Tag Archives: Jim Fox

REVIEW – Marty Walker: ‘Dancing On Water’ album, 2001 (“a leading light in bass clarinet”)

19 Sep
Marty Walker: 'Dancing On Water'

Marty Walker: ‘Dancing On Water’

Blowing thick darkness, cheery reed-chatter and diva moans with equal facility, Marty Walker has earned himself a New Music name as a leading light in bass clarinet. Over eighty pieces by diverse composers have been written specifically for his particular gifts, and he’s effectively the in-house reedsman for many of the “California school” cadre of composers. For ‘Dancing On Water’ – his first release under his own name on Cold Blue Music – the California school returns the favours. Works from five of its members – the blissful voice-music of Daniel Lentz, the plotted-out ellipses of Michael Byron, Jim Fox’s expansive impressionism, Michael Jon Fink’s lonely, romantic grace-of-few-words and Peter Garland’s percussion-slanted Native American leanings – all juxtapose in different ways with different aspects of Marty’s interpretative approach.

On several of these pieces, Marty gets to stow away his bass clarinet (along with all of its invites to the New Music party) and bring his B-flat clarinet out from under its cousin’s shadow. The close-up duets of Peter Garland’s two-part Dancing On Water sets Walker down next to William Winant and David Johnson’s four-handed marimba. The music neatly folds Mexican folk melodies into minimalist discipline: the marimba clinks with sharp solemnity, both childlike and gamelan-esque. It’s a wily dance of toys, slicing the simple cadences up with unpredictable yet precise spaces. While the clarinet traces similar curves up through the arpeggios, Marty invests it with warmth plus infinitesmal bluesy slides and fades from small-group jazz: a wink in the midst of discipline. Moonlight is the meditation afterwards – a tremolo marimba twinkling like water underneath a much sleepier, dreamier clarinet, Marty coaxing utter expressiveness out of Garland’s clipped material.

Marty Walker: 'Dancing On Water; (30-second excerpt)

On Daniel Lentz’s efflorescent Song(s) Of The Sirens, Marty’s ten overdubbed clarinets are matched by ten overdubbed pianos (played by Bryan Pezzone, another Cold Blue loyalist). But rather than being slaved to a rigid percussive regimentation, all twenty instruments are worked into Lentz’s familiar fascination with overlaid, overlapping vocal fragments. A sensuous undulation of slightly disfocussed pitches are linked by Pezzone’s summery, waterfalling spirals of virtuoso piano; a squadron of tiny icicles falling on the ear.

Amy Knoles’ sighing, narcotised voice (doppelgangered and folded into blurry harmonies and elisions, stacked like sated bodies) provides the siren’s role. This reaches us as a meandering stream of single spoken words – “lips”, “let”, “love”, “air”, “sweet”; “to”, “our”, “listen”, “touch”, “voices”, “you” – all of which are lifted and displaced from their sentences, suggesting an erotic, subliminal hypnosis. As digital manipulation slowly brings the intent into focus, full sentences and melodies coalesce from the haze. Marty’s role here, though, is simply as one (or ten) of the ensemble dreamers, voicing Lenz’s drowsy vision via the clarinet’s sleepy yawning tones. By the time of the stirring, ecstatic finale of piano rolls rumbling out of the trance, he’s not even there anymore.

Marty Walker: 'Songs(s) Of The Sirens; (30-second excerpt)

In the end, it remains the bass clarinet that provides the best bridge between Marty Walker and the composers who seek him out. It’s on that instrument that his expressiveness achieves its most fascinating levels. Certainly it’s fascinated Michael Byron, whose composition Elegant Detours has the most obsessive interest in Marty’s abilities. Byron, however, seems more interested in Marty Walker as a performance mechanism rather than as an emoter. Trapped inside an implied run up a three-octave whole-tone scale, Elegant Detours scurries in super-compressed bursts to explore the possible patterns available. A workout of bass clarinet extremes (from tiny puffs of air to sweeps across its whole range) it ends in lung-bustingly sustained wails knifing the attention to the wall, almost physically painful to listen to. Marty rises superbly to the technical challenge, but it’s frantically clinical. The music seems to feast on itself; like competitive weightlifting, or like laying bets on the frantic mice attempting to escape from a lab maze.

