Interview with Jim Fox from January 2005 issue of 21st Century Music

"Foxy Composer-Producer" by Mark Alburger

Composer Jim Fox runs Cold Blue Music Recordings in Southern California. I caught up with him recently via phone.

FOX: Sorry that I couldn’t make our earlier phone dates. I’ve been in and out of the recording studio all week.

ALBURGER: What were you up to there?

FOX: Working on a recording of mine for the Ants label. The CD will be made up of two pieces: in the same river, a 40-minute primarily solo piano piece from ’81, which will share the disc with an even earlier piece of mine—Drawn with a very fine camel-hair brush--for fifteen untrained voices, small chimes, and tape. Ants Records is an interesting and successful little Italian company. When it started, it released only music by Italian composers, but now it has branched out to an international roster. Over the past couple of years, Ants’ owner/director Giovanni Antognozzi, who also runs the Silenzio new music distribution service, has put out about 20 records, which is the productivity fast lane. With Cold Blue, I'm lucky to get four to six CDs out per year.

ALBURGER: When did you start Cold Blue?

FOX: In the early ’80s, at a time when I found myself involved with organizing and participating in a number of Los Angeles new-music concert ventures: The biggest one I put together was a two-day/12-hour/12-composer mini-fest—with each composer presenting an hour of music. In that context, I suppose starting a record label isn’t overly strange. However, since money was very tight then—I clerked in a bookstore and subsisted on Top Ramen—it was an impractical idea if not a strange one.

Cold Blue released ten discs and then went belly up in ’85, when my two primary distributors went out of business. I suspect that the loss of the great one-of-a-kind New Music Distribution Service was a severe blow to many small labels. The mid ’80s was also the dawn of CDs—and I didn’t even own a CD player. Switching to CD production and trying to keep the company afloat without distributors was an unattractive proposition. So, I let Cold Blue drift into oblivion.

Skipping ahead to 2000, I found myself dissatisfied with a contract I received from a record company that was going to release a CD of my music. I felt that the contract was considerably lacking in artist-friendliness. Since we—new music labels and composers alike—usually are not in a high-stakes game, i.e., raking in riches with this music, the labels that populate this world should at least make a good attempt to be as artist-friendly as possible.

So, I passed on the contract and phoned some composers and asked, "If Cold Blue was revived, would you care to be onboard?" Of those I initially spoke with, all were very enthusiastic. So Cold Blue came back into being in December of that year, releasing all new material, not reissues of the records from the ’80s, which I let slowly reappear a couple of years later.

ALBURGER: What about the reissues?

FOX: In the spring of ’02, I reissued 1984’s popular Cold Blue anthology, which contained the music of thirteen composers, including Chas Smith, Michael Byron, Daniel Lentz, James Tenney, Peter Garland, Michael Jon Fink, Ingram Marshall, Harold Budd, Rick Cox, me, and others. And I added a lovely David Mahler "bonus track" to the CD.

The seven 10-inch discs that originally were produced in 1982-83--music by Lentz, Garland, Cox, Read Miller, Barney Childs, Fink, and Smith--I reissued as a three-CD boxed set simply entitled The Complete 10-Inch Series from Cold Blue in the fall of 2003.

ALBUEGER: What about the name Cold Blue?

FOX: Honestly, I don't remember where the name came from. I’ve used it since the mid ’70s as the name of my BMI publishing company.

ALBURGER: I started my interview with Mike Fink saying that he and I should provide what Cold Blue tends to lack—program notes. And then I turn to your Last Things CD, and there’s all sorts of copy!

FOX: Those notes, written by Chris Hobbs, Carl Stone, Wadada Leo Smith, and Dan Lentz exist solely because that CD was supposed to be issued, as mentioned above, on another label—and that other label wanted notes. As I prepared to put out the CD on Cold Blue, I felt that if the folk who wrote the notes were kind enough to do so, I should not toss the notes, so they became part of the Last Things package.

And notes are not completely foreign to Cold Blue’s other CDs: Byron’s first CD had notes by Richard Teitlebaum, Larry Polansky’s four-voice canons CD had notes explaining the basics of mensuration canons, and the 3-CD set had notes by WNYC’s New Sounds producer John Schaefer and relevant quotations from other sources.

