Descansos, past   CB0021

The music

Descansos, past, witten in April 2004 in memory of composer-performer John Kuhlman, who died a few years earlier, was premiered in Los Angeles (by the same musicians who are heard on the present CD), June 2004, as part of a series of concerts held at the historic Schindler House.

Descansos, past sets an ever-pizzicato double bass (a five-string, extending to low B), which is featured in a few solo sections, alongside a choir of nine ever-arco cellos, one of which soars up to the highest notes available on the edge of the instrument’s fingerboard. (Erika Duke-Kirkpatrick is the featured first cellist.) The piece’s nine cello parts were performed for this recording by four cellists who were overdubbed.

The composer

Jim Fox’s music has been commissioned and performed by ensembles and soloists throughout the US and presented at the Monday Evening Concerts, New Music America, the Ventura Chamber Music Festival, Real Art Ways, Wires, the SCREAM Festival, the CalArts Contemporary Music Festival, Podewil (Berlin), the Ear Inn, L.A.C.E., and many similar venues. He has also scored feature films.

His music, which has been described by critics as both “austere” and “sensuous,” has been recorded on the Cold Blue, CRI, Advance, Grenadilla, Raptoria Caam, and Citadel labels and published in such new music anthologies as Soundings and Scores

Composer-performer Wadada Leo Smith has noted, “One of the striking qualities of Jim Fox’s compositions is that you can still hear them inside you long after the music is over.” The Italian music magazine Blow Up chose Fox’s CD Last Things as a Record of the Year (2000). Fanfare magazine described this disc as “suffused with a beautiful sadness” and The Wire called it an “ethereal experience.” John Schaefer, producer of WNYC’s New Sounds, described Fox’s recent recording, The City the Wind Swept Away, as a “beautiful and evocative work.” And the Int’l Record Review wrote of The City…: “As we know from the music of Feldman, this kind of attentiveness to the integrity of slowly passing sound events can be a strangely moving experience. It is so here.”

The performers

Barry Newton performs regularly with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, and has performed with New Symphony West and the New York Philharmonic, playing under conductors Leonard Bernstein, John Mauceri, John Williams, and Boris Brott. Barry also plays with the CalArts New Century Players, the Indonesian gamelan group Bali and Beyond, Suzanne Teng’s world-music group Mystic Journey, and the experimental electronic improv group Kiss the Frog. Also a proficient jazz bassist, he has performed with Peter Erskine, Anthony Braxton, Buddy Childers, and the Dave Pell Octet. On the popular music scene, he has accompanied Yes, Chicago, The Moody Blues, Elton John, Brian Wilson, The Three Tenors, and Andrea Bocelli. He has appeared on many recordings, including Cold Blue CDs of music by Michael Byron and John Luther Adams.

Erika Duke-Kirkpatrick is a noted cellist who specializes in contemporary music. She has performed world and local premieres of solo and chamber works at such venues as the L.A. Olympic Festival, the Computer Music Festival in Zurich, the Ars Electronica Festival in Linz, the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival, the Tanglewood, Aspen, Ravinia, and Ojai festivals, and the San Francisco Symphony’s “New and Unusual Music” series. She recently recorded Elliott Carter’s Enchanted Preludes, a work written for her and flutist Dorothy Stone. Among the many other composers who have written works for her are Mel Powell, Alvin Lucier, Michael Jon Fink, and Morton Subotnick, with whom she has toured since 1981. She is a founding member of the California E.A.R. Unit (currently in residence at the LA County Museum of Art) with which she tours throughout the world. She is also solo cellist of the Santa Fe Pro Musica. Erika has recorded for the Nonesuch, Wergo, New Albion, Voyager, and Cold Blue labels.

Jessica Catron is a cellist who specializes in contemporary music. She has performed world and local premieres of solo and chamber works at such venues as the LA Philharmonic’s Green Umbrella concert series, Friday Nights at the Getty, the Los Angeles CEAIT Festival, the Big Sur Experimental Music Festival, the Festival International de Müsica Contemporánea (Bogota, Colombia), and the Sonic Boom Festival (Vancouver, BC). She has been an active part of the Deep Listening community, founded by composer Pauline Oliveros, and has performed in Oliveros’ Lunar Opera at Lincoln Center. Recent projects include work with Nels Cline’s Blue Mitt Ensemble, the Vinny Golia Large Ensemble, the Jose Roque Ensemble, and an improvising trio with Jeremy Drake and David Rothbaum. Her CD, five violoncello solos, is available from Experimental Musical Research.

Aniela Perry and Rachel Arnold are freelance cellists who work in the Los Angeles area, performing on studio dates and with local chamber groups.


