In this piece, I am trying to pull together thoughts and reflections on John Foxx magnum opus, the three album series ‘Cathedral Oceans’. I am fortunate enough to know the music well as I have opportunity to experience it in the setting of a magnificent Victorian church, the kind of vast space for which the music was created. This enables both large scale projection inside and onto the building, and playing the music through event-quality sound systems
John Foxx (2003):
This is intended as a slow moving, contemplative piece. The intention is to examine the possibilities of large scale projected work incorporating slowly changing visual surfaces and music. Both Sonic and visual components have evolved from the same conceptual frame. This is concerned with promoting a reflective state of mind in the viewer. It is also concerned literally with echoes, reflection and reverberation, both in memory and in the physical making of the images and music. The music is intended to work within large architectural spaces, using the longest possible delays and echoes to determine its rhythmic and harmonic structure. The images are made from layered and merged photographic material derived from many eras which shifts and dissolves constantly, producing a gently hallucinogenic surface. The piece is intended to operate at an opposite pole to most media, which seem to be accelerating in pace. Its appearance can be described as a digital, secular moving stained glass window…
It will take many years until we become familiar with this work and get an understanding of its significance. Like a city, we will visit many times, often returning to familiar passages and districts from the same point of entry. Most often it seems this will be in autumn, and we establish a truth around this, finding seasonal connections and atmospheres around change, transition and recollections. But looking back through notebooks and diaries, we see also that there have been many visits in spring time, when colours are new and bright, or at the height of a verdant, warm summer when the air sits heavy. Occasionally and sometimes we will explore somewhere new. Take a different turning or cross a different street.
Sometimes we will be alone, to walk among memories and rekindle emotions. Other times we will seek old friends and stand among them in places that remain unchanged. Perhaps we will seem them in the market or a coffee shop, remarking that somehow its different now. But we will always return.
This incredible suite of music has a beguiling sense of place. It has a physical presence, though indistinct and barely tangible. We think we know it, but parts of it remain hidden and others scare us and we don’t want to go there. We will sit among its sweeping phrases, movements and symphony, remembering. We will not recall most of it at all and notice different things every time, and yet we will assure ourselves that it is familiar and we know where we are. Memories will be evoked, enjoyed and discarded. We know the landscape, the bigger picture – it’s the detail that evades and never quite comes into focus. But as we sit and listen and engage, they becoming crystal clear for moments, as if they have always been there and we have somehow overlooked them. Little details among the composition will suddenly stand out like architectural features or photographs, subtle and beautiful, adding to the whole. Yet with an enchanting, individual beauty of their own.beauty of their own. We will trace them gently with our fingers and wonder about them, then look up and out again at the surroundings, as if we want to share.
“Look, hear. See this – have you noticed it before? How charming it is.”
Cathedral Oceans is most often described as music for a vast, submerged cathedral and we have come to associate it with crumbing walls, grandeur and greenery. Overgrown and overlooked. Pastoral, somehow rural and perhaps even ‘English’. There are trees, leafy lanes. Rain and romance. Yet it is equally urban, its mood and evocation suggesting a labyrinthine city, sweeping highways and skyline high rise. A place to get lost. Is it enclosed, or open? Are we looking out over a vista, or up from the bottom of the sea. Is that smoke, or clouds? People, birds and fish become one. An imagined reality fused with fiction and truth. Trees and tower blocks. The forest is a factory.
Autumn beholds spring and summer. We will grow older and then young again, spending time with earlier versions of lovers and ourselves.
The true secret of its identity and situation – an thus of our own – lies hidden among all these things, and it will never be quite the same whenever we come. And we will never quite know how to get here – we will just arrive. Like a memory. As we age, they become a more integral part of our present, invoked unforeseen. It will always be a place of tranquillity among chaos, an arrangement of moments threaded together in intricate generous patterns of longing. Instances of quiet splendour and intense complexity among a broader, expansive release.
To appreciate the fabric and the craftsmanship of its weave, we must take time to sit, and just to be. To let the music and space embrace us, and drift away on its tides. We must wear the suit for many years, becoming whoever we are when we put it on. Wondering and wandering. Engaging with the slowness of time.
Longing, breathing and quiet…
What follows is a few descriptive thoughts evoked by each track, and my attempt to differentiate between the individual pieces. Though best experienced as a whole – or at least each full album – there are of course intricate, subtle and essential characters in each piece, making the whole greater than the sum of its parts.
Some are instrumental, some fuse the synths with choral harmonic voices. None have ‘lyrics’ as such, but parts may be recognisable as re-purposed Latin, extracts from the Catholic mass and medieval ‘chant’.
The first movement opens with a scene-setting instrumental, a gentle introduction of rising, light synthesised string washes reminiscent of pastoral, classical musical.
We have come to some kind of vast church or cathedral. It rises before us, resplendent and huge. There are steps, and columns, and we gaze upwards at the ancient architecture rising from the vegetation at its base.
