This art of Musick is the most sublime and excellent, for its wonderful Effects and Inventions.
—J. Playford, 1664
Recently, I sat down with filmmaker/composer Christopher Coppola and composer/professor/record label owner Jim Fox for a three hour discussion on the topic of the sublime in contemporary music. These two men share vast experience and knowledge in this genre. Coppola has studied music under John Cage, Fox, and other eminent contemporary composers. In his earlier career, he composed such ambitious works as an opera based on Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave.” Although he has mostly given up composing in favor of filmmaking, he has developed a special expertise for carefully and creatively selecting cutting-edge music for the soundtracks of his film and video projects. In addition to being a well-received composer over several decades, Jim Fox is also the owner of the small but influential Cold Blue Music label. The International Record Review described his music this way: “Fox’s music invites one to believe that if the stars, constellations and galaxies emitted sounds, these unearthly harmonics are what one might hear.”
In defining the topic of the sublime in music, we especially considered these quotes from the Oxford English Dictionary:
Thou hast nor Eare, nor Soul to apprehend The sublime notion, and high mystery.
The sublime Style necessarily requires big and magnificent Words; but the Sublime may be found in a single Thought, a single Figure, a single Turn of Words.
Great and elevated objects considered with relation to the emotions produced by them, are termed grand and sublime.
Below are several excerpts from the interview. Footnotes give online links for samples of the music we discussed. Some of the links are rather long for typing, but the same sources can more easily be found with an online search using the title and composer’s name. Soon, the online version of this journal will include the complete interview, with a richer selection of musical samples, with easily navigable hyperlinks.
FOX:One of the considerations of whether the sublime can be innate in the work; if it’s in the work or in the observer. Or is the observer particularly attuned to something that’s innate in the image so they both have to be alive?
SHUMAKER: I think a certain part of the sublime has to do with perception; you see things that are sublime in a piece of work that a writer, a musician, an artist doesn’t see him or herself. So there must be a level of perception there, a kind of creation of a nexus that is emerging out of a relationship between what the artist has done without realizing it and what the observer perceives without really looking for it.
COPPOLA:There are definitely some contemporary music examples, standards, where, I think, the musician begins with no idea what the piece is going to sound like. He does not have any idea, if it is played for an hour, what sound he’s going to have. It’s a surprise. He knows what will happen, but he doesn’t know exactly what it will be in the end. And to me that is a form of sublimity; you’re breaking something down to such a degree that it becomes its own thing. And you can feel that in your heart more than your mind.
For me, in my mind, if it gets into my heart, where I’m no longer thinking ...Um, just to give you a crazy example: modes. I was listening to the Beatles and, you know, they’re great but there’s one particular song that somehow gets into me and it’s Eleanor Rigby. I just discovered it’s written in a mode. An ancient mode, Mixolydian, and they chose that mode specifically so that it could get in there. They were reading about the sublime and certain modes. What do you think about that? Modes are like ancient scales, Dorian, Ionic ....
SHUMAKER: I certainly don’t have the ear for them, but I know the definitions.
COPPOLA:Well, you would know if you’re listening to something that you can’t quite understand. It’s not the normal progression of scales that we’re used to. And I was just thinking about modality as an ancient thing and yet somehow it still affects us. So is there some kind of history to this sublime, even though you’re saying it changes? Is there some kind of history that affects us, like how the same person in ancient Greece might be affected?
SHUMAKER: There has to be. I think there has to be, because otherwise this work wouldn’t hold up for so long, century after century, or thousands of years. At least in the case of literature, why would we still listen to it, why would we still be moved by it unless it resonates with something in the—I don’t know what to call it, psyche or brain structure—the human way we perceive?
COPPOLA:Jim doesn’t think so, so let’s hear what he has to say.
FOX:Well, I think there’s something funny to how things come down through history.
COPPOLA:I just want to read quickly an interpretation of the sublime in the modern world and where it’s going. Jim was my electronic music teacher; that’s where we met, University of Redlands. First, let me just read this account about the sublime in the technological world: “The concept of the sublime should be examined first of all in relation to the epochal novelty of the digital technology and the technological artistic production: new media art, computer-based generative art, networking, telecommunications. New technological means allow for a new kind of sublime, the technological sublime. The traditional categories of aesthetics—beauty, meaning, expression, feeling—are being replaced by this notion of the sublime which, after being natural for the older centuries and are now mechanized and industrial in a modern era, have now become technology.”
There has been some resurgence of interest in the sublime in analytical philosophy in the last fifteen years. The occasional article in the journals of aesthetics and art criticism ...in the British journals as well as monographs by writers such as Malcolm Budd, James Curran, and Kirk Pillow.
As in the postmodern in our critical theory tradition, analytical studies often begin with the work of Kant. You know, I just thought it was interesting; this guy starts by talking about a new form of sublime created by digital technology, maybe because the “0s” and “1s” are not analog? And that’s what makes it a new form?
