Black Water   CB0037

The music

Fox’s music is usually noted for its quietude and ambling pace. In the mid-1980s, however, he drifted from these defining stylistic penchants for a couple of years, penning music that often bounced along, energetically and loudly, at a good clip. His clangerous Black Water, from 1984, is rich with dense, sometimes shimmering, sometimes rumbling tremolos and loudly struck chords covering the full range of the piano, set off by brief moments of quiet, twinkling serenity. The composer writes, “Black Water, for three pianos, was composed during a 1984 stay at the Dorland Mountain Arts Colony and premiered at the New Music America festival the following year. (It takes its title from an Alberto Manguel–edited anthology of short stories I was reading at the time.) The piece uses various simple processes (some audible, some not so obvious) to construct a churning eddy of ever-changing/ever-returning sound. Black Water, in company with a few other somewhat loud and boisterous pieces of mine from the same mid-eighties period, formed a momentary departure from the generally lean, quiet music I’m known for. A half-dozen or so years ago, I decided to revisit some of my pieces from this period and record studio versions of them, starting with Black Water. All three piano parts for this work were recorded by Bryan Pezzone.” —Jim Fox

Black Water is a real torrent—always moving forward. It’s very exciting to be taken up by its tide.” —Richard Friedman, Music from Other Minds (KALW, San Francisco)

The composer

Jim Fox’s usually quiet, slow, lyrical, and unassuming music has been performed throughout the US and in Europe and used in a few films. Described by critics as “austere” and “ethereal” (The Wire), as well as “sensuous” and “suffused with a beautiful sadness” (Fanfare), his work has been recorded on the Cold Blue, innova, CRI, Advance, Grenadilla, Raptoria Caam, and Citadel labels. Fox is director of the Cold Blue Music record label in Venice, California. (

“Jim Fox is a singular composer. His music is deep sparkling, ecstatic, and breathtaking.” —John Luther Adams

“Phenomenally beautiful…[Fox’s music] is slow and moody, containing few events, though it is not without a certain pulsing energy. It is also written for some pretty odd combinations of instruments.… Were Fox a grim Eastern European patriarch who had suffered under Communism, like Arvo Pärt or Alfred Schnittke, musical pundits would listen and exclaim, ‘How soulful!’ But Americans are never quite allowed to get away with such depth of expression achieved through simple, clear means.” —Kyle Gann, Chamber Music magazine

The performer

Bryan Pezzone is an active Los Angeles pianist who specializes in film soundtracks and contemporary music. He has worked with many noted conductors—Pierre Boulez, Oliver Knussen, John Adams, Esa-Pekka Salonen, and Kent Nagano—and performed as a soloist with major orchestras. From 1991 through 1999, he was principal pianist with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. He has performed regularly at the Monday Evening Concerts, the Green Umbrella Series, the Southwest Chamber Music Series, and the Ojai Festival. He has also performed with the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group, the Joffrey Ballet, and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and has toured with the jazz group Free Flight. He was the founder of the multi-focused keyboard program at CalArts, where he taught from 1987 through 2000, and has been responsible for recording much of Yamaha’s Disklavier Piano Series. He has been a featured performer on more than 100 feature film scores and may be heard performing new music on recordings on the Cold Blue, Mode, Tzadik, Varèse Sarabande, Decca, and Nonesuch labels. (All-Music Guide’s Pezzone credits:


“Those familiar with the music of Jim Fox will find Black Water to be outside of the quiet, introspective style normally associated with the composer…. Black Water begins with an extended trill setting an energetic pace that builds with each successive wave of notes. There is a sense of strong, fluid motion that is slightly out of control—like a running sea in the dark. The notes roil around each of the piano parts, building in intensity and then setting off again without quite discharging the tension. At 3:30 it suddenly becomes spare and quiet; only a few piano notes dripping from the higher registers but with a swirling undercurrent below, like a river gathering its strength in a quiet stretch. The flow soon picks up again and breaks into another swift-flowing torrent of sound. Black Water proceeds in this fashion—strong surges interspersed with quieter sections—but always with a sense of movement in the lower registers. This is exciting music, carrying the listener along in unexpected directions. Black Water could be describing one of our Southern California rain storms—sometimes a blinding downpour and yet with patches of clear sky where just a few raindrops are falling. The contrast between the turbulent and quieter sections of this piece evoke a force of nature, especially in the last two minutes, which boil like the race of water in a flooded canyon. The final crashing chord hangs in the air, slowly dissipating, to provide a fitting end to this high-powered work. [Pianist] Bryan Pezzone has done a fine job here.”—Paul H, Muller, Sequenza21

