Selected reissues of ambient collaborations from the House of Foxx
The influence of Erik Satie surrounds these three CDs like a weather system and informs the work of everyone involved here. Satie is the grandaddy of ambient music. He was producing spacious and spare piano pieces in Paris around the end of the 19th to the early 20th century, which are remarkable not just for their beauty, but for how startlingly modern they still sound. They’ve even survived the indignity of being famous in the 1980s for soundtracking chocolate bar adverts.
Satie was an organiser of sound and called himself a “phonometrician” (measurer of sounds) rather than a musician. In 1911, he was described in a book about French composers as being a “clumsy but subtle technician”, which is about as perfect a description you could come up with for his late 20th and early 21st century acolytes, of which Foxx is certainly one.
Satie was a man ahead of his time. His manuscripts would sometimes have further instructions scrawled in red ink: “Light as an egg”, or “Work it out for yourself”; esoteric thought-bombs that would later seem not out of place in the art of Yoko Ono. Another note told the performer to repeat the piece 840 times, which would take about 19 hours if obeyed, something La Monte Young would later actually do with his mid-1960s ‘Dream House’ pieces in New York. Satie also wrote he only ate food that was white, while necking vast amount of red wine, reminiscent of David Bowie’s cocaine, milk and red peppers diet of his Thin White Duke phase.
Satie remained an outsider for most of his life, an eccentric outlier on the fringes of the mainstream while taking potshots at it. He published his own magazine, which was often a vehicle for regular slaggings of eminent music critics he didn’t like. He was, in many ways, a proto-art rocker; clever, thoughtful, playful and constantly looking to upset the status quo.
John Foxx first heard Satie in 1966. “I was at art school,” he says. “A girl I was in class with played ‘Gymnopédies’ on the lecture piano one afternoon. I remember the scene exactly – old Victorian art school, doors open to a long avenue of trees. River beyond. Summer glistening outside. I was very young and everything seemed magical and infinitely promising. Completely captivated in a moment of stillness and wonder. Everything followed from that single moment.”
Foxx describes himself as Harold Budd’s apprentice on these recordings, and what else can you do with a master of ambient piano like Harold Budd? It’s difficult to unpick the contributions each made to these lovely recordings (pianist Ruben Garcia was the junior partner of the trio, starting his recording career in the early 1990s) and there is no point. They each unfurl slowly, enveloping the atmosphere just as Satie did. If I had to pick a favourite, it might be the utterly gorgeous ‘Drift Music’ disc, but each of the three is a thing of beauty, their characters gradually revealing themselves on repeated listenings.
This is music that will last forever, ageless and metaphysical, an aural musical presence that somehow transfers a solitary memory of a British art school in the 1960s, and of Belle Époque Paris, directly into the listener’s consciousness. Quite an achievement.