FOX:I’d have to live with that one a while before I know exactly what he means.
COPPOLA:Whatever he’s saying, a lot of that makes me think of electronic music. Even though it’s different, it somehow overlaps our background ...
Now we’re moving onto some stuff, but I just want to say that our relationship, in terms of electronic media, music: Jim was my teacher. I remember you made me listen to something by Morton Subotnick. What was the piece? It was a standard ...
FOX:Oh, “Silver Apples of the Moon.”1
COPPOLA:Right. What would you say to give a description to people about that period in what electronic music was like? Was it tape loops? Was it the Moog synthesizer?
FOX:Yeah. It was all of that. It was coming out of a tape-based thing from the fifties and moving into modular synthesizers. Now, of course, the digital world has replaced the wonderfully-tactile tape loops and homemade analog circuits—weird machines and tapeloops threading around whatever was at hand—doorknobs, whathaveyou. As a footnote, I should add that Subotnick, in “Silver Apples,” was using a Buchla synthesizer, not a Moog.
COPPOLA:You do not seem like somebody now, knowing your musical taste, who would be in electronic music, for some reason. Why is that? Why even teach it?
FOX:Because it was fun.
COPPOLA:See, I think that’s kind of what contemporary is. There’s a playfulness to it.
FOX:Yes, but there’s a playfulness to every period.
SHUMAKER: Yeah and I think there’s an angle here, the technological angle, that allows us to go beyond the limitations of the human body. We can do more than the human voice can do, what ten fingers can do. And also the instruments had to be workable ...I mean, it would be difficult to construct and pluck an audibly resonant, 500-foot long string physically. You can do all kinds of interesting things with electronics that simulate things well beyond the capacity of human bodies or physical instruments.
FOX:Well, look at pianos. When you take the old technological advance of the player piano—a piano, programed by a pre-punch-card type of technology—you have certain new ways you can play. Consider the vast player piano work of Conlon Nancarrow—it’s all work that can’t be done on a regular piano. That’s why he did it.
COPPOLA:Then there’s also John Cage’s altered piano, “prepared piano,” where objects such as paper clips and erasers are attached to certain strings to alter their timbre to make some incredible sounds.
FOX: Anything might expand music’s palette or a performer’s fingers. There’s a famous piece for 100 metronomes—Ligeti’s “Poème Symphonique.” I just heard some beautiful music the other day that was constructed from a large box holding 40 or 50 little music boxes that played simultaneously. The composer seemed to have some sort of a clutch he could use that would hold them all stable until he wound them all up.
COPPOLA:But did he have control over it when they all went at once.
FOX:Well, the individual music boxes spin at roughly the same speeds each time, but it wasn’t like one would hit this note, then the one next to it would trigger.
COPPOLA:Moving on with the history of what we’re calling “contemporary” music. “Avent Garde” is perhaps more European, and” new music” and “experimental music,” are more American. In the Avant Garde from the Germans we got Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern, and later Karlheinz Stockhausen. I don’t find anything sublime in that music except some Alben Berg and some Webern. There is a romantic element there that I like. Then with the French, we have Satie and Les Six, I find a lot of sublime and I don’t know exactly why, but there is something about emotion. Most people universally would rather hear Francis Poulenc thanStockhausenpercussion.
FOX:I suppose that’s true in Western culture, sure.
COPPOLA:I think it is even in Eastern culture. If you listen to simplicity, I’ve traveled in Japan and Vietnam and the stuff that really puts you in the realm is it’s simple and unexplainable. Drones and all that stuff. There are certain things that we all draw from when we write music. Sometimes you write music with a pulse, a tempo, of 20 on the metronome [that would be 20 pulses per minute or three seconds per pulse], which is extremely slow. When you write triplets at such slow tempos, it’s difficult for me to hear, so I don’t even listen to that aspect of it, yet it takes me to a state…
FOX:Well that’s the point of using it. It’s a way of moving the music “out of time,” out of toe-tapping time as we might normally think of such things, and the music to “float” in a rhythmically nebulous way.
COPPOLA:To me, that is more sublime because there is some simplicity and depth to it that I can’t explain. You can hear that at an extremely slow tempo of ten beats per minute. Do you hear that or is it a surprise to you in the performance of it?
FOX:I don’t take it so religiously. It’s not like, “Oh, my gosh, you’re 21 not 20.”
COPPOLA:There are certain styles with a note of universal sublimity.
FOX:I just don’t know if there is any point in making pronouncements like that.
SHUMAKER: Is there some sort of underlying experience of the sublime that cuts across all of these cultural barriers of what music is? All these technical definitions of what music is (scales, tempos, and everything else you do in music)? I know there is something going on that moves me, regardless of whether we have the same cultural background or if I understand what is going on technically.
COPPOLA:And how many does it move at once? Perhaps the readers don’t know a lot about contemporary music. Maybe a starting point is to prick up their ears softly first or make them get out of the easy chair, to get them ready for an exploration.
