Pandemic Reflections: Robin Fox, Francesco Serra

Sunday 3 April 2022

The pandemic’s legacy of space and contemplation lingers in the most social of artforms, even as things are just starting to open up around me. Francesco Serra’s Guest Room is a triptych made from empty space, vacancies that seem to offer nothing more than pure resonance. The apparent purity of floating harmonics is deceptive and false, as with the serenity of a depopulated landscape; in each successive iteration, Serra reveals more of how the evenness of sound is eerie and disturbed. Using a month-long residency in Teatro San Leonardo in Bologna, by then closed to the public, he arranged microphones beneath the vault of the church’s nave to record the echoes of his electric guitar off the walls and ceiling. The diffuse clouds of sound are hard to discern as guitar-like; the notes also mention the presence of snare drums, which you suppose are there for high-end resonance until the third part hits with dramatic force.

I haven’t really discussed Robin Fox’s music here, despite admiring it for many years and having played on the same bill as him several times. Fox’s special way with vintage synthesiser and electronics was frequently married to a visual component, keying his music to oscilloscopic light projections or to dance performance. For the former case in particular, the integrity of the concept required music of relatively simple sounds and gestures to be most effective, to the point that considering audio recordings of many of his compositions seemed to be an exercise in bad faith. The two parts (in fact, separate but related pieces) of Threnody To Now are a different matter. Recorded alone in the studio during lockdown, using a modern modular synth, each is a focused, meditative activity in clear, direct tones and gestures. The two parts clear an internal space, with the repeated harmonic movements moving beyond frustration into equanimity. Too restless and hard-edged to be a New Age sop, it gives you the real deal instead, quietening the mind through considered action. It’s a concise study of the effectiveness of Fox’s deceptively minimal musical language.