I’m not completely blind to the issue of notes. I know that reviewers and radio show hosts usually want and often need background info on composers, performers, and the music itself. They need this info to help them do their job. So, reviewers and radio folk who receive promo copies of Cold Blue’s releases all receive extensive supplementary notes. And, should a record purchaser desperately need to know some of this info, it all also appears on Cold Blue’s Website []. But, basically, I want to encourage those who pick up the CDs to listen to the music without the burden of too many preconceptions and pigeonholes.

ALBURGER: When and where were you born?

FOX: Indianapolis, 1953.

ALBURGER: How did you meet Mike Fink?

FOX: I met him in Redlands, California; where we both studied with Barney Childs in the late ’70s.

I met Barney in Chicago in ’74. He and I began corresponding after that, and a year or so later, I came out here. Barney was an absolutely wonderful friend to me when I got out to California, and he remained a close friend until his death. He was a completely interesting guy and an interesting composer too. He had been a Rhodes Scholar in English Literature. He had edited poetry reviews and taught poetry. He had been Dean of Deep Springs College. After a largely self-taught background in composition, he studied at Tanglewood with Copland and Chavez. He wrote all sorts of music, though he’s most often associated with his chance-based and improv-based experimental things. He loved teaching. He loved cigars and bourbon.

ALBURGER: Initially, you studied in the Midwest?

FOX: Yes. After high school, I floated about for a couple of years at Butler University, which was just down the street from my house, as an undeclared major, taking whatever courses caught my fancy at the moment. I had started writing music—or at least very roughly hacking away at it—toward the end of high school.

Since I wasn’t an actual music student at the university, I would have to sneak, i.e., lie, my way onto student concerts there. At one such event, I had an eclectic little four-movement string quartet performed. After that, the music school dean suggested that I should leave.

ALBURGER: That's off to a good start as the rebellious composer!

FOX: Oh, it wasn't like that, although that would’ve made a much better story here. The powers that be actually liked the quartet a great deal. They suggested that I should leave because they couldn't offer much in he way of composition training; they didn’t have a full-time composer on the faculty at that time.

Anxious to get out of Indianapolis, I decided that I should head off to the bright lights of Chicago to try my luck as a music student, so I interviewed with composition teachers at Northwestern, DePaul, and a couple for the small conservatories there. I hit it off with DePaul’s primary composition teacher, Phil Winsor, so I finished my undergraduate work in music there.

ALBURGER: Your musical background previous to this was...?

FOX: Varied and haphazard: I played violin as a little kid, but got tired of getting razzed on the playground, so I got a very cheap guitar. Its pick guard was painted on and its strings were an inch above the frets. It was nearly impossible to play, so that pursuit didn’t last long. Then I took piano lessons for a couple of years with the nuns at my grade school. This was certainly less than enlightening and inspiring. But by seventh grade, I found myself playing rock-‘n’-roll organ in various unsuccessful and deafening bands and, a little later, piano in blues bands.

In one of the blues bands, we had a string bass player who was very odd and always extremely high—this was the late ’60s. He knew a bit about what was happening in ’60s jazz. He played a recording of Pharoah Sanders for me, and it just blew my mind, so I immediately threw myself into listening to Sanders, Ayler, Shepp, and a list of others too long to start into here

Around this same time, a high school chum, who also was always very high, introduced me to European contemporary concert music, particularly the Penderecki, Ligeti, and Stockhausen stuff on DGG and RCA’s "The New Music" series and the Odyssey "Music of Our Time" series with such American composers as Maxfield, Oliveros, Ashley, and Lucier. I believe that the Nonesuch series of new music recordings was also just coming alive at that time. Well, this music also blew my mind. At the time, it seemed absolutely vibrant. This was, of course still the late ’60s and early ’70s—the tail end of the experimental-music explosion that ripped through classical, jazz, and pop spheres and often blurred the traditional boundary lines that separated them.

