The Wire

“What interests me in these Generic Compositions”, the British composer Christopher Fox writes, “is the extent to which instruments seem to write their own music when composer (players too?) let them.” Normally, in this magazine, ‘generic’ is a dirty, judgmental word when applied to music, but here Fox is deploying it more literally, i.e. generic as instrumental archetype—what happens when a composer doesn’t intervene too heavily on behalf of Western art music.

Arguably the biggest hurdle to be overcome in licensing instruments ‘to write their own music’ is 12-tone equal temperament, which gerrymanders the innate mathematical proportions of the harmonic series just so composers can indulge in fancy key changes. Consequently all six pieces on the aptly named Natural Science, performed by Trio Scordatura, deal in other tuning systems— Generic Composition No 8 is Fox at his most purist, tuning an electric guitar to partials derived from a single fundamental, and allowing the throbbing interference between stopped and open notes to resonate; in BLANK three simultaneously sounded versions of the same melodic line with differently tuned major seconds unravel; Sol-Fa Canon For Aldo Clementi is a simple canonic structure tuned in mean-tone that plays itself out – no development required.

While Für Johannes Kepler, Trummermusik and Natural Science are more consciously composerly Fox retains a strategically discreet distance from his material. I like Für Johannes Kepler best. As a single pizzicato viola note interjects against a MIDI keyboard sustaining complex tuning ratios, an inevitable structural chain reaction is triggered. Johannes Kepler was the 17 th century astronomer who began to calculate what later became known as music of the spheres. The keyboard orbits with ratios derived from Kepler’s calculations while viola and voice play in equally tempered sixth tones, and the message is clear – equal temperament is useful, and here’s some beautiful sounds created from it. But you do realise that all earthly music is answerable to a higher power?

—Philip Clark