With distractedly moving electronic traces making up the bulk of the music, The Copy Of The Drawing is rooted in chopped, diced and rearranged texts from letters sent to Mount Wilson Observatory between 1915 and 1955 while Los Angeles swelled from backwater to metropolis. These fragments are recited by Janyce Collins in a ice-queen whisper. Her cold lips brush your ear with a beautifully cool eroticism, its detachment only increasing its power. Often phrases are followed by glassy, ratcheting harmonic sound: as if a telescope, smoothly rotating on gimbals, is trying to take a fix on the target the words imply.
Slithering passes of moth-soft electronics slide around the words as if they’re unimportant, part of the ambient backchat in any place of science. Occasionally almost-vocal smudges of transparent noise ring up in (and fall away from) the foreground: although in some respects there is no foreground, just a slow sub-zero swirl of ambient hints, briefly smeared, like time-exposure photographs. Scrapes and subliminal swarms, jump-starting drifting thoughts in the narration; quick-drowning sounds like disturbances in ice-water or the imprints of decaying viola counterpoint and dying Gregorian chant.
Allegedly, The Copy Of The Drawing is non-dramatic. But Fox’s placement of these words, the stop/start fragments and interrupted clauses (“a jumbled mess – enough to give you an idea”) suggest otherwise. The phenomena of observed and notated science are often invoked with the reverence with which scientists replace religious awe, but sometimes as a kind of anchor (“light is always the same – water is H2O…”) against the misgivings whispered in brief passes elsewhere. “Self-deficient – diffused self – applied phenomena – name – danger lies in the abstract…” Before long we’ve heard statements of meticulous preparations (“I have put it in three different envelopes – airproof, fireproof, waterproof”) and chilly accounts of emotional hallucinations. “I still heard talking – I have heard babies crying and screaming – like in a photo – babies can hear me writing this – the pictures can talk to me – they’re not lonely – and it won’t stop…”
Explicit disturbance is rare, and Collins’ voice remains uniformly glacial whatever the content of her script. Nonetheless, anxiety and revelation are blended throughout, with the prismatic narrative musing on thoughts such as “No-one may ever have the same knowledge – everything running up and in and out.” Certainly there’s disintegration here – a loss of assurance, causality dissolving into “a possibility – there was such a thing – invisibility… before that – all history – it doesn’t seem possible… / it’s closer if you draw a line – on that line – all depends.” At one point, Collins recites a list which explicitly fails to reduce events, phenomena and states of existence to anything tidy. “Stuff – factors – motion – the perpendicularity – the process – the parts of things – the female principles of nature – etcetera – quite incomprehensible due to its invisibility – something that is true – close by – far…”
Covertly, Fox seems to be attempting to reconcile the cosmological with the personal. Collins’ narration of astronomers’ notes seem to take on revealingly intimate suggestions (“thousands of small pushes a second – inertia is very great”) and equates the paths of cosmic debris with those of people (“one of the incoming pieces of matter – there may be more – they may travel together…”) Maybe it’s a reflection of the gravity of cities like Los Angeles – pulling in immigrants, the lost and wandering, accreting mass as it does so. Maybe it’s an idea about scientists allowing the unsettling parallels of poetry and metaphor to sneak into their notebooks and resound in those working lives which they’ve obediently sealed away from personal concerns. This is observatory music, for certain. But the question of exactly what is being observed here is an open question. It’s one which ultimately leaves you without an answer; although perhaps it does leave you with a cold, indifferently sensuous kiss.
With Last Things itself, the sky is lowering. An ominous drop, as Fox conjures up not so much a drone of bass synth as a faraway envelope of it (massed over our heads like apocalyptic cloud) and then rings us round with a distant thunderous fence of bass-register piano, rumbling tectonically and eerily, like the harbinger of the great Californian earthquake. Trapped between stooping sky and unquiet ground, we bear witness to a passionate, wordless pieta in which the dominant instrumental voice (Marty Walker’s brilliantly tortuous bass clarinet) sounds famished, and as oppressed as we are by the press of sound. Walker’s control is remarkable – he travels between delicate, near-inaudible quivers of notes; great wide splits of sound that crack with emotion; and magnificent mournful coyote calls, summoning up visions of friendless desert vistas.
Relief, of a sort, comes from Chas Smith’s pedal steel guitar. Almost choral in its breadth, it’s the one truly calming element in Fox’s musical painting. It’s a Pacific palliative which voices itself as distant balm to Walker’s painful questioning, or as a glimmer of light on the crack of the horizon. At around the eight-and-a-half minute mark, sounds like distant foghorns appear in the murk to add their own skein of warning and disquiet. More ethereal, less hungry, but hardly less of a disturbing portent are the rubbing glass rods on Rick Cox’s treated guitar, hanging dying trails of luminescence in the middle distance.
When Last Things fades out, the hope of things resolved has given way to a kind of acceptance. We’ve come to terms with the fearsome displacement and anxiety in Fox’s California soundscapes to such a degree that we’ve probably failed to notice that he’s finally resolved the music with a chordal and dynamic shift so subtle as to almost escape notice – like life settling itself in, a warm beast, around the jags, harshnesses and daily warnings of a threatening environment.
Jim Fox: ‘Last Things’
Cold Blue Music, CB0001 (800413000129)
Released: 5th February 2001
Buy it from:
Cold Blue Music (CD) – various downloads available from Amazon and similar.