In 2014, the renowned English composer, writer and academic Christopher Fox was commissioned to compose a new piece for the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra. Shortly afterwards, he was contacted by the orchestra's esteemed conductor, Ilan Volkov, who suggested adding an improvisation to the piece. Although initially skeptical, Fox soon realized that the difference between composition and improvisation could be the foundation of the music. He eloquently explains, "I wanted the orchestral music to become a landscape within which the improvisers could play, rather like when we walk in the mountains... each time it will be different for us, but the mountains don't change." The resultant piece, "Topophony", was first premiered at the 2015 Tectonics Festival in Glasgow, with harpist Rhodri Davies as the improvising soloist.
The three versions of "Topophony" which comprise this album were recorded in Köln by the WDR Symphony Orchestra, also conducted by Volkov; a January 2016 version had trumpeter Axel Dörner and drummer Paul Lovens as soloists, while two versions were recorded in May 2017, one without soloists and the second with saxophonist John Butcher and Thomas Lehn on synthesizer as soloists. Based on the soloists employed so far, it seems Fox and Volkov decided to opt for first-rate improvisers to play in the piece, but not soloists of any particular instruments. Together, the three contrasting versions here are an ideal way to listen to "Topophony" and appreciate its intentions. Hearing them one after another never feels repetitious but, in Rashomon style, provides triangulated viewpoints which give listeners a fuller, richer picture of the piece.
"Topophony II", the version without improvisers, shows the piece to be serenely beautiful, built up from layers of slowly-evolving, meditative sound which combine into a beguiling landscape clearly designed with improvisers in mind; the magic of the piece is that it works equally well with or without improvisers. The two versions with improvisers reinforce that point. The composition is not a concerto with designated slots for the improvisers to play in. Instead, they have no instructions except that they should start playing after the orchestra's music has begun and finish before it ends. As a result, the improvised music does not sound awkwardly bolted-on, but becomes a natural, integrated part of the piece; credit for that should go to all concerned. Topophony is sure to appeal equally to followers of contemporary composition and of improv. Along the way, it will doubtless make converts from one camp into the other. A major achievement which deserves to be performed frequently.
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