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Christopher Fox: Natural Science / Trio Scordatura

Fox / Trio Scordatura
Release Date: 06/12/2012 
Label:  Metier   Catalog #: 28526   Spars Code: DDD 
Composer:  Christopher Fox
Performer:  Scott McLaughlin
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Trio Scordatura
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

Scordatura, in musical terms, is the re-tuning of strings to provide notes not normally available to the instrument playing in its natural range. Most of the works on this disc use the technique to provide natural tunings outside the normal chromatic scale, and the results can be by turns fascinating and infuriating. The opening piece, für Johannes Kepler, takes as its starting point the great astronomer’s discoveries of the various intervals produced by the ratios between the orbits of the planets – also the subject of Hindemith’s opera Die Harmonie der Welt – and sets a hymn of praise in Latin to the Great God who has created these ‘celestial harmonies’. The singer (Alfrun Schmid, who plays violin in the Read more Scordatura Trio on other tracks) and the viola (Elisabeth Smalt) play in subtly different scales over a background provided by the third player (Bob Gilmore on keyboard). All three are excellent here, and the result is often very beautiful to listen to. Bob Gilmore as producer provides a booklet note in which he capitalises the first letter of the title, but the composer himself in his own booklet note does not. The composer seems to have a liking for these uncapitalised titles, like comme ses paroles and catalogue irraisoné, so presumably this has a similar purpose.
The next track on the other hand is definitely entirely in capitals; BLANK, to quote the composer, is “based around a single melodic line, moving at different speeds in three separate layers, progressively unfolding to the point where its unitary identity begins to disintegrate.” The result has the same sort of hypnotic quality produced by the sound of an orchestra tuning up, and produces a similarly queasy feeling that the instrumental intonation is not quite right; the composer describes the harmony as “anarchic” and that is certainly the sensation which is conveyed here. The piece goes on far too long for its content – it could have been halved in length to the listener’s advantage.
Where in für Johannes Kepler Fox treated the text as a series of disjointed syllables, almost a vocalise for the voice of Alfrun Schmid, in the Trümmermusik he sets some often very moving texts based on the Berlin diaries of Max Frisch. These recorded his visit to the city in 1947 and his fury at the sufferings of the people while those who had caused the devastation “sit in prison, comfortably detained, well fed, safer than most, or in government departments.” The setting was originally for voice and hurdy-gurdy, and the latter instrument is also the instrument which takes a leading role in the final song of Schubert’s Winterreise, depicting a similar state of devastation at the end of the wanderer’s travels. The music of that song is indeed quoted, in a naturally distorted form appropriate to the hurdy-gurdy, in the second of the songs here – the song from which the lines above are cited. It is a very moving setting. Unfortunately Fox’s reaction to the words elsewhere is often mechanical, and this is particularly disturbing in the fourth song The weather is wonderful where the writer’s pleasure “in this landscape of trees and water” is given a rhythmically chugging setting over a continuous ostinato on the strings. This brings to mind the worst sort of superficial word-setting that we find in the less inspired works of Philip Glass. Schmid does not have the chance to sing here with the same rapt intensity that she achieves in für Johannes Kepler. She doesn’t sound comfortable either in some of the more rapid passages set in English translation. This is a work of intermittent beauties rather than a sustained contemplation of a ruined city and its people, odd from a composer whose later choral works show a lively and idiomatic approach to words.
The Generic Composition #8 examines, in the composer’s words, “the changing interaction between sustained stopped notes and open strings in just intonation.” It forms part of a cycle “which form part of the ensemble installation Everything You Need To Know” (the capitalisation here is again the composer’s). Also apparently it has links to the catalogue irraisoné which was reviewed on this site by Carla Rees and whose words of commendation – “a highly engaging and fascinating work” – are included in the CD booklet. “What interests me in these Generic Compositions,” the composer goes on to say, “is the extent to which the instruments seem to write their own music when composers (players too?) let them.” The noise which results may just possibly be ‘interesting’, but here it is also thoroughly dislikeable. Incidentally this is the only track to feature Scott McLaughlin on electric guitar, although he gets lead billing on the sleeve.
Fox returns to the setting of words in Natural Science. Here the poems by Ian Duhig are spoken and not sung (by Bob Gilmore) to an accompaniment of viola solo. Some of these settings are charming - an odd word to use in contemporary music, but entirely appropriate to some of the texts here. That does not apply to the grotesque A crippling jealousy whose unpleasant story of genital mutilation is given an oddly upbeat treatment. The playing of Elisabeth Smalt is perfection itself.
The final piece on this CD is the shortest, setting in canon the name of the modern composer Aldo Clementi in celebration of his 85 th birthday. “It translates the syllables of his name into sol-fa,” Fox tells us, “the syllabic lengths of his name into durations (with double values for his family name) and is played here in mean-tone.” The use of names to produce musical ‘signatures’ has a long and honoured history stretching at least from Bach to Shostakovich, and can often result in music that is oddly characteristic of the personalities concerned. On the basis of this one feels that one rather likes Aldo Clementi, but we don’t get the chance to make his acquaintance for long before the music abruptly stops almost in mid-phrase. This is one occasion where one gets the feeling that Fox could profitably have taken the opportunity to explore his material at greater length.
The playing of the Trio Scordatura is excellent throughout in what must be music peculiarly difficult to keep in tune, and vulnerable to the slightest error. The recording enables one to hear every detail. The recording is partially sponsored by the Ralph Vaughan Williams Trust, and one thinks that RVW himself would have enjoyed at least some of the music here.
-- Paul Corfield Godfrey, MusicWeb International