There is a pair of iron gates across some kind of overgrown path. One is closed, entangled and rusted; the other hangs loose, fallen and open…
City As Memory
Exploring all the above themes: people, places, experience and identity. This piece evokes an internal space, as if we have walked into a huge, dark hall. Why is it dark? A treated, layered and spectral voice reverberates off the walls, filling the space with echo. Imposing.
Contains scenes of mild threat and uncertainty.
Through Summer Rooms
Altogether lighter, gently. We are seated now, having brushed some dead leaves off a dusty bench overlooking a pond. It used to be a bath, and there are marble steps going down into the silent water. The vocal is more affirmational and re-assuring than the last piece, it has more air and seems to be rising from the water below us. There is a graceful elegance about the single voice. Devotional and calming.
There is also a faint whirring, and an image flickers onto the wall opposite, as if it were projected. It is unclear, half-formed. A woman?
Geometry And Coincidence
Simply structured notes that call our attention to something. That glimpse, that half-imagined film. Was it there before? Focus. Past times returning. A bell tolls repeatedly in a distant cloister. What IS that? There is a suggestion of something specific, precise. A corridor lined with identical doors. We listen more closely too, as if something is about to appear but the Latin is still just a little too blurred and unclear. It is as if the voice is now communicating with us directly, rather than part of the ambience. The harder we try to remember, the more distant and evasive the memory becomes.
Here, and Gone.
Our mood darkens for a moment, and we are now alone with a familiar longing. The voice has gone, and this passage is an instrumental reprise of the opening sequence. An interlude, as if we have looked up from the bench to a high, broken window through which filtered sunlight falls on the flagstones. By lifting our gaze and feeling a gentle breeze in the air, we become aware of the fondness and affection of someone we know. Her fingers are cool, and we take her fragile hand.
Refreshing and splendid.
The longest piece on the album. Built around a repeating melody that is at once comforting. We are walking and talking with her, dancing in an empty ballroom under a mirrorball. A Man and A Woman. There is rhythm, and in its arms we can just ‘be’. Introspective and beautiful. Lost for a moment. Adrift in 1983.
The camera switches to a panorama of the sweeping city outside. We do not even know it is there and think only that the lights we sometimes see at night are stars. Dance with me…
Every time we start there is an ending.
The music wanders off, the voice lingers. Isolated for a second.
She is gone.
Sombre. Mournful. Which way did she go? and where did we come into this place?
Tearful and anguished by a sudden, wrenching sadness. The voice is ours.
Infinite In All Directions
In our meanderings and despair, we have come to a balcony and stand now overlooking an immense, unfathomable vastness. Watching the world turning round below us.
Endless horizons. Endless possibilities.
Each of them as unlikely as the next.
And just as wonderful.
Focusing again. A close-up. The first reference in the landscape to a point of entry – a tangible place that we recognise. The voice is lighter, affirming and re-assured. We are perhaps less of a stranger here than we thought, and by returning to each familiar place we build a clearer picture of somewhere we have always been.
A place in Preston, leading from the Harris Art School. 1965.
There is a sense that we will be Leaving soon.
We feel empty because she is gone, but full and alive because she has been.
The voice is singing to us now, waving.
Coda and summation.
Forgotten chapters revisited. Things we always meant to do, down that passage overlooked. This is the shadow we thought we saw briefly on that wall, and all that Might Have Been. Strong, choral harmonics rising to fill the space.
One of those things that lies behind one of those doors that we never open.
Looking out from the heath across the City of Endless Lights. Everything is falling back gently into some kind of order. There is a voice, but it is wrapped in swathes and resonance. Woven into the fabric of the suit among the glimmer and washes. Gently focused and reflective. Organise, re-arrange and consider.
Sequencing events and memories.
Mapping the city.
There is birdsong. It is dawn.
We’ve been standing in The Garden.
CATHEDRAL OCEANS II
The longest album in the trilogy, and the only one still yet to be awarded an independent release. It also remains the only Cathedral Oceans that has no visual accompaniment – the two commercially available DVDs (both titled ‘Cathedral Oceans’) feature music from Cathedral Oceans (2003 release) and Cathedral Oceans III (first released in 2006).
At the time of its release, in June 2003 as part of a 2-CD set with a re-issue of its predecessor (re-titled Cathedral Oceans I), it would be fair to say that Cathedral Oceans II was ‘significantly overlooked’. Commercially, the package (on Edsel) was completely overtaken by the high-profile awarded to John Foxx third (and most anticipated) collaboration with Louis Gordon, the highly-charged electroclash of Crash and Burn. Further shadows were cast by the eventual appearance of Foxx long-awaited collaboration with Harold Budd six weeks later and all the radio and media interest in the Crash and Burn tour that began in September.
But the long shadows of a summer afternoon, cast by walls, pillars and overgrown statues make a perfect environment for Cathedral Oceans and sitting in the empty places behind the news headlines is the best place to appreciate its textures and subtlety.
And for those, like me, eagerly looking forward to the second chapter in the story of the ‘moving-stained glass window’, the release was warmly welcomed and intensely enjoyed.