“Jim Fox’s latest piece [Descansos, past] inhabits the same haunted soundscape as his 2004 release The City The Wind Swept Away—the unconventional scoring (pizzicato bass and nine bowed cellos) produces a sort of lush bleakness that evokes the windswept open spaces of the American West. Perhaps Descansos evokes the strange roadside memorials that gave Fox his title, but to these Eastern ears, it is reminiscent of the brooding lyricism of England’s Gavin Bryars. This is a music that seems to linger even after the recording itself has ended.” —John Schaefer, host of WNYC’s New Sounds

Easily the most beautiful thing I heard all week, Fox’s haunting memorial for his friend, composer/performer John Kuhlman (1954-1996), scored for four cellos and double bass is deep on so many levels. It’s featured on a CD-single offering only 15 minutes of music, but you won’t want to listen to anything for a while after you’ve heard this.” —Frank J. Oteri, NewMusicBox (American Music Center)

Descansos, past practices yet another kind of soft-grained, southern Californian austerity. Slow-moving and very simple, this harks back to the folky ennui of John Lurie’s soundtracks for string quartet, like his score for Stranger Than Paradise. The miking gives the solo strings almost orchestral presence, and the returning bass pizzicatos possibly hint at jazz. Descansos, past is harmonically driven, and so Fox’s style counts as the most obviously traditional of the three. But his piece ends in mid-sentence, emphasizing the fragmentary, quasi-improv character and showing that he—unlike so many composers nowadays—knows exactly when to stop.” —Arved Ashby, Gramophone

Descansos, past also deals with memory, but its sense of loss is sharper, more immediate.… this is a work of noble mourning; its mood is sombre and its heavy, halting ‘tread’ connotes funereal footfalls (in fact it was written in 2004 in memory of the musician John Kuhlman). Against a backdrop of bass pizzicatos, the cello choir intermittently intones slow homophonic phrases—fragments that one might hear as the remnants of some long-forgotten chorale. Thanks to playing that is warm toned, full-bodied and unerringly precise, the string textures glow darkly and their colors deepen the pervasive mood of dignified reflection and restraint.” —Christopher Ballantine, International Record Review

“Immediately appealing…a requiem-like piece for double bass (always plucked) and an ensemble of four cellos (always bowed), multiplied by overdubbing into a choir of nine. The plucked bass notes would suggest jazz were it not for their hypnotic obsessiveness, like the tolling of bells. The bowed cello chords reach from the instruments’ rich lower registers to their keening uppermost reaches. If Samuel Barber had been born a half century later as a forward-looking resident of the West Coast, his Adagio for Strings might have sounded a lot like Jim Fox’s Descansos, past.” —Raymond Tuttle, Classical.Net

“Jim Fox’s haunting Descansos, past is a single, 15-minute work scored for pizzicato double bass and nine bowed cellos.… The piece is reminiscent of a smaller-scale Górecki’s Third Symphony—the cellos continually shifting harmonic movement evokes clouds passing by or sand blowing in the desert. The result is sound that is somber without being morose—a haunting threnody, even if it is not billed as such.

“The performances are excellent all round. The cello ensemble’s playing and intonation are splendid throughout this piece, which has them using the entire range of their instrument, including some difficult fingerings and artificial harmonics. Bassist Barry Newton provides rock-solid underpinning for the cellists to play over. He tackles the bass solo passages with considerable artistry, and his execution of the double-stops and arpeggiated chords—some of which are technically taxing—is first-rate.… Descansos, past is well worth a listen.” —Chris Kosky, Double Bassist magazine

“Another beautiful release from the Cold Blue label…. The rich textures and dark moodiness of this piece envelope you in a full-body experience, the deep tones being felt on the skin at the same time as they are heard. Fox has achieved a wonderfully rich balance of instruments while at the same time maintaining good compositional cohesion throughout, succeeding in a combination of instruments that is far more challenging than would be expected. A wonderful and invigorating experience.” —Randy Raine-Reisch, Musicworks (Canada)

“Jim Fox’s piece Descansos, past (Cold Blue) is an utterly beautiful, aching work; a meditation on journey and loss, scored for cellos and solo double bass. Fox has a remarkable ability to balance darkness and light in his music; what seems at first a state of calm questioning might, as this work unfolds, open up the listener to a deeper sense of the awe and mystery at the heart of sound and thought. ” —Kevin Macneil Brown, “Back for More” (Kevin Macneil Brown’s six most memorable recordings of 2005), Dusted magazine

Descansos, past sounds like the sweetest dirge ever, where the pain for loss seems to be diluted in serene recollections.… the 15-minute composition develops around the dialogue of solemn, repetitive bass picking, and the driving power of the strings, literally lifting the piece to the sky. As with his previous EP, The City the Wind Swept Away, Fox has written some painfully emotional music, and I envy the sage outlook on living its suggests.” —Eugenio Maggi, Chain D.L.K. (Italy)

“Composed in memory of composer John Kuhlman, Fox’s haunting Descansos, past is performed by Barry Newton on double-bass and four cellists (performing nine parts), though the work’s tonal range finds the latter often sounding like a conventional string ensemble. Permeated by a tender sadness, the 15-minute elegy is reminiscent, not only in arrangement but in its meditative and pensive, even funereal, tone, of Gavin Bryars’ By the Vaar, his own double bass and strings composition (performed by Charlie Haden on Bryars’ Farewell to Philosophy); Newton is often featured solo and it’s during these moments that his pizzicato playing most recalls Haden’s, an association, however, that does nothing to diminish the poignancy of Fox’s piece.” —Ron Schepper, Signal to Noise (summer ’05) Textura (May ‘05)

