In this article from our Autumn 2018 Friends Newsletter, Kate Romano, a producer, clarinettist and writer, previously senior member of academic staff at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama, and currently the Artistic Director of Goldfield Productions, gives us an exclusive insight into her ‘Project Erika’. We’re absolutely thrilled to have released Erika Fox’s very first album.
‘Do you know the music of Erika Fox?’ Nicola LeFanu asked me. It was a November evening in 2016 and Nicola and I were eating late-night soup in director Carmen Jacobi’s kitchen in Cardiff, listening to Nicola’s ‘Inspiring Women in Music’ essay on BBC Radio 3. Nicola had mentioned Erika on air and I admitted I didn’t know her music at all. ‘You should’ she continued; ‘you’d like it’.
Back home, I googled. Nothing. I dug a little deeper and found a small listing of some works via the old Society for the Promotion of New Music (SPNM). Nicola passed on Erika’s contact details and out of sheer curiosity and impulsiveness I picked up the phone and rang Erika. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but the wonderfully sprightly, quick-witted, articulate and chatty voice on the line belied her 79 years. And Erika told me about herself.
She was born in Vienna in 1936 and came to England at the age of 3 as a war refugee. She loves theatre, literature, poetry and art. An avid concert-goer (she can often be found at the Wigmore Hall) she also craves solitude and composes at her cottage in Wales. She speaks with great regard and tenderness for her teacher, the late Jeremy Dale Roberts.
In the 1970s, Erika was actively involved with the Fires of London, the Nash Ensemble, Dartington and SPNM. Between 1974 and 1994 her works were regularly performed at Southbank Centre, major festivals and were regularly broadcast here and abroad. Her absolute masterpiece Shir which Nicola Losseff describes as ‘consumed with a fierce, internalised anger and passion, expressed in tightly-controlled climaxes which erupt into chant-like passages’ was featured on Channel 4 Television. Her puppet opera, The Bet, received over 100 performances following a premiere at the Purcell Room. Kaleidoscope won the 1983 Finzi Award and The Dancer Hotoke (chamber opera) was nominated for an Olivier Award. In 1990 Erika accompanied John Cage to Paris and Strasbourg and took part in his Europeras 1 and 2. Like many composers, she also taught, including a young Thomas Adès at the Guildhall School Junior Department.
And then, it all just seemed to stop.
I was puzzled and intrigued and most of all, keen to hear the music. But at this point, the only way to hear Erika’s music was to go round to her West London house and listen to it. So I did. After tea and cake (and more cake) and a lovely lunch we poured over large handwritten scores as Erika rummaged in boxes for archive recordings on CDs and cassettes taken from live concerts BBC Radio 3 sessions in the 1970s, 80s and 90s.
It is incredibly rare to stumble across a virtually unknown or forgotten composer whose music genuinely excites and delivers, piece after piece. Erika Fox’s language is bold, feisty, uncompromising and astonishingly fresh. Everything is tightly conceived – not one note is superfluous – in a total landscape of theatre, ritual and drama. A highly distinctive musical style emerges from a childhood suffused with music of Eastern European origin. Chassidic music, liturgical chant embellished with heterophony mingle with modal ancient melodic lines reminiscent of Eastern European folk music. She is a composer who is constantly energised by sound and its inexhaustible possibilities. I listened to her music with a growing thrill and sense of coming across a very important discovery. I loved it.
And so we fell into a trust and a friendship that lead quite naturally to what I affectionately refer to as ‘Project Erika’; an ambition and a strategy to bring her music back into the repertoire and to reach a new audience. To put it simply, I felt passionately that Erika’s music needed to be known.
I’m the Artistic Director of Goldfield Productions, a charitable organisation that supports composers of all ages and at all stages through commissions, touring work and adventurous collaborations. It’s a bespoke concept tailored to the needs (career and artistry) of composers who we feel would benefit from and enjoy working with Goldfield’s brand of music production and presentation of new music. For Erika, her greatest wish was for a lasting legacy of her music and so a recording was needed.
Firstly, people needed to be able to have access to this extraordinary music. I left Erika’s house with a selection of her live recordings (in some cases, the only existing copy) and gave them to my friend and colleague Rob Godman for a little bit of cleaning up. Rob put them on a private soundcloud page – the first step of Erika’s digital footprint.
I then talked to NMC about Erika and was met with warm support for the idea of a album. It would feature six of her chamber works; a selection of pieces that Erika is most proud of and felt were a good representation of her output. There are challenges; the enormous percussion line-up (one player, yet symphonic in scope) is both exhilarating and a tricky logistic issue. Pouring over the huge percussion shopping list, I tentatively asked Erika if there was any option of reducing the number of instruments for practical reasons. She went back to her scores, thought about it and came back to me within 24 hours. No, she said. The percussion is integral to everything. And she is absolutely right. Percussion is often at the centre of her language in a physical, musical and ritualistic sense. The composer part of me silently reprimanded the producer part of me.
We built Erika a website scrabbling around (literally – not online) for old photos, newspaper clippings, reviews, interviews, repertoire lists. Erika has worked tirelessly to bring this material to us and I couldn’t wish for a better collaborator. Nicola LeFanu curated and hosted a concert for Erika’s 80th birthday at Burgh House, Hampstead, London, and her team of loyal friends started to put her name around once more. Fundraising for an album ensued and Erika is generously supported by PRS Foundation Composers’ Fund, RVW Trust, Ambache Trust and the Hinrichsen Foundation. I think that the 100% success rate for this funding strategy demonstrates the genuine enthusiasm and widely felt determination for Erika’s music to be heard again.
Why does fine music fall off our radar? Erika and I have talked about this at length: lack of a publisher, family commitments, opportunities closed to her due to age (she didn’t write her first ‘serious’ piece until she was 30). But mostly Erika will shrug and say ‘I just don’t know…’ Happily, the climate has never been better for an 81 year old female composer to make a comeback. And my own greatest hope is that this album will be the catalyst for Erika’s wider output to be programmed once again; those who can and do will not be disappointed.
If you'd like to receive our quarterly Friends Newsletter, you can become a Friend here (memberships start from £50). If you'd like to support our work with composers as well as our expanding Learning Programme, you can make a donation to our 30th Appeal here. Thank you!