“Cold Blue’s release of Jim Fox’s Black Water as a CD single allows listener attention to cleanly focus on his 18-minute work for three pianos (each part covered here by Bryan Pezzone). Borrowing its title from a collection of short stories Fox was reading at the time of its composition, the work tracks a nearly relentless shimmering movement that explores the full range of the keyboard. When the lines do linger a bit in a particular area of tranquility, the mood easily turns reflective, but the bulk of Pezzone’s work across the three piano parts keeps ears pulled forward, the notes a school of silvery fish rapidly outpacing any ominous predators floating in the shadows…. Bonus points: Where thoughtfully curated collections are fascinating, hodgepodge albums with no clear through-line often frustrate my listening enjoyment. I found that this singular presentation significantly strengthened my engagement with the work and easily encouraged repeat listens.”—Molly Sheridan, NewMusicBox

Black Water is a dramatic, intense piece in which quasi-tremolando textures form an important element. Harmonies and pedal tones are sustained in this way, as is the feeling of substance and a kind of heroic minimalist romanticism which is both forceful and impressively compelling at the same time…. Everyone will have their own associative words for summing up a work like this. I suppose mine would be ‘symphonic’ and ‘cinematic’, the music having an extrovertly theatrical feel which should appeal to multi-piano performers such as Jeroen van Veen. Black Water is a striking and effective piece which stimulates and deserves repeated hearing.”—Dominy Clements, MusicWeb Int’l

Black Water was likely not designed to make you play air piano, but the eighteen-minute piece has that effect…. With a tonal range that spans octaves, you might think the piece was designed to be played by an octopus, until you find out it was written for three piano parts—all played on this 2006 recording (newly released on CD) by Bryan Pezzone. Composed in 1984, Black Water is a more energetic work than those in the rest of Fox’s repertoire, commencing as it does with a gorgeous, bird-like, two-note trill in the upper register, which soon gets washed away by torrents of dark chord clusters from the lower depths. Liquid metaphors soon become hard to resist, so just go with the flow and let yourself get swept away by this piece’s relentless current. Spoiler alert: Black Water memorably ends with a solid minute of a single dissonant chord followed by a full forty-five seconds of unresolved sustain that will make you want to crank up the speakers to soak in every last moment of its bittersweet brilliance. Pump that air-piano fist in the air and claim victory over the vast, uncaring sea. —Jonathan Bunce, Musicworks

“Jim Fox’s Black Water starts out…up-tempo and filled with joy—despite the title.… [It] is a pretty strong piece, louder than some of his more recent music—this was composed in 1984. Its four parts are equally strong and minimal, but separated by three interludes which are dark water at night, flowing from one majestic lake into the next. It’s minimal, but parts return and are overlaid with each other, and form ripples in the water, caused by the falling of black rain perhaps. Yet it all doesn’t sound as dark as this might suggest. It’s not joyful for sure, but powerful, present music. Excellent work, and could have easily lasted thirty minutes instead, and very sadly doesn’t.”—Frans de Waard, Vital Weekly

Black Water is a turmoil, a crowning wave of harmonic variations that doesn’t let go.”— François Couture, Monsieur Délire’s Listening Diary

“The work is from 1984, fairly early in Maestro Fox’s body of work, but inimitable nonetheless. The score calls for three pianos, ably played via overdubbing by Bryan Pezzone. It’s a shimmering, undulating work with multiple tremeloes and emphatic chordal periodicities building together and evolving to create harmonic-motor movement. There is a flowing yet dense layering throughout that suggests water in motion. The music exhilarates and engulfs the senses in a very satisfying way. And it does so with originality and ambient drive. It is a work better heard than described for its all-over dramatic poeticism…. And it has a singularity that’s well worth experiencing.”—Grego Edwards, Gapplegate Classical-Modern Music Review

“The three pianos here sparkle, shimmer, and shift, moving in waves that are connected in different ways…. Altogether it makes for a swirling, stimulating, mass of shifting currents.”—Downtown Music Gallery Newsletter

“Like water, the piece is always in motion, a collection of currents that is ever-changing and restless, pulsating and effortlessly kinetic, occasionally slowing to a gentler pace, but nonetheless evoking those same feelings within the listener, shifting moods and perspective as it proceeds. It encircles the listener with warmth and coolness at various junctures along its path, sometimes concurrently, continuing forward with relentless effervescence. Its only shortcoming, if there must be one, is its relatively short length—this piece could easily go forward for an additional half hour and remain interesting throughout its duration. That said, Black Water remains a brilliant and energized slice of contemporary classical music.” —Peter Thelan, Exposé