Descanso, past majestically gives tribute to the memory of composer/performer John Kuhlman…. This is some really beautiful music. The pizzicato bass and the bowed cellos hold an intense dialog, the bass supporting the strings while they play sustained chords and melodies or the strings backing up the bass while he solos.” —David Beardsley, Downtown Music Gallery Newsletter

“The music is full of shattering stillness and stark beauty. What is evident is the sparkling warmth it evokes. The layers are presented gradually and, eventually, as the 15-minute piece comes to a close, you’re left with something that is left in your head. Its stillness is consuming and grand.” —Tom Sekowski, Gaz-Eta (Poland)

“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 US 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 Britten or 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.” —Kevin Macneil Brown, Dusted magazine

“Dedicated to the late composer/performer John Kuhlman, Descansos, past is a short composition for double bass and superimposed cellos that alternates a sense of poignant regret…with powerful playing by bassist Barry Newton, who at decent listening volume is able, through sheer timbral intensity, to solicit some serious glass shaking in the living room. Steering clear of sugary sentimentalism, Fox’s concise statements, performed superbly by cellists Erika Duke-Kirkpatrick, Jessica Catron, Aniela Perry and Rachel Arnold, describe a sober celebration whose orchestral flavor is enriched by rewarding aural poetry, like an inscription on a tombstone to be read with a faint smile instead of tear-stained eyes.”—Massimo Ricci, Paris Transatlantic

“It is a somber and moody piece, very similar at times to a classical elegy, and at other times, while not cheery or upbeat, the music heads into more minimal and sparse impressionistic territory so that the mood, while desolate, is not mournful or morbid. Regardless of the mood of the music at any one instance on the recording, the beauty of the cellos is self-evident, and Newton’s bass work is evocative and nuanced. As with the other Cold Blue Music EPs I’ve reviewed, engineering and production are sterling and the accompanying digipack artwork displays an eye for uncommon aesthetics. Covers of Cold Blue Music releases are, basically, true artwork and Descanos, past does not break from that tradition.

“Moving from solo double bass passages that are propelled by thumping notes that resonate with anger and grief at the loss of a loved one, the music can then shift into a sensitive quasi-adagio in which the massed cellos weave a delicate sad melody while the solitary bass anchors the emotion with sparse yet powerful plucked notes. Like the lonely and forlorn landscapes on the front and back of the CD case, the music contained within speaks of human emptiness and loss that sits beside the beauty and warmth of fond remembrance.… For gray-sky days and dark nights of the soul, Descanos, past will fill the emptiness in your soul with a sense that you are not alone in your pain. Highly recommended.” —Bill Binkelman, Wind and Wire

“‘Descanso’ is Spanish for ‘rest,’ ‘peace and quiet’ and those words give a rough description of the music on this CD single. Newton’s strong, stately bass supports and departs from the able cellos, and the whole adds up to austere beauty. This platter does suggest a place of calm, but the emotions connected with lamentation, penitence and sorrow are also in play here. A fine record is the result.” —Richard Grooms, The Improvisor

“A nice, intimate piece.”Vital Weekly (The Netherlands)

“A peculiar world, with eerie yet wondrous landscapes, as well as zones of atemporal solitude.”Amazing Sounds (Spain)

Descansos, past, for cello quartet and double bass, speaks a very slow romantic minimalist dialect, often with dark, moody harmonies. Despite its relentlessly subdued mood, low register and slow pace, it is creative enough to hold interest.” —American Record Guide

“Mysterious and delicately introspective…” —Peter Thelan, Exposé magazine

Thinking about the records I liked best in 2005, I can’t help but remember the handful that had something—a strange beauty, a sense of mystery, an enigmatic energy perhaps—that drew me in to listen again and again.… Jim Fox’s piece Descansos, past (Cold Blue) is an utterly beautiful, aching work; a meditation on journey and loss, scored for cellos and solo double bass. Fox has a remarkable ability to balance darkness and light in his music; what seems at first a state of calm questioning might, as this work unfolds, open up the listener to a deeper sense of the awe and mystery at the heart of sound and thought.” —Kevin Macneil Brown, Dusted magazine (from “Back for More,” KMB’s “most memorable recordings of 2005”)

“The best artists sometimes give you what you didn’t know you wanted because you never heard it like this. Jim Fox and his Descansos, past does that. It’s a fifteen-minute piece, a lament, an adagio for pizzicato contrabass and nine arco cellos. The contrabass comes through with some moody quasi-neo-post flamenco meditations that the nine cellos counter with excruciatingly beautiful but sad blocks of harmonic cloud. It goes back and forth between these poles, more or less, for the duration…. It is heartrendingly beautiful music, a dirge with a profound feeling of loss. Never has their been a more moving piece of such suchness. It is filled with living sound-memory. Ravishing chamber music! Listen to this one! —Gapplegate Classical-Modern Music Review