Christopher Fox is a composer who specializes in rather unusual types of music. He professes to love many musical forms, some of which indulge in radical tunings called scordatura. The use of an alternative tuning allows the playing of otherwise impossible combinations of notes and it can be used to create unusual timbres.

That is why, on this disc, the members of the Scordatura Trio tune according to Fox's instructions. He says he writes music that can change its harmonic weight midstream because he wants to allow the gravitational pull of a tonal center to wax and wane. He feels that harmonic shifts in today's music can have the same sort of emotional impact that a key change has in 18th- and 19th-century music. He has been known to disparage equal temperament because he feels that it changes the innate mathematical proportions of the harmonic series in order to allow composers to indulge in key changes.

In the first piece on this disc, Fur Johannes Kepler, Fox makes use of the great 17th-century astronomer's discoveries of the various intervals produced by the ratios between the orbits of the planets. He makes them the basis for his setting of a Latin song of praise to the creator of the celes­tial harmonies. Surprisingly, vocalist Alfrun Schmid and violist Elisabeth Smalt intone in equal temperament here. Schmid sings the text as single syllables, so it is never declaimed in a fully understandable manner.

According to Fox, Blank is "based around a single melodic line, moving at different speeds, in three separate layers, progressively unfolding to the point where its unitary identity begins to disin­tegrate." It does eventually come apart, and it's fun when it does.

I find Trummermusik, which is based on Max Frisch's Berlin Diaries, quite fascinating because I often heard similar tales from the war refugees with whom I grew up. The diaries are a record of the Swiss writer's trip to the city in 1947 when he recorded the sufferings of the German people. He notes that those who caused the city's destruction are far more comfortable, safer, and better-fed in prison. He quotes Schubert's Winterreise in the second song when he talks about the devastation, and he uses it very effectively. The whole piece evokes tumultuous emotions because of its description of man's inhumanity to man. Schmit has a number of high notes here and she does her best, but some of them are noticeably difficult for her.

In Generic Composition No. 8, Scott McLaughlin tunes four strings on his electric guitar to par-tials derived from a single fundamental. The result is what Fox calls "the changing interaction between sustained stopped notes and open strings in just intonation." The composer goes on to say that what interests him "is the extent to which the instruments seem to write their own music when composers let them." In Natural Science, Fox has eschewed singing and has keyboard player Bob Gilmore speak the text. It does make the words more easily understandable, but the resonant tones of a professional baritone would have been appreciated. Elisabeth Smalt's bronzed viola tones are a true delight, however.

For the finale, Fox set the name of composer Aldo Clementi in a canon to celebrate his 85th birthday. It's fun and puts a fitting ending to this interesting disc.

The instrumental playing is excellent throughout and the resulting sound is clear. Since much of this music is mathematics-based, I think that those who deal with numbers on a daily basis will find it fascinating.

-- Maria Nockin, Fanfare
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Works on This Recording

Für Johannes Kepler by Christopher Fox
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Trio Scordatura
Written: 2007 
BLANK by Christopher Fox
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Trio Scordatura
Written: 2002 
Trümmermusik "A Berlin Diary 1947" by Christopher Fox
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Trio Scordatura
Written: 1993 
Generic Composition #8 by Christopher Fox
Performer:  Scott McLaughlin (Electric Guitar)
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Trio Scordatura
Period: 2001 
Sol-Fa Canon for Aldo Clementi by Christopher Fox
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Trio Scordatura
Written: 2009 

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