John Foxx, the founding vocalist of Ultravox, is a prolific composer of electronic music, both instrumental and vocal. His recent endeavours include a solo release, London Overgrown, and an album Codex as part of the group Ghost Harmonic, recorded with classical violinist Diana Yukawa and frequent collaborator Benge (with whom he has also recorded as John Foxx and The Maths).
Because of his heritage and continued quest for making new music, Arcana spoke to him about his music, and in particular about the effect classical music has had on his life, in both positive and negative ways.
You seem to be in a very rich creative vein at the moment. Have you always been this productive, or are you finding that collaborations with others are bringing even more music out of you?
Collaboration is a fascinating thing – it’s so productive, but each time you have to figure out a new way to surf along with other people’s energies. You’ve both set yourself up – so then you have to put up or shut up. It puts you right on the spot and is very energising. Plus you both get to share the blame!
What does Diana Yukawa bring to your work with Benge that other classical violinists might not?
She enjoys improvising and enjoys being thrown in at the deep end with technological temporal disorientation devices. Not many classically trained musicians can handle that. She thrives on it and produces surprising results.
Diana has the sort of musical ability and agility that I find enviable. We’ve really only begun to glimpse her potential.
What is it about your relationship with Benge – and his studio – that inspires musical creativity?
It’s great fun – and always fascinating.
At first you think everything sort of half works but then you realise he’s managed to get beautifully rough sounds on sometimes beautifully rough equipment that excite you into the next stage without being able to resort to your own clichés.
When you listen back at home you realise you’ve been creatively misled into something you might have dismissed otherwise. And it all sounds very fine indeed.
I also love his take on mixing. The usual hierarchy gets dismantled and you hear sounds that don’t often get a just exposure. He’s completely fearless in that respect.
With London Overgrown, I first listened to it in bright early morning sunshine journeying into London, and the music and visuals seemed to go very well together. Is that how you see it?
Good – I think there’s a lot of English weather in the music, the sun through clouds and the sort of perspectives you might glimpse calmly gliding through overgrown streets. It is both detached and tranquil. ‘Serene Velocity’ was the phrase that best seemed to describe it.
Was it a conscious move to write music with these projects that seems to be more treble rather than bass?
Well, with London Overgrown the instrument I used most was an old DX7, and that can produce beautifully complex upper frequencies, so I simply enjoyed and went along with that. Many of the pieces were improvised using 30 second delays, and delays so long create their own ecologies. It’s like gardening. You let things grow. In the end I had a city that was completely overgrown.
In the case of Ghost Harmonic we were obviously focussed on Diana’s violin, so that defines the frequencies to a large extent. The bass end was supplied by the big Moog and textural intervals supplied through the interplay between those two and the reverberation and delays. I like the violin’s range – it really is a singing instrument, a human voice extension. I’d like to use a cello against it next time – a marvellous creative groaning device.
Would you say either Codex or London Overgrown are classical in any way – their form or melodic contours, say?
Well, that’s such an interesting question, and to some extent it supplied the reason for this recording. So I hope you’ll forgive me if I ride my wee hobby horse for a moment.
You see, I think the divisions between classical and other music are really illusory, but nevertheless interesting – ‘classical’ is a sort of ossified form, historically where music began to be written down instead of being played, personal and constantly evolving, as it was before the evolution of the orchestra – and this is what created all the problems.
You see, orchestras couldn’t improvise any longer because they’d become too big. They have marvellous, unlimited harmonic and melodic potential but they’re like an ocean liner to a canoe – they can’t manoeuvre instinctively.
Orchestras are also very hierarchical and bureaucratic – all instructions have to be written down and adhered to in order to operate effectively, otherwise chaos would ensue because of the sheer number of participants involved.
That’s when orchestral players became more focussed on obedience training than improvisation skills and agility, simply because it was necessary for the successful operation of the music.
Musicians unwittingly became a reproductive device. The conductor assumed the interpretive role, but even he couldn’t fundamentally alter the score. Writing things down also fixes them, it tends to inhibit or prevent any further development, so that’s another reason the whole thing became so inflexible.
