Not heard in nearly 25 years, Erika Fox’s Osen Shomaat for orchestra is getting a fresh outing with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Ilan Volkov. We took the opportunity to ask Erika Fox about the work. Here’s what she told us
‘Osen Shomaat was written in 1985 for a performance at St John’s Smith Square, but in the event was played by an ensemble under the direction of Keith Burston (later Burstein) in the church of St James’s Piccadilly as a sort of adjunct to an exhibition of German and Austrian Art at the Royal Academy, possibly because of my Viennese connection.
At the time the performance was almost incoherent because the small size of the venue made it impossible to position the strings as directed, so that the individual lines couldn’t be heard. I have unearthed a review of that performance, where the critic in question was unable to make head or tail of the work, although he did mention some ‘beautiful lines’ when they were audible.
It was later played with much greater clarity at a BBC invitation concert conducted by Odaline de la Martinez, although a young man from a mental institution (various groups had been bussed in for the occasion) came up to me, saying “ funny music!”
I recount this episode because it illustrates the fact, only recently noted, although I have tried to explain it very many times over the years, that if one approaches my work with expectations of the kind of development usually present in Western Classical music one will never get to grips with it. I think in individual lines, which although they can be played simultaneously, form heterophony rather than harmony.
At the time it was written, I dedicated this work to my cousin, the actor Alexis Kanner, on the occasion of his wedding in Los Angeles. Neither he nor his wife Jane were into classical music, but because there are places in the score where every one of the 36 instruments has a separate line, the music looks rather interesting on the page, and they folded the score onto one of those pages and had it framed, as a work to look at rather than listen to!
I was told by various people that it is a ‘happy’ piece, which surprised me then but not so much now, because I can hear a certain celebratory element in places. Sadly however, this cousin died relatively young, and I think of it now with some sadness attached.
After all these years, my musical thinking is now somewhat simpler, in part because experience has proved that there is a limit to what can be clearly heard. The title Osen Shomaat is a transliteration and translation of the Hebrew, meaning ‘The Hearing Ear’, taken from a passage in the biblical book of Ecclesiastes.
There are, as in much of my music, separate lines of melody, based on a note row played heterophonically, and the work is threaded together by a different, more modal melody which emerges into the foreground from time to time. There is also a third melodic ‘moment’ quite a long way into the piece, when a Chassidic-like tune takes the stage. This is played in harmonics in a very awkward register of the double bass, and acts as a kind of dim memory from my childhood.’
Thursday 16 January 2020, 7pm
BBC Symphony Orchestra, Ilan Volkov
SOLD OUT – will be broadcast at a later date on BBC Radio 3’s The New Music Show