SHUMAKER: What people think of when they think of orchestral music or classical music is oh, this is symphonic music with a tonal aspect where you return to the key note and it sounds nice and pretty. In the 20th century music, there are a lot of experiments to get beyond those rigid forms. Start off with an example that separates contemporary and Modern and/or Post-Modern music from the Beethovens and the Mozarts as a jumping off point.
COPPOLA:For me, the king of what we call contemporary music is Charles Ives. Maybe we should start with him. What he did was before people like Stravinsky did it and nobody knew it. Now we know it. His musically freethinking father, Connecticut bandmaster George Ives, was a great influence on him. George even experimented with two marching bands coming toward each other while playing tunes in different keys. Charles would listen to that and he would find the microtones or tones between the tones. It was an experimentation that he had no control over that fascinated him and caused him to compose echoes or his own interpretations. There is one Charles Ives piece that affects many people at once in a deep way and that’s “The Unanswered Question.” Every time I play that to anybody, they are affected by it. Maybe Jim can describe why it has an effect on everybody.
FOX:I don’t know that I can because I know some people that it would not have an effect on.
COPPOLA:Maybe those not affected already have that disposition.
FOX:No, no, no.
COPPOLA:How do you feel about that piece of music?
COPPOLA:I think it’s a lovely piece of music.
COPPOLA:I play it to people of different walks of life, even a plumber, and that one piece isn’t difficult for anyone to digest. Maybe that’s why some people dislike it. It’s simple.
FOX:I’m talking about people that have problems with the Western classical musical language from pretty much any period. Maybe that plumber you were talking about was an opera buff on the side and it wasn’t as much of a leap.
COPPOLA:I’m just trying to bring out certain pieces that some of these readers can listen to as building blocks to move on. It’s interesting that Charles Ives who said, “Get your ears out of the easy chair” wrote this piece of music.2
If you listen to all of his music, there is some really heavy stuff to digest that you might not like or the readers of this article may not like. But this piece of music, “The Unanswered Question,” even though it has some of that stuff going on in it, is accessible. It must be something about its accessibility that has to do with the sublime.
SHUMAKER: As a music lover, what I find compelling about this piece are these long drawn out tones, the rising ones, and the trumpet coming in a little lower. To me, that gives a sense of longing and questioning I understood even before I knew the title. That is a highly anecdotal example, but there must have been something within the structure of the music that connected with me and from which I got the sense of what he was aiming for, at least in the broadest idea.
COPPOLA:The only reason I bring Ives up is that he is one of the founding fathers of contemporary music for his day and it’s an interesting piece out of his body of work.
FOX:But he is also a person who is outside of the traditional Western classical music lineage or trajectory. He stood alone. There was no one quite comparable immediately preceding him or immediately following him. Many of his works were not performed until years and years after he wrote them, and some, I believe, were not performed in his lifetime. He was very old before people like conductor/composer Leonard Bernstein started championing him. Ives’ friend and contemporary Carl Ruggles is another iconoclastic composer of the New England transcendentalists like Ives, yet Ruggles’ music is more easily placed in the Western tradition. His Sun Treader, with its recurrent waves of sound, is a piece I would consider sublime.
COPPOLA:Here’s a piece called “Tiger Balm,” it was composed by Annea Lockwood, and this is interesting—it’s a cat purr with music on top of it. It’s simple, and the purr is sublime in my opinion because it’s an animal thing.3
What I’m talking about is the idea of dissonance with the reverse of that—consonance is some sense—and how the piece went back and forth between them, which is, in my mind, sublime.
FOX:It is “trance music” in the true, old-fashioned sense, almost trance-inducing music, before the term “Trance Music” was coopted to designate a recent a musical subgenre of “Electronica” music. The breath rhythms of “Tiger Balm” would seem to give the piece a universal attraction. A strange extension of the idea of trance music might be the big liturgical works in Western culture, which are, when performed in enormous echo-filled cathedrals, sublime. They can and many may very well have been designed to put one in a trance world.
COPPOLA:What’s interesting to me is that if you listen to that period of music, and if you listen to music by Carlo Gesualdo [1566-1613], an Italian nobleman who murdered his wife and child because he thought his child wasn’t his—it has a real darkness and dissonance to it for that day, which transports you, well, me, even more.
SHUMAKER: I want to ask you about this particular piece, “Tiger Balm.” Would you consider it to be a mimetic piece of music, imitative of the natural sound? That’s what I was expecting—we have a cat purr and the music is going to somehow model it, but I didn’t really hear that happening myself.