I think it’s no accident that the orchestra evolved during the industrial revolution, where factory and bureaucratic systems also had to evolve, to deal with the massive scale of industry and populations.
They are really a sort of model of idealised, organisational harmony created through bureaucracy – powerful, monolithic and effective – but there’s always a price and the price paid here is the sacrifice of individual freedom of interpretation and expression. By logical increments you find we have unwittingly locked ourselves into a sort of bureaucratic form – bureaucratic music.
With Diana we were attempting to steal the fire of some of that marvellous technical skill that classical music demands – and set it free among the fields of infinite sonic possibilities that a modern recording studio can offer. You can change time relationships, even reverse them, and manipulate sequences, perceptual spaces, perspectives, harmonies and textures. You can focus down like a microscope, or out into landscapes and even create occurrences that behave like weather systems.
Of course the act of recording also captures, alters and defines a sort of music, just as written music does, but in very different ways – so there’s still a price for every gain.
We began by simply wanting to see what would happen if we mixed the most intriguing possibilities of both genres, without prejudice. Along the way we also began to realise it might offer a way out of this impasse that so called ‘classical music’ seems to have unwittingly entered.
Can you remember your first encounters with classical music?
Yes – first hearing of Nimrod by Elgar (from the Enigma Variations) and realising the power and subtlety of an orchestra.
I heard older music in church – the sung Latin mass, which was marvellous to hear and that oceanic feeling of dissolving into something greater than yourself. I also begun to understand how chants evolved by harmonising with your own delayed reflections from the architecture – architectural music as opposed to bureaucratic music.
When I hear music by Thomas Tallis I hear the astounding beauty of those interwoven voices, then realising the evolutionary connections between chants and orchestras and architecture.
Then the next thing that really impressed me was Satie‘s piano music. I heard someone play the Gymnopédies one afternoon in the old lecture room at art school.
I can still picture the instant – early summer, big open doors, the view down the marvellous avenue of trees at Avenham, and that beautiful elegant music. It is perfect minimalism, with poise and tranquillity, like distilled civilisation in a few notes and a sound. I was transfixed. it seemed to alter everything. I’ve loved piano ever since. It really is my favourite sound in the world apart from a blackbird’s song.
You said in an interview with me a while back how you liked what John Cage did, and the theory that music is organised noise. Is that how you see it – and is that why the noise of Benge’s studio, for instance, assumes the importance it does?
Yes to both. Understanding that music is organised noise was a great liberation. It enables you to understand and encompass lots of other sources of music from traffic to industrial noise to feedback and other accidental by-products such as tape hiss and glitches etc. Inherent imperfections become part of the landscape, so the landscape immediately becomes bigger and more textured, as well as more fun.
Would you ever consider writing for orchestral forces, or what are seen as more ‘classical’ forces, such as an electronic string quartet?
Maybe – but I’d need to have the motivation – usually some aspect of music that seems to need reconciling or some neglected possibility that intrigues enough to do the work. In the case of Ghost Harmonic, that was supplied by attempting to reconcile classical playing abilities with modern recording and improvisation.
What does classical music mean to you?
Something wonderful that became confined by its own form.
It means great possibilities still unrealised – what might happen if you facilitated a real interplay between the massive harmonic possibilities of orchestras and the full potential of a modern recording studio?
At present the classical world sees recording simply as a means of recording a single performance – any other manipulations are seen as inauthentic. There’s no attempt to access the massive compositional possibilities of modern recording. What a waste!
What are you listening to at the moment, and what piece of classical or modern music would you recommend Arcana readers go out and find?
Ruben Garcia made some beautiful piano and reverberation improvisations on a record called A Roomful of Easels. I often play some of these pieces at home.
There’s one David Darling recording, by the instigator of ECM Records Manfred Eicher, called Cello – improvisations against long delays. It’s a specific mood and poise, perfectly held, beautifully recorded and composed. Sadly, I didn’t much like his other recordings – except perhaps Dark Wood. It seems he needed the austerity of vision enforced by Eicher.
And Satie, always. He’s really the Marcel Duchamp of modern music – the point it all began, for me. His work embodies purity of intention and gorgeous simplicity with elusive intelligence. A benchmark.