I haunted record shops, buying discs by Cage and Feldman and Carter and Penderecki and Ayler and innumerable others. My immersion in these soon became an oddly skewed education in itself, as I acquainted myself with whatever I could find in the way of recorded music of living composers. In Indianapolis, we had nothing but traditional concert music and traditional jazz performances. So, you see, recordings have always been very important to me.

I also haunted local libraries, which weren’t so pitifully maintained back then as they are now, checking out whatever 20th-century scores they had, Stravinsky ballets and such, and whatever theory books were around, including the rather weird ones, such as the Schillinger set. I also read Cage’s Silence. I came upon Source Magazine, jam-packed with wonderfully strange scores, many of them by West Coast composers. I also came across the various publications from Experimental Music Catalogue in England, which included scores by Parsons, Cardew, Bryars, Hobbs, White, et al. Both Source and the EMC booklets had a wealth of scores that proposed non-traditional ways of making concert music--conceptual scores, graphic scores, prose scores, minimalist scores, music utilizing homemade instruments… A friend had a copy of the book of scores edited by La Monte Young and Jackson Mac Low, An Anthology, so I also had some familiarity with early pieces by Young and Nam-June Paik, Yoko Ono, Terry Jennings, and many others, particularly those associated with the Fluxus movement.

Through new music recordings and whatever I could dig up in the way of books and scores, I was somewhat oddly though broadly self-educated in composition and new-music concepts. So I came to my composition teachers with a rather strong self-motivation, and a focused though flexible idea of where I wanted to take my music, and a certain understanding of what was going on or immediately had been going on. And, basically, my teachers were kind enough to support what I chose to pursue compositionally.

ALBURGER: What did your music sound like early on.

FOX: At the very, very beginning, it was an absolutely silly hash of Bartok and Penderecki and Carter and god knows who or what else. Awful stuff! For the most part, it was traditionally notated, but I did pen an early choral work that included coughing and muttering and glottal strokes. This was around 1971-72.

In Chicago, my music became a more focused or perhaps more recognizably mine. My instrumental and my electronic/tape pieces at this point were often textural, sometimes structurally laid out on graph paper before being rendered into somewhat traditional music notation. I worked with free time, with repetition, and dabbled with graphic notation and verbal scores. By ’75, I had an early voice of sorts—it was music that was generally quiet and slow with either a textural or a slightly pointillistic sense to it. Some of it was diatonic and some was freely atonal. I couldn’t say that it was a direct offshoot of any one strong influence. It was simply something I arrived at as an amalgam of the many composers and many types of music I had been listening to over the preceding years, mixed with scores I’d been looking at and books I’d read, all filtered through my general take on things--my sense of what I wanted to hear at the moment.

ALBURGER: What was your reaction to moving from the Midwest to California.

FOX: Delight and shock. Redlands, which is basically a desert oasis, seemed a very odd environment after the damp green of Indiana and Illinois. I arrived in Redlands in middle of the summer, a season that doesn’t provide the kindest introduction to the place. It threw oven-baking heat in my face. And it was terribly smoggy, because L.A.’s particle-filled air blows out there and gets caught in a pocket formed by the mountains that roughly enclose the town on three sides.

But, I got to like the desert climate and perhaps understand it a bit. A desert retreat that I visited twice and I enjoyed very much was the Dorland Mountain Colony, which was in a desert area east of Temecula, California. It homesteaded in the 1910s, I believe, by Mrs. Dorland, a former concert pianist and friend of Bartok, and her husband, a math or science professor at USC. The couple built adobe structures and planted some oaks. After her husband’s death, some of Mrs. Dorland’s former piano students banded together to set aside the area surrounding her home as a nature preserve on which a small artist colony was built.

The colony was lively: snakes, deer, fox, and countless jackrabbits. I enjoyed getting up to hike at dawn, so I could watch the fox and deer and rabbits before they disappeared during the heat of the day—which could be over 100 degrees.

Tragically, this lovely desert getaway burned down in a one of the many large brush fires that swept Southern California a little over a year ago--right after the release of my The City the Wind Swept Away, which was written during my first stay there.

ALBURGER: After your studies at Redlands you didn't stick around the local environs.