FOX:It’s not mimetic. The purr is just another instrument, you know? I don’t think the point was that…
COPPOLA:Exactly. And this is the perfect place to go to these next two pieces I brought that both started with extra-musical ideas. But she started with an idea. I don’t like to use the word “gimmicky,” but it is a different concept idea. Like Alvin Lucier’s “I’m Sitting in a Room.”His voice is very hypnotic, he has a speech impediment, and his idea was to record his voice, play it back in the room and play that back in the room, then record that playback with the room’s presence added to it, and then play that new recording back into the room … until you have no more sense of his voice but only the rhythm of his voice “ringing” the room’s natural frequencies. You have to be patient and listen through several cycles for the effect to materialize.4
COPPOLA:What I’m saying is that it is, to me, it is sublime because it started out with an extra-musical idea from the physical world, and acoustical experiment—an unanswered question. I had no idea where this was going to go. When you first hear it, it’s kind of like going to the Alps and seeing something.
COPPOLA:Steve Reich’s “Come Out” was a kind of music called Phase Music.5
FOX: This is again charged verbally by the use of the human voice. Lucier’s was charged by his speech impediment. This one is charged because it incorporates the very moving voice of one of the injured youths picked up in the 1964 Harlem Riot.
SHUMAKER: In regards to the last two pieces you played me, [“I am Sitting in a Room” and “Come Out”] …With the first one, I was thinking about how you take a very human voice—it’s more human because it has the impediment, you know you’re not going to design a machine that speaks with an impediment—so it’s this very natural thing which, because the machine technology is slowly absorbed, is obliterated by the machine aspect of the prospect. Halfway through you can still hear the speech elements with these winding and feedback type things, and by the time you get to the end the voice is totally gone. Here you have the idea of a very profound moving experience, and it soon went from being personal to having many voices that multiply to the point where you can no longer hear it. It’s the way we react when we see people shot down in a crowd in Tiananmen Square: we don’t react as personally as when we see the murder of a single person. The multiplicity both magnitudes the scale of the tragedy, but at the same time impersonalizes it.
COPPOLA:I found that one has a rhythmic thing, coming out of that anger, and the other has a harmonic thing, coming from smoothing out. It’s different outcomes, but there’s another one…I just want to give Jim some examples and then I want to get into what he does. He represents a whole other style.
FOX:This is another look on something which could be considered as sublime.
COPPOLA: Here is another “standard”—“Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet”  by Gavin Bryars.
FOX:Well, Bryars started with the recording of a street person singing. It was part of the footage and soundtrack for a film about people living in a rough area of London. Bryars grew enamored of the fellow’s singing and found that it was in tune with his piano, so he started improvising an accompaniment to it. One thing led to another and soon Bryars had orchestrated a piece around repeated playing of the fellow’s singing. With each repetition of the song, the accompaniment grows in forces and complexity. With the added accompaniment, the occasional odd faltering in the man’s voice when he was acapella now sound sort of like a jazz singing with the voice landing ahead and behind the beats. Like some of the earlier works we listened to, this is also a process piece—it builds via and easily discernible process.
COPPOLA:It builds and builds and builds, but the interesting thing is that he does become like Frank Sinatra. It was a change, a transformation, and I think it’s kind of interesting to put it into the category of those kind of pieces—each one having a different effect.
I was the one who played this to Tom Waits and that’s why he did his thing. He did a version of this and you can blame me for that. He was asking me because I came out of the school of modern music…
SHUMAKER: Was Tom Waits song the same as here or…
FOX:It’s the same piece; it’s just that he used his own voice rather than this lovely voice
COPPOLA:But it’s because of me.6
COPPOLA:Another standard in this area is called “In C” by Terry Riley. This makes me think of Satie, that piece of music.
FOX:This also grew out of the tape system with the loops because you just move from element to element at sort of your own pacing. And it’s sort of a slight tonal shift from “C” toward an “F” in the middle. But it builds up. Anyway, he was at the San Francisco Tape center in the mid-sixties, working with Pauline Oliveros, Ramone Sender said he was generally doing loops of himself playing Soprano Sax, and a little bit of organ at that time. But this piece just caught and this was also very—I think this and Subotnick—nothing really had been done on a major classical Columbia red seal like this before this little Subotnick.
COPPOLA:The funny thing is that in my mind, these pieces are standards, and they’re accessible. For a lot of people, they wouldn’t be.
FOX:“In C” is accessible to pretty much anybody.
COPPOLA:But for a lot of people, they wouldn’t find it accessible.
Fox:Well, some people find the piece I played for you unbearable because of the timber. They don’t hear the ecstasy of it. They hear what they think is anger and it’s not anger at all.
COPPOLA:Here’s “In C.”7
FOX:There’s maybe 30 recordings…
COPPOLA:I know, it’s huge. It’s a standard. Have you heard of it?
SHUMAKER: Unfortunately, no.
COPPOLA:I’m just saying. It is a standard in contemporary music.
FOX:There are different ways, I know, a couple of years ago during the music festival downtown they got together about 80 players. It was just a weird ensemble of anyone they gathered, and so there were like, six electric guitars and just everything under the sun. And he conducted them in and out which, he checked with Riley, as opposed to certain people wandering through the score itself. And it was a completely different experience because suddenly, he’d have six or eight horns come in and he would just cue them in. As opposed to everyone just drifting and wandering and making this texture, he made it into a kind of dramatic piece. It was very strange, but kind of fun, too.
