Christopher Fox: Headlong

review fox headlong x1 cong

While this CD has an appealing side, it’s not one for someone who just fancies a nice bit of clarinet; if you studied clarinet at university, your car is called Clarrie McClarinetface and you only play the chalumeau with added keys for that authentic sound, perhaps. Though it’s a life you need, not a CD.

The good bits: for music that is quite abstract, the sleeve notes are straightforward and add to the experience, and Heather Roche is an accomplished clarinettist.

The clarinet has been the instrument for which Fox has composed most consistently but he only started when he sat next to a clarinettist who, like him, could not sing as well as the other members of the choir they were in (read the sleeve notes!) and they got chatting. This collection is a retrospective of sorts and he sums up his output as “experimental, post-modern, maximal, minimal, equal-tempered, just-intoned.” Most of the music is also pretty accessible.

The opener is Stone. Wind. Rain. Sun. For two clarinets (1989), a 10-minute reflection on the nature of limestone; anyone who is inspired by the Carboniferous gets our vote.

At a guess, it starts off above ground, with rain and wind, and then shifts subterranean as it seems to move from a fuller sound to one more claustrophobic, with drips of water evident.

As you all know, carbon dioxide in the air dissolves in rainwater and becomes weakly acidic, and this weak acid dissolves limestone as it seeps into cracks and cavities, forming all the famous limestone features, from limestone pavements to cave systems. The sleeve photo is of Pen-y-Ghent, whose famous flat shape is not limestone at all but millstone grit.

Maybe Grit. River. Sand. Mud. can be a follow up (jointly with the equally punctuationally-challenged Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly.).

Straight Lines In Broken Times has low bass clarinet notes, sampled and layered to produce a polyrhythmic soundtrack over two more bass clarinets. The sound is not unlike a didgeridoo and that and the title made us wonder if Bruce Chatwin’s The Songlines was an inspiration. It’s certainly got a tribal feel to it, the taped clarinet adding primitive rhythm.

Escalation was written as a double 50th birthday present for Roger Heaton (the clarinettist from the choir) and flautist Camilla Hoitenga; Heather Roche decided that it would work better on the contrabass clarinet. It has been said it sounds like MC Escher’s infinite staircase; it’s a little more light-hearted than some other pieces.

Unlocking The Grid was inspired by the art of abstract expressionist Agnes Martin, who only worked in black and white for part of her career and produces stark images. It’s a stark piece, though it makes for a nice ambient sound.

Headlong is enlivened by an electric beeping pulse, a metronomic tone that drives the piece along.

The downside to the CD is that after two tracks you need a break; some of the other pieces are a little more out there: track three …Or Just After takes its title from the fifth stanza of Wallace Stevens’s poem Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird: “I do not know which to prefer / The beauty of inflections / Or the beauty of innuendoes / The blackbird whistling / Or just after.” It and the following piece Early One Morning are more random noise, which is compelling, if jarring.

The composer is right when he says the collection shows how a great player can make an instrument speak in so many voices; the question is, how often do you want to hear them? This is out now on Metier, MSV28573.

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