A few years ago Scott Wilson asked me if I would be interested in creating something for BEAST. This was something of a surprise because I used to think of BEAST as a forum for a sort of music that I didn’t make. I have always been fascinated by electronic music (within which I, perhaps rather cheekily, include electroacoustic music, computer music, musique concrète and all the other musical genres that involve lots of circuitry) but I am probably better known as a composer of instrumental and vocal music. On the other hand, I have made quite a lot of music that does depend on electricity, so Scott’s invitation was both a surprise and an exciting creative challenge.
Quite quickly I realised that it might be possible to link the BEAST commission to the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. As a child of the 1960s the adventure of the USSR and USA’s space race – that extraordinary series of technical advances that went from a satellite launch in 1957 to men on the moon in 1969 – was an important part of my growing up and I wanted to revisit some of those ideas and images. I also discovered that NASA had put their entire audio archive from the Apollo missions on-line: not just the famous sequences in which Armstrong and Aldrin descended to the moon’s surface but hours and hours of radio static, occasionally interrupted with a brief verbal exchange checking the status of some bit of equipment
Around the same time I had two more requests: one from the clarinettist Heather Roche for a new piece for her duo with the accordionist Eva Zöllner, the other from the violinist Yael Barolsky who wanted a new work to be performed in the Ramon crater in the Negev Desert. For a day or two these were all the same project and then, like the lunar landing module Eagle splitting off from the Apollo 11 command module, they became two: On Tranquility for Eva and Heather, and A New Ocean for BEAST and the desert.
Things moved on. The desert crater performance A New Ocean was fixed for November 2019, the Acht Brücken festival in Cologne scheduled On Tranquility for May 2020 and BEAST booked Eva and Heather to play both pieces in their festival also in May 2020. As I wrote the music the character of each piece became ever more distinct: A New Ocean is a busy, collective endeavour, summoned into being by President Kennedy’s opening call to sail into the ‘new ocean’ of space; On Tranquility is more private, two musicians piloting their way across a soundscape of intermodulating sine-tones.
In November 2019 I made the trip to the desert. The photographs show the landscape and also Maayan Tsadka and I performing one of the Extra-Musical Activities from A New Ocean (they’re based on the Extra-Vehicular Activities of the Apollo missions: this one is called ‘Solar Wind’ and involves grains of sand being blown against a sheet of tinfoil with a hand fan). Out of shot, Yael Barolsky and five of Tel Aviv’s finest new music players played over a soundtrack combining sine-tones and waves of Apollo static and voices. It was a wonderful day – musicians and audience socialising, eating, performing in a vast empty landscape.Then, of course, everything changed and now we are making music in a virtual landscape. Initially I was devastated at losing the Birmingham and Cologne performances but the whole Apollo journey was conducted remotely – Houston to the command module, the command module to the Eagle – in both sound and pictures, so it’s not inappropriate that the performance you will hear of A New Ocean has been put together at a distance too. (Unfortunately we weren’t able to realise an online version of On Tranquility for the festival but do hope to present it in Birmingham in the future.) I am grateful to everyone involved for their time, their fantasy and their commitment.
Christopher Fox, April 2020