Jim Fox: Black Water
Stephen Whittington: Music for Airport Furniture
As we've stated in the past, releases by Cold Blue are infrequent enough that the appearance of a new one becomes a mini-event, even if, as in the case of its latest releases, they're CD singles. The two in question feature single-movement works by label director Jim Fox, whose music has appeared numerous times on the label, and Australian composer Stephen Whittington, who makes his first appearance on the Venice, California-based imprint.
Listeners conversant with Fox's discography might come to his latest release expecting it to be restrained and slow, but Black Water, composed in 1984, shows a different side of the composer. Boisterous and aggressive, the eighteen-minute work (for three pianos) is realized by the Los Angeles-based pianist Bryan Pezzone, whose three overlaid parts account for the work's density. The title in this case comes from the Alberto Manguel-edited anthology of short stories that was published at about the same time and serves as an apt metaphor for the churning flow relentlessly pressing forward throughout the piece. In the louder passages, shimmering tremolos act as a rock-hard foundation strong enough to withstand the chords aggressively striking against it, while the quieter sections that offer a welcome respite from the clangorous intensity are dotted with twinkling trills. The density of the material is felt throughout, though never more so than during the closing minutes when the piano rolls in the background begin to resemble a rather volcanic mass. A natural, single-movement piece for the concert hall, Black Water is also a brilliant, roller-coaster ride that's rendered remarkably by Pezzone in a bravura performance.
A formidable pianist as well as composer, Whittington's performance of Morton Feldman's Triadic Memories was selected by The Wire in 2007 as one of “60 Performances that Shook the World” during the last forty years. In addition to being a champion of contemporary composers such as Terry Riley, Cornelius Cardew, Howard Skempton, Peter Garland, Alan Hovhaness, and George Crumb, Whittington has been heavily influenced by John Cage, who he met at CalArts in 1987, and in 2012 directed John Cage Day, a ten-hour performance that included Whittington's eight-hour performance of ASLSP (As SLow aS Possible).
But Music for Airport Furniture is hardly a Cage-styled homage. The title alone invites specific associations, with both Satie's Furniture Music and Eno's Music for Airports naturally invoked by Whittington's choice. The composer himself writes, “I was interested in the airport departure lounge as an arena for human emotions—boredom, apprehension, hope, despair, loneliness, the tenderness of farewells—all taking place within a bland, often desolate space.” Certainly the setting offers an ideal spur for musical exploration, given the multitude of emotions that emerge each day within such an enclosed and concentrated space. As performed by the Zephyr Quartet, the 2011 work eschews the anxiety associated with the late traveler rushing to catch a flight to instead emphasize the tenderness associated with farewells and the sadness that follows, an effect intensified by the quivering of the quartet's strings. The Zephyr Quartet delivers a nuanced and heartfelt reading that, in its wistful tone, calls to mind Schoenberg's own single-movement piece, Verklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night), with both characterized by dramatic peaks and valleys. Twenty-two minutes long, Whittington's pensive piece registers as a powerfully romantic and plaintive work whose emotional directness is both startling and refreshing. Interestingly, the title proves to be a tad misleading in suggesting a static quality that's never evident in this constantly evolving work.