At the German Resistance Museum in Berlin, a familiar face stared back from the other side of a photo frame and the composer Christopher Fox decided to make a musical memory piece. Fox suspected he might find family ghosts in the German capital. His aunt Elisabeth von Thadden was executed by the Nazis in 1944 after she unwittingly revealed forbidden thoughts about the regime and her aspirations for Germany after the war to a Gestapo spy. But chancing upon her photograph so easily and quickly was a shock. ‘Music is particularly suited to the depiction of the inner life, and I decided to make my aunt my subject,’ Fox has written.
Three years in the making and dedicated to Elisabeth, Fox’s chamber opera Widerstehen was premiered in Freiburg at the end of last year. But there was no live broadcast on BBC Radio 3, no review in the UK broadsheet newspapers, no sense that anybody at home had particularly taken notice of this major new work by a leading British composer. Fox turns 58 this year and the British contemporary music scene apparently remains mulishly unsure of where to place him and his music.
So what sort of composer is he? Listen to the cyclic structure and sparse melodic rhetoric of inner (1999-2001), 45 minutes of unaccompanied cello music, and you might be forgiven for claiming Fox to be a disciple of Morton Feldman and the American minimalists. If so, how to explain the microtonal smack of his hectic 1983 ensemble work Etwas lebhaft, with its clear allegiances to Michael Finnissy and Brian Ferneyhough? Or the logic-hunting-for-itself Stravinskian play of Straight Lines in Broken Times2(1992)? Or A Glimpse of Sion’s Glory (1992), Fox’s double-choir part-song which relates, albeit obliquely, to Britten and Tippett?
Drill deeper and it becomes clear that conceptual leaps of faith typical of a brain hard-wired into the mysteries of John Cage and an occasional instrumental texture that betrays an interest in Luigi Nono and Helmut Lachenmann are also integral to Fox’s art. So, again, what sort of composer is he? Easy. He’s a minimalist, maximalist, central European, conceptual, pastoral, German, English composer/sound artist who, when creating installations and text-based pieces with the poets Ian McMillan and Ian Duhig, has tested the boundaries of music itself.
But any composer attempting to reconcile Tippett with Lachenmann, Britten with Cage, is surely a dilettante who ought not to be trusted? To ‘get’ Fox’s music you need to understand his background. Born in York in 1955 to his German mother and English father, Fox will wax lyrical about Yorkshire brass bands and then, a thought-bubble later, about the 1950s Darmstadt avant-garde. On Ilkla Moor baht ’at meets Gruppen. Explaining another formative inspiration, he has talked about the irresistible pull of what he calls ‘mythic America’: jazz, rock, the beat poets, the ‘new journalism’ of Tom Wolfe. Fox recalls being among the tiny audience who in 1974 attended a British concert by the little-known American composer Philip Glass; hearing John Peel play Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians on his Radio 1 show was another ear-opening experience.
Truth is, Cage into Britten won’t go, and the 12-tone processes that Fox has found so intriguing in music by Schoenberg and Stockhausen, which are predicated entirely on the stability of equal temperament, could sit uncomfortably with his obsession with alternative tuning systems. But his solution has been to design intelligently each new piece from scratch, the function of every working part carefully thought through, nothing taken for granted. A sequence of works Fox calls Generic Compositions (1999-2001) is built from the conceit that instruments tell composers what to do; harmonic overtones are allowed to ring free, basic percussion choreography is put under scrutiny, Fox scores for ‘a sliding instrument’ or any ‘bowed instrument’, the point being to explore how instruments might behave if composers didn’t insist on imposing their ‘art music’ upon them. In the solo piano lliK.relliK (1991-93), the heat of Jerry Lee Lewis and stride piano is systemically filtered and sieved; für Johannes Kepler (2005-07; dedicated to the 17th-century astronomer who calculated what became known as the ‘music of the spheres’) mixes earthly equal temperament on voice and viola with a space odyssey of complex tuning ratios sustained on an electric keyboard.
We like to know where we stand with composers. Comfort is considered a good thing. But Fox’s music cuts right across – and into – the customary stylistic affiliations. The surface of lliK.relliK is smooth and logical, like a bank statement, as Fox shifts motifs up and down the keyboard. Or is it? At some point an awareness of the ornate mathematical systems that are keeping the whole thing afloat grows, and it’s for us to judge how that number-crunching affects sound from moment to moment. Fox’s simplicity is, it turns out, a complex business.
This article originally appeared in the July 2013 issue of Gramophone. To find out more about subscribing, please visit: gramophone.co.uk/subscribe