to some extent a site-specific piece (although it might be argued that all pieces where we know the details of the first performance are to an extent site-specific). You’ve produced some installation work in the past, and I wondered how this aspect of your work has developed?

I think I would like to suggest that for me all first performances are site-specific works and all performances are installations. If I know the circumstances in which a new piece will be performed (and I almost always do) – musicians, venue, occasion – then that inevitably colours my approach to the work of creating it. Similarly, I always enjoy the process of taking over a space and preparing it for a performance, even when that consists of no more than moving chairs, music stands and lights and plotting entrances and exits. On the other hand I don’t think I have a piece that is literally site-specific – everything I’ve written can be done in virtually any space. The installation pieces I’ve done, like Liquid Architecture (1998) and Everything You Need To Know, consist of materials which can be realized in very different ways in different spaces.

It seems that increasingly composers are referring to themselves as sound artists (when they are still really composers). How do you view yourself and the work you have produced?

I am a composer. Terminology is interesting – for example, the fact that the Arts Council of England thinks there is a sphere of musical activity that could be called ‘contemporary classical’ demonstrates their lack of understanding about what is happening in music these days. I compose, because I see my work within a tradition based around notation, using that notation (in whatever form it might take) as a means of abstracting musical ideas. Today I think notation is more diverse than ever before, from jazz charts, to graphic scores, to detailed note event notations, to graphic interfaces on computer, but as soon as you use notation you are making a separation between the thing itself – sounds – and the ways you can think about that thing. The end result of this process of abstraction and mediation may not be aurally distinct from what a sound artist or an improviser might produce but it can be and in my work I try to exploit the potential that this process offers me. In particular I think that composing music enables ways of organising sophisticated large scale musical relationships which perhaps no other form of music-making allows.

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