June 2019 brings a first portrait CD for Erika Fox on the NMC Label. Composers Edition’s Dan Goren talks with the driving force behind this outstanding recording
DG: Firstly, let me congratulate you on an expressive, direct and highly engaging album. A premiere set of commercial recordings of any of these works, what originally drew you to them and Erika Fox?
KR: Thank you – so pleased you like it!
I was drawn to Erika Fox via a mix of curiosity and a recommendation! We have a mutual good friend in Nicola LeFanu. I was eating soup with Nicola and director Carmen Jacobi at Carmen’s Cardiff house late one night in December 2016. We turned on Radio 3 to listen to Nicola’s essay (‘Inspiring Women in Music’) and she gave Erika a mention. ‘Who’s Erika Fox?’ I asked her. ‘You’d like her music’ said Nicola… ‘you should get to know it’.
Nicola knows me and my tastes so that was certainly something to follow up. I googled Erika – nothing…except a distant reference to some early works on a nearly-extinct SPNM webpage. There were no recordings, no broadcasts, no website. So I just phoned Erika – impulsively – and we had a great chat! She invited me round to her house to listen to her music. Quite literally, this was the only way to hear it two years ago. Erika had a box full of cassettes and CDs…live recordings of various works taken from concerts mostly in the 70s and 80s. We drank tea and followed the scores and listened to a selection of her music and I thought…wow…this isn’t like anything I’ve heard before…
Erika and I also got on brilliantly which helped! She has a great sense of humour and is a genuinely fascinating person in every way. I’m ever so fond of her.
DG: So quite a revelation on both an artistic and personal level! I had a similar surprise when I first encountered her music. On the one hand finely crafted from ostensibly familiar elements, yet dramatically driven in an uncommon and highly creative manner
KR: Yes – ostensibly is the word. None of it feels ‘familiar’ when you play it. It doesn’t behave like other music…it doesn’t do what you think it’s going to do and if you try and force it into a language, or a shape or a phrasing you already know, it comes out wrong.
You very much have to trust what Erika has written; sometimes it seems counterintuitive (dynamics might go against a phrase shape, for instance) but she always knows what she is doing and has carefully considered your sound and notes as part of the bigger picture. From the notation alone (when you are preparing the parts), it’s not always clear what this role is, but it becomes clear in ensemble if you do what the music says – and listen.
Erika has a remarkable flair for combining instruments, textures and timbres in extraordinary ways. She doesn’t always prepare you for it… it’s suddenly there… hits you… it says what it needs to say and moves on. I think it’s a very unfettered, fresh way of composing. Her music is very linear – not vertical. It’s all about the line. When I play (and listen to) Erika’s music I think of tapestries; woven threads, layers, knots, sometimes rough, sometimes very sophisticated… and you can see (hear) how it’s done… she doesn’t hide anything and nothing is superfluous. Her music has an honesty and a transparency which I really admire.
For a while, Erika experimented with a very complex type of notation which just restricted players – everything came out tight and anxious. I think that the semi-spatial notation solution she finally settled on allows her ideas to speak more clearly. It still requires great accuracy, but total vertical alignment isn’t always a top priory and that allows you to focus on other things in a very nice, human (musical!) way. It allows the music to breathe.
DG: As the titles of the works on this disc suggest, wrought with this unique language is a strong personal engagement with the events and people that have shaped both her own and the wider world.
KR: I would say that Erika’s output is very much connected to the idea of movement– theatrical, spatial qualities, often ‘stage directions’ for players in non-stage works. She would be better placed to answer this question herself as it’s quite a personal one, but I can share what I have observed. I’ve had many conversations with Erika about non-musical things… the stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer… the poetry of Isaac Rosenberg, Siegfried Sassoon, Leonard Cohen, Amelia Rosselli, Czeslaw Milosz… puppets, paintings… she has a naturally wide artistic outlook and I think it’s this knowledge, passion and curiosity that shapes her work. She has a special affinity with the writings of Singer. But it’s important to note that any allusion to poetry in her work is not literal – it’s simply inspiration. She firmly believes that music is an abstract art that speaks its own language.
In more recent years, Erika revisited the Jewish elements in her work – something she had barely been aware of. But she did hear something ‘distinctly Jewish’ in the sound and the ritual. This self-analysis she undertook (when asked to write about it for a Jewish journal) is well-documented elsewhere but I’ll just summarise it here using Erika’s own words: ‘I was shocked to hear that the old sounds had woven their way, sometimes very subtly, sometimes rising momentarily and subsiding, sometimes relentlessly through a whole work. It had happened quite unconsciously. Involuntarily and perhaps minus the accompanying culture, or religious belief, but there it was. An inescapable signature tune, which I am now glad to have rediscovered’.
DG: The quality of the recording is excellent, bringing out the ever changing balances in the music and I wasn’t surprised to see David Lefeber’s hand (and ear!) involved. How has it been working with him and NMC on this release?
