Ahead of our forthcoming concert in the Beverley Early Music Festival, Ex Corde MD Paul Gameson speaks to Christopher Fox about composing, lockdown, and his new work 'News from Nowehere', receiving its first performance in Beverley. Our programme explores music by Fayrfax and Josquin in the context of Thomas More's Utopia (published in1516) and 'News from Nowhere' draws text from More's work.
Chris, we've worked with you for some years during the NCEM Young Composers Award, when you have led the workshops and we have performed pieces by so many brilliant young composers. It's wonderful to be collaborating now with you as the composer!
When did you first realise you wanted to compose, and what support in this did you have? I was about 12, I think. My parents were very supportive as I started to spend less and less time practising the french horn and more and more time composing at the piano in the dining room of the house in which I grew up. I was very lucky to have a cousin who was a professional musician (the harpsichord player Virginia Black) and she and her husband (Howard Davis, first violin of the Alberni Quartet) gave me lots of advice and were the first musicians to play any of my music. And, at that stage, what were your musical influences? Have these changed? So many influences! In my teens, Vaughan Williams, Bartok, Beethoven, Byrd, Stravinsky, the Rolling Stones, Roxy Music; at university, Cage, Wolff, Glass, Reich, Kagel, Monteverdi, Maxwell Davies, Berio, Stockhausen, the Sex Pistols. I've gathered many more over the subsequent years; I think that anything I listen to is bound to have an influence. Thomas More's Utopia is a remarkable political and social commentary on Tudor England and its relationship with Europe, which resonates strongly today, post-Brexit and almost-post-Covid. Can you tell us how you settled on this passage from Utopia, and your title? The passage I chose comes from near the end of Utopia and I chose it because it's a summary of how the society in Utopia works and sounds remarkably like a sort of communist paradise. You dwell on the words 'nemo' and 'nihil' which in their sentences are used positively, but on their own are quite bleak - was this deliberate? Well, that's the paradox of More's book. I think he was describing a society that might seem ideal, but which he thought was awful. 'Hythlodaeus', the Latin name of the traveller who is telling these tales of the island of Utopia, can be translated as 'Peddler of nonsense'. So this apparently ideal world is a place for no-one ('nemo'), made of nothing ('nihil'). You have set the words from More's Latin translation of Utopia (with the English appearing in a narration later on). What was the decision behind this? More wrote Utopia in Latin and it was then translated into English. I'm old enough to have gone to a state secondary school where we learnt Latin and it's a language I've always loved. But I'm aware that fewer and fewer people understand it so including an English translation is a bit like having a voiceover for a non-English speaker in a news broadcast. Finally, some quickfire questions for how you spent 2020-21 in lockdowns! Preferred walks/places to visit (following government restrictions at the time, of course) The Cumbrian fells and the Yorkshire Dales. Favourite read? I finally got round to reading Moby Dick which was a fantastic experience. Favourite live/streamed music? So much! I 'discovered' Vaughan Williams Oboe Concerto just before lockdown and have probably listened to that more than anything else. The latter stages of the last movement are just extraordinary, some of his most beautiful music.
Thank you Christopher, and we look forward to seeing you at Beverley!
Christopher's piece and the rest of the concert is available to watch online from 6 June to 2 July - click here for more information