COPPOLA:An interesting aspect of the sublime is patience. If you want to tap in to it, you have to have patience, and a lot of people don’t. But if you force yourself to sit there and just slowly take it in, it will transport you into places.
FOX:It’s a different way of listening. Many types of music require a different type of style of listening.
COPPOLA:I don’t think there’s patience. That’s why the songs are getting shorter and shorter and shorter.
FOX:I think all of the kids who are into electronica now, they don’t have the patience of Job. This stuff’s “old hat” for them. I know that that’s what Subotnick was—he was talking to someone a couple of years ago, he said, “I don’t even know what electronica is. They’re flying me to Berlin and everywhere, and saying I’m the grandfather of it and I don’t even know what it is.”
COPPOLA:All I’m saying is, going back to the person that doesn’t know, the guys that you’re talking about are students and they’re already locked into that, but I’m talking about the person that is still open.
FOX:I’m talking about electronica, I’m talking about the stuff that they do in clubs. That’s the stuff that goes on for hours…
SHUMAKER: Like the Power Noise club genre, it just goes on with a simple, grinding beat with heavy electronic tonalities…
FOX:There’s a big audience for this kind of stuff now that didn’t exist 30 or 40 years ago when it was being done.
COPPOLA:So you don’t see any similarity in that, or any difference in that in what we just played?
FOX:Sometimes you have to get in a state of what I jokingly call a “lowered metabolism state,” to listen to it—where you have to allow yourself to get into its skin. It’s a different thing. With dramatic music, and specifically dramatic and melodramatic music, you’re expecting it to take you on a road trip and you’re all “Oh, left turn. Yeah. Now let’s see where we’re going,” and with this, you just kind of give yourself over to it. It becomes a different thing.
COPPOLA:If you say “Come out and show ‘em,” it makes me think of hip-hop in a lot of ways.
FOX:Well, that involves a lot of the electronica thing.
COPPOLA:Right, but there are some major differences for someone who is reading this article that might find different in this than in hip-hop.
FOX:They’re two very different things. They’re for two different purposes, and those purposes make them miles apart. But, I’m just saying the listening thing—the reason a person who may love Mozart can’t listen to Sufi singing, it’s because they can’t make that kind of change in their head. Another classic, of course, that we all grew up with, was that old recording of the Balinese Monkey Chant—the Ramayana Monkey Chant—which is a thing that has been documented in many films. It involves a lot of people and it’s a telling of the monkey god story. But it’s a powerful thing—it knocks you over because this person’s going on in almost a kind of singing voice, Western ears might say, and then, I suppose representing the army of monkeys, about 150 voices, all together and that will cut out into all these male voices in a low tone. And it’s so overpowering, it kind of goes back into this story-telling of the high voice.
COPPOLA:Meredith Monk has some stuff, she was influenced by that. And also, I love the piece that we played , was it Alvin Koran, where people would take an instrument and break up rhythms until it had its own kind of moment.
SHUMAKER: I have a question, here, for both of you. And it will take a minute to set up, as it involves a definition. Frederick Turner, one of this journal’s contributors and editors, developed a theory of aesthetics based on the idea that within the human brain perception, the basic neurological perception, that when we relax ourselves and get beyond the beta pattern of the brain, there’s a kind of secondary absorption pattern within the brain that takes visual and auditory information in certain measured bytes. This supposedly explains why poetry throughout the world, ancient poetry throughout the world, measures itself out into three to five second bytes. There’s a perception here that it’s natural for the human brain to absorb and comprehend, but it’s kind of below the immediate conscious level. I thought of that theory only because you were talking about the idea of relaxing, getting beyond the active engagement and letting this take over. So does that idea of there being a neuro-physical aspect to music have a resonance with either of you?
FOX:I always fear pronouncements like that from people who have discovered this universal and I automatically—it gets the hairs on the back of my neck up and waving. I just don’t see things that say, “We are all hearing in this way, or all seeing in this way. We’re all understanding words in certain groups of…” I would buy anytime saying “We take in little bits.” That could be possible. I’m not a researcher, I don’t do that. But when you start saying that they’re related in threes and fours—all whole numbers and things like that…
COPPOLA:I was very interested as a kid in psychoacoustics. And a lot of great sound designers made use of that, where, for example—and I think this can be translated a little bit into what you’re saying, I did some experiments with it—We’d take a baby’s cry, slow it down, and mix it with a car screeching so the audience would feel even more alarmed and worried about that car. And almost everybody in the audience had that experience. That’s a form of psychoacoustics. I would do stuff where I would do something in a film and barely move the frame that nobody could see. But when I put a very, very low frequency that you couldn’t hear but you can kind of feel, it heightened your senses so that suddenly most people in the room could see the movement. So there is something to that. Now, whether it translates to music and stuff—I think there may be certain modes that are more universal and do tap into something. Jim doesn’t, but I think maybe - based on the fact that I’ve seen this stuff actually work.