FOX: I fled to L.A., where I lived in Hollywood in an $85-a-month apartment. A good number of years later, I drifted a bit west of there to Culver City. Then further west to Venice, where I am now, and where the air is as good as it gets in this town. And where, until some recent extreme overdevelopement in the adjoining Marina del Rey, there was also some sense of space.

ALBURGER: Did you immediately involve yourself in the L.A. new music community?

FOX: When I got to L.A. in ’77, I sort of kept my ears open to what was going on. But, you know, I didn’t find much that really excited me. The prevailing non-straight-ahead composer collective, the Independent Composers Association (ICA), was too sprawling or unfocused for me, and I’ve never been a gung-ho joiner of anything. So, I thought, why not do a series of concerts of my own devising, which would have just the music I liked? So, with the help of Fink and a few others, I did concerts that included my music with somewhat simpatico composers and friends Fink, Cox, Smith, Lentz, and others.

ALBURGER: How did you meet all these folk, for instance, Harold Budd?

FOX: I met Harold soon after I got out here—through Barney [Childs], one of his close friends. I knew some of Harold’s early work through Source Magazine and some of his 1970s work through Peter Garland’s Soundings—the great periodical-like series of volumes of scores that was published for perhaps 10 years. Peter published a lot of Budd.

I met Rick [Cox] when he came out to Redlands from Milwaukee, where he had studied with Barney at the Wisconsin College Conservatory. He came out to visit Barney and he stayed in California. Marty Walker was associated with Redlands as a student of new-music clarinetist Philip Rehfeldt. Chas Smith I met through Michael Fink, whom we talked about a bit earlier.

At Redlands and for a year after my time there, I had a little improv group that included Cox and Walker and some others, including drummer and poet Read Miller. It wasn’t a bad little group, and we put out an lp on the Advance label in ’78 or ’79. We combined a very vaguely new-jazz sensibility with some rather lovely textures.

I knew Garland though his Soundings Press. I had corresponded with him shortly after getting to California, and later met him face-to-face when I was in Maine in the late seventies. I was attending that Bennington composers thing and very quickly—within minutes!—found that I had no interest in what any of the other composers there were doing. After one evening of listening to that crowd chat, I hightailed it for the liquor store. I spent another day there, sufficiently numbed with booze, then I cut out to visit Garland.

And other Cold Blue folk just seemed to wander into my life one way or another. Many Cold Bluers had roots at CalArts including Fink, Smith, Garland, Michael Byron, John Luther Adams, who interviewed me on his old radio show in the early ’80s, before we got together in the Cold Blue way. Others, including Polansky and Peters, I met through correspondence or at a New Music America event or some other similar thing.

ALBURGER: With respect to what you and your Cold Blue associates do as composers, some have heard in the work a "West Coast Sound."

FOX: Well, environment and music are often seen as interrelated, and often may be interrelated. However, with Cold Blue, I simply put out what I like--I don't see the point in doing otherwise.

ALBURGER: I liked what Daniel Lentz said about your CD Last Things: "This is music that sounds like it was made in California--not the California of celluloid freeway madness, but rather that California of cool northern beaches or the Mojave Desert as seen in the stark intimacy of Joshua Tree or even the remembered despair of the landscape around Donner Pass." In the piece The Copy of the Drawing on that same CD, the barely heard voice at times reminds me of the seductive one in Lentz's Song(s) of the Sirens.

FOX: I’ve really enjoyed that piece of Dan’s since I first heard it 25-plus years ago.

The voice in The Copy… , Janyce Collins, whispers very short excerpts from a collection of letters sent to the Mt. Wilson Observatory in the 1930s. The collection was edited into a book by Sarah Simons and published by the Museum of Jurassic Technology. The letters, which aren’t written by scientists, just "regular folk," though perhaps not always "stable" folk, come from Australia and America and elsewhere and contain wild and sometimes mesmerizing cosmological and theological and philosophical and scientific theories, along with some personal stories. I didn't want to set the letters directly but, rather, distill some sort of abstract essence from them, so I sliced them up into a series of cut-up poems, which I used in the piece.

