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Jim Fox - Descansos, Past

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Artist: Jim Fox

Album: Descansos, Past

Label: Cold Blue

Review date: May. 5, 2005

Southern California-based composer Jim Fox is known for works that tend toward the enigmatic and moody while retaining an arresting pellucidity and lyrical grace. Descansos, Past, a 15-minute-long composition for pizzicato double bass solo and a “choir” of bowed cellos, fulfills the alluring tonal possibilities inherent in such an ensemble, and also manages to unfold within a gently narrative arc that is unusual in contemporary composition .

Descansos are a part of Latino culture in the Southwestern U.S. Roadside shrines made up of crosses, flowers, everyday objects, and painted words, they mark with honest and heart-felt expression the actual geographical places of sudden, accidental death. Indeed, the word descansos itself implies an interrupted journey. In the light and shadow of such a concept, it should come as no surprise that this work is elegiac; written in memory of John Kuhlman, a fellow composer and friend of Fox.

The work begins with a quiet lushness, the bass murmuring gently with a single repeated note while the strings rise slowly to a warm, lyrical, chordal melody. Soon, however, the bass and cellos begin a sort of question and answer; the bass restless and rumbling, questing; the cellos, arrayed to exploit their full range – from mellow low notes to highest harmonic-induced haze – offering a sort of balm. Near the halfway point, the double bass takes over, with a rhythmic, troubled -yet-gentle cadenza that is, in its calm passion, reminiscent of one of Jimmy Garrison’s solos with the John Coltrane Quartet. When the string choir returns, things have turned around: the bass now seems serene, the cellos sing with a new dissonance.

The end of the piece is starkly beautiful. Once more the bass rumbles alone, but with a resonance almost like slow-motion bells. Then, a hushed and consonant answer from the bowed strings that sounds like an arrival – a penitent and graceful melody in dignified harmonies that hints at the resigned gravity of a late Beethoven Quartet. And then the piece ends abruptly; the journey is interrupted.

Comparisons might be made to works for similar ensembles by Arvo Part and Gavin Bryars. And the dark tonal colors here are similar to those to be found in, for example, Part’s Cantus In Memory Of Benjamin Brittenor Bryars’ By The Vaar. But Descansos, Past has a sense of openness all its own, with moments of silence at its interstices, letting in both space and light.

By Kevin Macneil Brown

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