FOX:There are certain scales, you know the Pentatonic scale and its relationship to simple harmonic spectrum. But that’s kind of a different thing…
SHUMAKER: Aristotle designated each of the scales that he defined with a particular region in Greece and the temperament of the people which, I assume, you would say is going way too far?
FOX:Oh, of course.
SHUMAKER: In relation to what Christopher said about psychoacoustics, the linguistic equivalent is phonoaesthetics, where basically, at least within the Indo-European languages that all evolved from a common language, there are certain syllables and vowel sounds that we perceive as being beautiful and wonderful, some we perceive as being scary. The one who has most successfully applied this in writing is J.R.R Tolkien who was linguist before he ever wrote The Lord of the Rings. That’s why the speech of the Elves sounds elevated an elegant and why the speech of Mordor is harsh and scar—because he’s analyzed the phonoaesthetic qualities the sounds he uses to create those imaginary languages.
FOX:They seem to have words with them and then the ones that you’re bringing up do, too. And maybe that’s cheating, because that’s putting this other little element in there that adds certain poignancy to these, because this is all about kind of the poignancy of the text. I read an article that Kyle Camm wrote about it saying back in the 70s, everybody in the village was quoting the words from this to one other.
COPPOLA:I remember there was something…was that “The Wolf”?
FOX:That was “The Fox.” That’s where he’s just reading in an ominous way. That’s from 1958, I think. And it’s a lovely piece.
COPPOLA:But what you were saying in terms of psychoacoustics and all that, I think contemporary music delves into that kind of stuff a lot more than any other era of music.
FOX:We didn’t know about it before.
COPPOLA:That’s what’s so amazing about it, doing that - experimenting. They call America “experimental music”—you’re experimenting and discovering things. I guess that’s one reason I like Carlo Gesualdo of that period because he is experimenting with harmonies because he is mad. He would choose counterpoint that was his emotion and he was often mad…
FOX:Experimenting and being mad, I think, are two different things.
COPPOLA:No, no, no—angry. He was angry, not just insane. He was angry. So there are things that he was experimenting. His music was different than all the other music. He was a little nuts, but I think he was looking for things that could communicate his rage. And that was different than the mathematics of your basic madrigals at that time.
FOX:But today we don’t hear that…
COPPOLA:If you played them side by side, one would sound like Wagner and one wouldn’t—just in terms of the harmonic changes, it would…It’s strange that he’s in the same period, is what I’m saying. Let’s play “The Park” by Robert Ashley.8
SHUMAKER: For me, both the voice and the lyrics are so powerful that it begins to overpower the music.
COPPOLA:The music just becomes and accompaniment.
FOX:He considers these operas and the voice that is the role of the singing voice that he’s speaking in. The score involved designating “open cavity, closed cavity,” that sort of thing and it was published in a famous music magazine called Source Magazine. And they actually put a record of it out, too. That’s a piece that will put people over the edge—loud as possible shrieking. And it was all part of this bigger….all of his things kin of interrelate with some larger thing. He saw sex and violence as the main aspects of modern culture that he was trying to get out of his work.
COPPOLA:Let’s do this really quickly, things for them to listen to. Morton Feldman…What would you suggest the listeners listen to?
FOX:I love the later piece that Kronos did a nice recording with Aki Takahashi called “String Quartet and Piano.” That’s probably from 1980…something like that.
COPPOLA:I like the “Viola in My Life” a lot.
COPPOLA:So that’s somebody you should listen to. Another thing, John Adams is really big now—like one of the big American composers. We used to do a lot of his music.
FOX:I represent John Luther Adams.
COPPOLA:Oh. John Luther Adams, okay. We’ll talk about that. John Adams is like a “big wig” now with “Nixon in China” but we used to play “The American Standard.” He was one of those people that started out of the early days.
SHUMAKER: The opera “Nixon in China”?
COPPOLA:Yeah. He’s the big wig.
FOX:He’s the biggest, probably the most famous.
COPPOLA:He and I were talking on the phone. This guy still knows his roots and remembers. Christopher Hobbes is somebody that was there. Another example is Barber’s “Adagio for Strings.” As part of a string quartet, I prefer the minimalism of the string quartet. I am more affected by that than the grandiose, kind of milked emotion of the actual strings.
FOX:That’s another one that would probably be on the classical listener’s sublime list, but it’s an overworked piece, again. Everything that gets on that list is pretty much going to be a chestnut warmed over.
COPPOLA:Jim has his own company, Cold Blue Records that, also, we would perform his music. I mean for us, as students who would play your music. That was an…the novelty of it that also…The other interesting tone I just want to mention is Getty, the old man, was a major record buff. He didn’t like anything that was modern, even in its day. He couldn’t stand Mozart. He preferred Salieri. It was that he didn’t like it, he’d just go “What is that?” Some people just understand the strictness and the non-experimentation that he responded to that more than Mozart in that day. I liked the people I didn’t even hear of.