ALBURGER: Is Cold Blue doing well now?

FOX: Not too badly. I'm making more money from my day job now than I did 20 years ago. And roughly a third of what I make has been going into the company--which I suppose makes me a madman or an idiot! And I’ve gotten some Copland funding and other funding.

Chas Smith's music is kinda popular. He's an interesting guy, the person who would be handy to have around if you’re in a party that’s marooned on an uncharted island. If he can conceive of something, he can make it. For the past year, he’s been constructing and helping design a massive installation that has three large rooms that mechanically move about for artist Paul McCarthy, with whom he’s worked for years. He has built an impressive machine shop in his backyard, next to the very professional multi-room recording studio that he built years ago. And when I say "built," I mean he did absolutely everything except pour the concrete slabs that it sits on. He also builds his own pedal steel guitars out of titanium, and, of course, designs and constructs the enormous sculptural objects that he uses as instruments. Besides his new-music activities, he regularly plays with country-western bands.

ALBURGER: Do you ever record at Chas’s?

FOX: I recorded there a number of years ago, but now it’s set up to primarily accommodate his own work, and only his own music comes from there. I record at other places, such as Architecture, a studio run by Scott Fraser, a top-flight engineer and musician who has wonderful ears. His studio, which is in the Mt. Washington area of L.A., southwest of Pasadena, has become so popular with local musicians that it’s often very hard to book anymore.

ALBURGER: On the do-it-yourself lines, I notice that you often provide the photography for Cold Blue albums.

FOX: I slowly eased into doing the design work and some of the photography for the Cold Blue packages. At first, I was shy about it, so I had someone else do the first few CDs. But I found myself standing over the designer’s shoulder, breathing down his neck with very specific thoughts, thus, it wasn't too much fun for him. So I took it up and really enjoy it, and now I do all the Cold Blue art. And this sort of thing is oddly enough becoming a tiny cottage industry for me. I've photographed and designed two packages for New World Records, and start another for them in a month. For their Jim Tenney Postal Pieces CD, I drove around out in scrub-desert communities all day photographing mailboxes until I found the right one. I’ve also done a couple Capstone designs and am currently finishing one for Mode Records.

As a photographer, I only do very limited, easy stuff. I use a lot of found images that I may adjust, such as tint or digitally paint black and white shots. I buy photos on eBay or at yard sales--large random lots, which often include family photos of Little Bess and Fluffy the Dog--all dead now, I guess, and here I am buying their pictures. So there’s a rather spooky aspect to it. A particularly wonderful source of pictures that I’ve exploited recently is the Center for Land Use Interpretation (CLUI) in L.A., which is right next to the mesmerizing Museum of Jurassic Technology on Venice Boulevard. CLUI has been very kind in letting me go through their photo collection and in granting me permission to use their shots.

ALBURGER: We're kindred spirits. I've done posters, production, whatever. I love the found element in art, too. And, of course, both of us seem to be "do it yourself" people.

FOX: Absolutely kindred spirits! I've certainly have admired your 21st-Century Music magazine, particularly for its coverage of West Coast music.

ALBURGER: And we're both hanging on pretty much due to our own limited financing. Talk me out of it, but I'm finally intending to make good on the name New Music Publications and Recordings. I've been publishing for years, but it's time to start doing CDs.

FOX: You're going into CDs? Great!

Concerts are nice, but obviously they’re not the prime way music is heard and enjoyed and absorbed anymore. This is true regardless of the sort of music one might be interested in. And it’s a global phenomenon.

In the little, incestuous world of new music, who comes to concerts? The other composers. But who buys recordings or listens to eclectic radio programs? Lot's of people, not just other composers, thank god!.

ALBURGER: You’ve been, over the years, seemingly promoting your colleagues' music over your own.

FOX: I don’t have difficulty promoting music I like, mine or someone else’s. But, while I can say, "Joe’s music is more important than the invention of the wheel and, if the post is open, he’s well suited for the position of god!" I’d feel a bit strange saying that about myself. So, yes, I tend not to trumpet my own work as much as I perhaps should.