Black Water is a work for three pianos dating from 1984. The pianist, Bryan Pezzone, performs it in the studio via multi-tracking. It begins with a trumpeting tremolo, and the mood, throughout most of the work, is assertive and even abstractly heroic, although there are more reflective sections as well. Fox calls it ‘a churning eddy of ever-changing/ever-returning sound.’ The work’s title suggests something liquid, but the title comes from an eponymous collection of stories that Fox was reading at the time and otherwise doesn’t seem to have much to do with the music. To me, Black Water suggests not just trumpets but bells, which, as Edgar Allan Poe wrote, are associated with a variety of emotional states and circumstances. Fox’s Black Water is abstract and open-ended enough to allow the listener to interpret its tintinnabulations in just about any way that he or she likes. Pezzone swaggers his way through its wrist-breaking difficulties like a boss, as kids these days might say.”—Raymond Tuttle, Fanfare magazine

“Listeners conversant with Fox’s discography might come to his latest release expecting it to be restrained and slow, but Black Water, composed in 1984, shows a different side of the composer. Boisterous and aggressive, the eighteen-minute work (for three pianos) is realized by the Los Angeles-based pianist Bryan Pezzone, whose three overlaid parts account for the work’s density. The title in this case comes from the Alberto Manguel-edited anthology of short stories that was published at about the same time and serves as an apt metaphor for the churning flow relentlessly pressing forward throughout the piece. In the louder passages, shimmering tremolos act as a rock-hard foundation strong enough to withstand the chords aggressively striking against it, while the quieter sections that offer a welcome respite from the clangorous intensity are dotted with twinkling trills. The density of the material is felt throughout, though never more so than during the closing minutes when the piano rolls in the background begin to resemble a rather volcanic mass. A natural, single-movement piece for the concert hall, Black Water is also a brilliant, roller-coaster ride that’s rendered remarkably by Pezzone in a bravura performance.”—Textura

“An 18-minute piece from 1984 that Fox decided to revisit and record a few years ago, now released as a CD single. Bryan Pezzone plays all the parts: three superjacent tracks, right away eliciting chains of thoughts in regard to the Tchaikovsky-tinged magnitude of the louder sections, a slightly different expression for this composer in contrast with the reposeful work for which he’s renowned. The music, manifestly fascinating and for the most part quite intense, is comparable to heavy traffic on a three-lane highway; all types and sizes of vehicles and engines, diverse speeds, occasional risky behaviors in a resonant chordal mass whose dynamic wallop on the listener changes several times…. One must appreciate the dissonant qualities, the unsettling parallelisms, the near-bashing of the keyboard in various instances, the overall sense of continuity in spite of apparent intermissions (in truth, rather spasmodic activities occur under the surface of the quieter moments, also). The lingering sensation, for this writer, is that of a statement of freedom by a never-say-die virtuoso who’s sick and tired of reiterating the trite formulas associated with earlier composers worshiped by rigid-minded conductors and historians. Pezzone stands proud, hitting chords and churning out hypnotically scorching arpeggios with cultivated vehemence…. Incidentally: minutes after having enjoyed this, I went straight to Thelonious Monk’s Solo Monk (1964). The connection of these two antipodal piano gems spun consecutively yields fabulous results for your late night’s mood. Trust me.”—Massimo Ricci, Touching Extremes

“In comparison with the prevailing sound of Fox’s other pieces and other titles on the label, Black Water is pretty wild music. The piece was created in 1984 and is written for three pianos. In this recording, Bryan Pezzone plays all the parts via studio overdubbing. Due to the CD’s length of only eighteen minutes, it is like a single, but during that short time you will hear an above-average amount. Black Water is built on frenetic tremolo chords…. The chords are tuneful and the structure of the music changes gradually…. Although a basic rhythmic pulse is always present, Fox’s music smoothly softens and thickens again in protracted waves. This is a virtuoso piece. However, the speed of the fingers is not a goal but a means of hypnotizing the listener.” — His Voice (Czech Republic)

“The initial octave tremolo puts one in mind of the first movement of Mahler’s Second, a relevant comparison: Fox’s 18:05 single movement alternates stormy and serene. Fox’s language isn’t late 20th-century Austro-Germanic, even if he looks towards Romantic epics. The title is borrowed from Alberto Manguel’s anthology of “fantastic literature.” We hear stretched minimalist gestures along with grand pianistic cascades. Dissonance is softened by widely spaced intervals. Subtle reversals occur along the way: Treble tremolos migrate into the bass and deep octaves become high bell tones. Multi-tracking permits Pezzone to play all three piano parts.” — Grant Chu Covell, La Folia

“Driven alternately by furious staccato passages, strident chords and assertive arpeggios with the occasional oasis of restraint (‘tranquility’ doesn’t cut it), [Black Water] is an energetic whirlwind of a piece that captures and holds the attention.” —Roger Thomas, Int’l Record Review