FOX:There’s also something else going on in that that’s kind of part of the “Aficionado” mentality. As soon as everyone else knows about it, “I can’t really listen to it anymore.”
COPPOLA:What do the composers that you represent and sponsor, and based on your own music, what do you respond to the most?
FOX:The sublime! No, there’s something like that. When people send me things and write to me, I often have to say that I don’t use quality as a primary judgment because they’ll send me work that, on and academic level, is excellent, but it doesn’t strike me. And if I’m going to work my ass off and blow my money on some little company that loses money, I’m only going to put out what tickles me. So, therefore, I have told people “Ya know, I don’t know. Maybe if I turned it down, breakfast didn’t agree with me.” I reserve the right to be completely subjective. When I started the company in the ‘80s and it lasted for a few years and went out of business for twenty years, it was dedicated to a particular Southern California style of music that was sort of a post-minimalist kind of lovely music world—something that. Peter Garland refers to his own bio statements as a radical returned consonance because, in a sense, it was radical in the 70s to start doing consonant music when you were supposed to be doing dissonance music or following that trajectory. And, so, people that were very much a part of it in various ways, but they were all kind of associated with Southern California. When I started the record company, at the time a lot of people were writing about it, calling it the “Southern California School of Music.” There was a certain similarity and that’s simply because you pick what you like and you can’t put out a hundred things a year so you have to be a little bit limited.
COPPOLA:Curtis, when you came to me and said you wanted to do something about the sublime in contemporary music, it was an interesting question. The first person that came to my mind was Jim Fox, because his music does that. His own music and the music he champions is the sublime music of the contemporary world, in my mind, as I deal with these things. Because, like you said, you’re kind of expected to do very dissonant kinds of pieces to be considered modern or avant-garde. So it became like a new thing to go back to stuff that was based on harmonious as you thought about consonance and dissonance.
SHUMAKER: The same thing was happening in literature in the same time period. There was a minimalist period in the early 70s where you don’t want metaphors, you don’t want descriptions, you don’t even want adjectives, any writing that was too flowery to the minimalists. By the mid-70s let’s bring back the grandeur, let’s bring back epic, let’s bring back things that are rich, that present the richness of language.
COPPOLA:Things do become cyclical. I have an incredible recording of ancient Greek music. It is the most modern-sounding…
FOX:I know that record; it’s a famous record. Many scholars say this is very fanciful.
COPPOLA:It makes sense when based on Greek opera, how they wore masks and how they wore whistles in the masks that shock the audience at key moments. Even in the movie “Clash of the Titans” you hear a deep voice coming it out and it’s just powerful. In terms of descriptions of how they dealt with shocking for key moments.
Shumaker:And also how the chorus functioned, how they moved one direction during positive statements and one direction when it was more negative [how they wanted to influence]
COPPOLA:They would do both at the same time, too, just like in Japanese puppet theatre. They would have comedy and tragedy happening at the same time on stage. So there is kind of an ancient experimental mode, which is what I’m saying.
FOX:When we’re talking about not wanting to fall too fast into right in front of you; a friend of mine finishing her doctorate at Stanford fell into this archaeology program in Peru where she’s going and measuring the acoustics in these digs. They found these passageways…I got a kick out of warning her “don’t jump to the conclusion” of this is how the shaman talked to the people and scared them. Maybe. But as far as we know they’re rain gutters!
COPPOLA:I also want to play all the composers he was talking about. They’re all different but they’re all in the same vein, which I think your readers would find accessible.
FOX:We’re talking about the sublime; I think this is funny because we’re talking about the terror and awe: this is the cover I used on the original vinyl. It’s that same kind of the thing. It’s the horror, but shot from a distance, and so it’s sublime.
SHUMAKER: I’ve been in some of those experiences; it’s a whole different experience watching a tornado from a distance compared to being underneath one.
FOX:I bought this photograph years before…the grouping of hyenas. And this also is that same kind of sublime, is that these horrible animals are resting there, and there are exactly as many there as there are people. People are wondering, “Why did you put that in there? That’s terrible.”
COPPOLA:This is an example for the sublime. It’s European, it’s classic, but it’s intense: Krzysztof Penderecki’s Threnody. Verez is a very important composer in this, another one to check out. But this is Krzysztof Penderecki. This is a very important piece; it’s an example of shock and pain as a form of the sublime.9
COPPOLA:I find this piece very accessible. When you talk about the victims of Hiroshima. He is getting some very unusual sounds. Now Barney Childs, composer, was both of our teachers; he was first Jim’s teacher, a very important person in both of our lives…on my album…by playing this, by improving on instruments that you normally wouldn’t think about doing that with. Like breaking down the structure of what you’d normally hear on ocarinas, which is folksy.
FOX:This was all written for the instruments that Susan Rockliffe built.