KR: Oh, it’s always great working with David. He recorded my first ever solo clarinet disc (for Métier) around 20 years ago when I was fresh out of music college. We have worked together pretty much ever since. He’s my first choice. I consider him as a fellow-musician – a member of the ensemble, because he understands music like a composer or performer. I trust him completely – if he says it’s ok, it’s ok!
But none of it would have happened if NMC had not agreed to take on the recording project when I proposed it to them – that was the catalyst for everything else to fall into place, for successful fundraising and for this fine group of musicians to be able to come together. I can’t think of a better home for Erika’s music than NMC.
I have always felt that this project had a sort of serendipitous life of its own – you get that feeling with certain productions. Something driving it on… little pockets of support popping up where you don’t expect them … Our brilliant funders were, of course, absolutely crucial – PRS Composers Fund, RVW Trust, Hinrichsen Foundation and the Ambache Trust.
And Erika herself…she has worked tirelessly to sort out music, locate and clean up old parts, get things bound and performance-ready. She has been a wonderful collaborator and that’s not easy when you are also trying to get to grips with a very different industry than the one in the 80s when her music was being played. I think that for me, one of the most rewarding outcomes of this project is that Erika is now ‘set up’ to be a composer in the 21st century; she has a support network in place – website, publisher, recording company, funders, musicians to champion her music. It’s been a privilege to be a key part of the team who have helped get her music back out there.
DG: It’s also a very fine group of musicians, with your own Goldfield Ensemble, pianist Richard Uttley and Composers Edition’s Richard Baker baton in hand, you must be very proud of what you’ve produced!
KR: We are! We wholly threw ourselves into the works for a relatively short period of time – total Fox immersion. When we were planning this CD, I was wondering about how different the music might sound had we lived with these pieces for years – as is sometimes the case when you decide to make a recording. (It’s interesting isn’t it…to dwell on how a piece might mature…what insights you might gain into it as you play it and play it and play it…) Of course this wasn’t possible; the works were not published, not recorded, parts had to be found, copied, created and they were therefore new to all of us in Goldfield. So I still don’t know the answer to that question, but they certainly matured to a degree over the time we were working on them. Although the pieces are all very different, we all collectively felt that we learned from one piece to the next – for example, applying ideas about how to phrase something, how to find a certain sound etc.
So the rehearsal and preparation process was very positive and quite a revelation. It’s nice to work like that. I’m really fortunate; this is a (hand-selected) very special, highly-experienced group of musicians who are all totally committed. Having a composer-as-conductor was very good; Richard Baker developed an understanding of Erika’s music very quickly and was able to communicate that – and they got on very well too.
Carla Rees, the flautist deserves a special mention. Carla knew of Erika’s music before I did. She had previously typeset and published the flute works (Tetractys Publishing – her company). She had spent much time with Erika so she began the project with a better understanding of Erika’s music than any of us. It was really good to have her input.
It was also very helpful to have Erika working alongside us. For my own part, I can honestly say that I didn’t have many questions – the parts are really very clear. And when I did have a moment I wanted some clarification on, I could second-guess the answer; that gives you confidence because it means that you are learning and understanding the composer’s language.
I wondered how Erika might feel about some of the older pieces; it’s often strange for a composer to revisit a work they had written perhaps 20 years ago and not heard since. Erika also wondered about that. Happily, on hearing the works, she said ‘I stand by everything I wrote’. I think she was as pleased as I was with that realisation. Isn’t it great?
DG: Folks will be able to buy the recording from the end of June. Are there any plans for opportunities also to hear the works live?
KR: Yes – we plan to perform two of her works at a special Autumn event in at the Austrian Cultural Forum (Knightsbridge), marking both the CD and Erika’s 83rd birthday! If you happen to be in Tanglewood in August you can hear Erika’s Hungarian Rhapsody (1989) conducted by Thomas Adès (her former student) where Erika is also giving two lectures. On 27th June, John Tilbury is performing part of To Veronica (solo piano, 1976) at the Bishopsgate Institute.
I very much hope that other ensembles can take up this repertoire. It doesn’t ‘belong’ to Goldfield – we wanted to get it out there so that other people can play it. There are stage works and larger works by Erika that we haven’t recorded that I think really demand attention; her opera (The Slaughterer, 1975) is on my mind a lot. And two superb orchestral works: Shir (1983) and Osen Shomaat (1985). There are also some great solo pieces which we couldn’t fit on the CD but are very programmable: The Moon of Moses (solo cello, 1992), Nick’s Lament (solo guitar, 1984) and Rivka’s Fiddle (solo viola, 1986). With Composers Edition now publishing much of her music, I really hope that things can start to happen for Erika’s music.
Erika Fox : Paths
Richard Baker conductor
Richard Uttley piano
Release Date : 28 June 2019
Erika Fox Profile & Works
Tags: Café Warsaw 1944, David Lefeber, Erika Fox, Goldfield Ensemble, Hungarian Rhapsody, Kaleidoscope, Kate Romano, Malinconia Militare, NMC Recordings, On Visiting Stravinsky's Grave at San Michele, Paths Where the Mourners Tread, Quasi Una Cadenza, Richard Baker, Richard Uttley, To Veronica