Marty Walker: 'Elegant Detours; (30-second excerpt)

Using far fewer games of structure, Jim Fox demonstrates that he understands the empathy in Marty’s playing. Fox usually works with quiet, beautifully ominous nightscapes and slow-creeping tonalities, and his piece – Among Simple Shadows – is no exception. Trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith blows a transparent and hushed last-post of a tune, which Marty shadows like the last hum resonating from the throat of a gospel bass. Bryan Pezzone’s piano flaps weightlessly in the wind, and casts anxious repeating clots of melody after the mingled brass and woodwind as they move through a dark-blue spectrum of emotions from quiet grief to undefinable hope.

Marty Walker: 'Among Simple Shadows; (30-second excerpt)

Of all the composers, Rick Cox might have the most fellow feeling for Marty Walker. After all, throughout On Tuesday that’s his own contra-alto clarinet playing in counterpoint to Marty’s bass model. This chokingly slow four-movement duet has more than a tinge of swamp-blues to it – like the last notes restlessly clinging onto the grass tussocks after the funeral procession is long gone and the coffin rests in its mausoleum, floating above the bayou. With both instruments burring and smearing towards the bottom of their ranges, there’s a sense of exhaustion. As with much to do with the blues, there’s also a feeling of unfinished business.

Marty Walker: 'On Tuesday – pt. 1; (30-second excerpt)

David Johnson (on vibraphone this time) returns to help Marty tackle Michael Jon Fink’s micro-concerto As Is Thought/Aurora. This time, they make a trio with orchestral harpist Susan Allen. A tense set of precise unison arpeggios, venturing warily out into space, are connected and soothed by Marty, whose jazz-inflected way with the shaping of his bridging phrases counters the music-box abruptness of the other instruments. As the piece’s initial trepidation melts, like the dissolution of fear, Allen’s harp comes more to the fore. Each instrument softens, progressively handing the others a tiny cadence of notes to repeat – a canon which clambers on like hands swapping grip-space on a rope, continuing to move outwards.

Marty Walker: 'As Is Thought/Aurora; (30-second excerpt)

Overall, ‘Dancing On Water’ reaffirms Marty Walker’s excellence as an interpretative musician, providing a set of multiple masques – or masks – for him to excel in. Still, I’m left uncomfortably whetted and slightly unsatisfied. His generous illumination of the music of others draws me into hankering after other aspects of his musicality – the creator, the improviser; the Marty Walker who’s drawn on his own music to provide that illumination. Hints of this are dotted all over ‘Dancing On Water’ in every cunningly bent note, in every hint of intelligence drawn from outside – even in the times when he steps back into the ensemble, upstaged on his own record.

There’s power in a name. Perhaps Marty Walker’s name, and his musical identity, has become too powerful to let him play second fiddle on his recordings. ‘Dancing On Water’ certainly showcases his talents, but in comparison to other Cold Blue albums – each firmly stamped with a composer’s identity – it feels like a picture of a man grown just a bit too big to comfortably wear other people’s handed-over suits in his own house.

Marty Walker: ‘Dancing On Water’
Cold Blue Music, CB0005 (800413000525)
CD-only album
Released: 5th June 2001

Buy it from:
Cold Blue Music

Marty Walker online:
Homepage

Jim Fox: ‘Last Things’ album (“like floodwater in the night”)

10 Feb

Jim Fox: 'Last Things'

Jim Fox: ‘Last Things’

Renewing his Cold Blue Music label for the millennium, Californian composer Jim Fox has set himself up as its figurehead, although not in a triumphal manner. Pomp and flamboyance wouldn’t sit well with Cold Blue’s explorations in New Music, and this first new release out of the Cold Blue bag doesn’t need to grab attention, anyway. The two Fox compositions on this album (slow-moving, implicatory, atmospheric and deliciously disturbing) surround you instead, like floodwater in the night.

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…”

Jim Fox: 'The Copy Of The Drawing' (30-second excerpt)

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.

Jim Fox: 'Last Things' (30-second excerpt)

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)
CD/download album
Released: 5th February 2001

Buy it from:
Cold Blue Music (CD) – various downloads available from Amazon and similar.

Jim Fox online:
Homepage