COPPOLA:But it is ocarinas, right?
Fox:Yes, she makes all this up on pre-Columbian designs and I borrowed some, used one on some film of yours.
SHUMAKER: Define ocarinas.
FOX:A kind of flute. Like what the little kid was playing in “Once Upon a Time in America.” It’s a whistle, basically. She built something, say, the size of a basketball, and the flute would have three columns.
COPPOLA:I was experimenting with things like kalimba in Jim Fox’s class where I’d use kalimba with electronic music, mic it funny, slow it down. The other thing I did based on Barney was to take a rubber surgical glove and put little pin holes in and blew it up and made sounds with each finger, and wrote strictly timed music based on that. Another thing I did was put a board up with a net and had different kind of glasses and threw glass as hard as I could to shatter in rhythm to whatever I wrote. So a lot of that experimentalism that came from one aspect of Barney was to try things. The other thing he always said was to write what sounds good to you, which is a little different.
The thing I never could do, and I tried but I couldn’t get a grasp on, was, he said, to try to write two voices simultaneously in different styles (not necessarily tempo or rhythm). So that they had their own linguistics. I kept asking “what does that mean? Should I have a quarter note 20 on top, and something like quarter note 80 on the bottom, and then write long tones?” And he said, “no, no, no.” And I never got it, but I tried. So that was this big experiment for me. What would you do if he asked you to do that?
FOX:I don’t know. He would try to find something he liked in a person’s work and then ask “how can I throw a curveball at them?”
COPPOLA:I think that was what he was trying to do because I liked to write counterpoint a lot. I like instruments moving in lines and voices, and I didn’t look at it as harmonics; I looked at is as voices with differences as they went through. So maybe he was thinking that I was too on the nose.
FOX:Yeah; that would be the kind of thing he would do with that, because he didn’t have a set thing that he would do with every student.
COPPOLA:What I would do was tie notes over. If it was in 4/4, then I’d use a half note and carry over a quarter note half (quarter note dot) so it would break the actual bar. So I thought if I did that constantly and shaped it around so that the other one was always in the bar, was that two voices? And he said “no, no!” God!
FOX:One way you could do that, I suppose, would be to have one voice free without any rhythm.
COPPOLA:I did that, with my first piece I wrote; maybe that’s what he wanted me to go back to. Anyway, that was Barney. It’s a gem to have some memories of him.
FOX:There is a piece of Barney’s that’s quite sublime and that’s “The 37th Psalm;” it’s a solo piano piece that has this, again, beautiful text coming in to add poignancy at the end. I can only paraphrase: the pianist stops, and they just look up and they say, “When we look up at the stars they seem so cold and distant but, were we to be there we would be immediately incinerated.” It’s just this lovely moment, and that’s what ends the piece, a poetic moment—he was trained as a poet.
SHUMAKER: In 1981. Cold Blue Records go back that far?
FOX:Yes, then I was out of business from about 1984 to 2000.
SHUMAKER: [to Coppola]: back to what you were saying about your experimentation . This is going to be one of those pretentious scholarly questions. In linguistics you have two types of sound … you have the phoneme, the basic unit of sound: “mmm,” “arrr,” and then you have the morpheme, which is the minimal amount of sound you need to communicate a meaning. I would say with the type of music we’re talking about here, the contemporary post-modern, would you say that there’s sort of a minimal element you need to have meaning? Can just simply a note with a particular timbre have meaning in it?
FOX:The problem is with the word “meaning.”
COPPOLA:To add to that: between LA art and San Francisco art, SF art doesn’t really do much for me, as a type of “everybody doing the same thing”. For example there was a piece of art everybody raved about which was a paper plate with some dogs on it under glass, saying “life.” I’m like, this sucks, this is terrible! Big deal; I couldn’t care less. Some contemporary music is like that. To me, that doesn’t have what you’re talking about: that one little extra component that might get me there and want to know more about it. So there is that aspect of it. Like Jim says, sometimes people submit stuff and sometimes you’re being nice but you just don’t like, it’s bad. To answer your question in a very broad sense I think that kind of stuff can exist in contemporary music as well; that’s just a gimmick. There’s a definite idea that is rich and it builds to a place that you wouldn’t expect.
SHUMAKER: Let me ask it this way: as a musical communicator, what is the minimal amount you can communicate with?
FOX:You see, I think communicate, again, is such a loaded word. Because what that implies is music is a language like our spoken language that has “A means A” or “B means B” or that it translates that way. That’s like saying every time there’s a minor chord you’d say “oh, I’m so sad!” which brings me around to a funny autobiography about his time in Hollywood that Andre Previn wrote called “No Minor Chords,” that title comes from one of the studio executives that he worked with, they heard the opening of some film and the producer was horrified and said “what is that?” A D Minor chord. “No more minor chords!” and so they put a sign up in the music department saying “no minor chords.”
Links to music clips
5. Not freely available, legally: can be downloaded on iTunes.
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