How could it possibly be as good as the first?
Where will Foxx’s pastoral Catholicism take us from here?
More abstract perhaps. Significantly darker and, in places, noticeably less harmonious.
More challenging, more intense. Less accessible? The same, but different…
An introductory passage that is just that – looped recordings of a dawn chorus, spinning gently around the field recording of a Blackbird. As I understand it, this too is Foxx own composition, not a ‘soundtrack’ extract. Authenticity. A pastoral symphony that is at once quintessentially ‘English’.
Echoing the closure of Invisible Architecture, the subconscious framework our senses build upon which we layer our emotions and experience.
The repeated voice of the the thrush segues seamlessly into what is essentially a drone piece, a wash of extended synthesised notes. A rising and falling tide of sounds. No phrasing, no melody. No apparent structure at all. Two vocal channels, laid one over the other and again. Recollecting the visuals, the ever-changing multilayered artwork we cannot see. Two choruses singing to each other from opposite sides of some cavernous amphitheatre. Call and response. A Medieval sing-off.
Far And Wide 2
Is there a Far And Wide (1) hiding on a tape somewhere? The titling teases us, posing another question among those presented by this deepest and darkest of pieces. Sadness prevails, on an immeasurable scale. Filmic and forbidding. We are standing among clouds, or is it dust, or misty vegetation – bearing witness to the rising of enormous towers.
We gaze upwards. In Awe Of Industry.
Unsettling. Disturbing and provocative. Vocals drift in and out between the channels mysteriously. Slow and residual. Ghostly, spectral harmonics. We feel displaced, alone. Dislocated. There is someone lost here, grieving and incomplete.
A strong, defiant piece. Subversively creative.
Appropriated Latin. Forever undiminished, and coloured in the rich traditionally ancient hues of the Catholic mass in its various forms. There is a sense that somehow this is music of a higher order. Transcendant, and becoming harder to reach. More difficult to fathom and grasp. Less accessible, Mr Foxx?
We feel apart from the events unfolding around us now. Observers. The music behind the chant sounds like a Grand Organ, and we don’t quite know what to do or who to follow.
This is not what we have known.
Our confused state evokes huge bass notes that crash in of a sudden, seemingly uninvited. Interrupting and abrasive. Distracting, as if passing outside. The organ in the background sounds a long way off all off now, as if it has physically receded behind the vocals, allowing a space for these monsters to invade, and at once the sound becomes cacophonous and confusing. Volume, in the very physical sense.
Witness the most difficult and complex piece of the entire suite. Claustrophic and oppressive. We turn our heads around, trying to make sense of the confusion. And there it is. Within the noise and the apparent dischord there is a kind of rhythm.
The layers eventually synchronise and find a spectral harmony.
Or does it just make less sense than ever…?
The music that sweeps up behind the simpler vocal track now has an arboreal quality, and we are in a cathedral of trees. Majestic and splendid yes, but not as oaks. There are darker things here, ancient hardwoods, with vast trucks that reach unfathomably high and breath legends. Heavy and soporific.
Or are we underground? Nothing is clear in this dark mist. Swirling.
Do you here that whirring, buzzing noise? Wake up to the sound of engines.
Listening to the music that the trees make.
Luminous And Gone
Everything now takes even slower passage. Deeper and longer, as if the voices around us are coming from the stone itself. We are lost, and beginning to seek some relief from this claustrophobic situation. Wave upon wave of melancholy and longing, each echo slower and more extended than the one before.
We seek relief. No light falls through the windows, now overgrown and fallen. The air is thick and has a presence of its own.
The slower we travel, the sooner we’ll arrived.
Stillness And Wonder
As the next piece unfolds in further layers of sonorous pre-modernism, we become aware of the vaguest silence. Just for a moment. Distant massive, rumbling bass notes approach, each on a significant delay over 30 seconds. Between them, we can dare to breathe again, and there is space for ambient sounds to drift in from the listening environment around us.
There are cracks in the wall of this cavern after all, gaps between the stones. We can hear footsteps down the adjacent corridor to our right. A door slamming and a child’s laughter. Real birdsong. A robin, not a recording.
And there are no singers. But neither are there shorter pieces. No interludes.
The notes keep coming. And going. Let them come, be absorbed. Enveloped by texture and an invisible, un-begotten rhythm. A self existent eternal tide. Endless endless.
It stops. Is this the first track to ‘end’?
Return To A Place Of Remembered Beauty
Pay attention to the titles. The small, discoloured, hand-written labels that are barely legible in the half-light. Through this door is somewhere you have been before. Echoes of Pleasure. A shimmer in the dark when she called your name. Alone in the timeless dance…
We are, at least for seven minutes, recalling to mind those lighter pieces from the first album, where the strings are higher and clear, if they are still stretched over immeasurably vast distances. The singing has returned too, the half-language, the unfamiliar not-quite Latin. Security and hope.
Between the leafs of the canopy, the vaulted ceiling of the chancel is emergent and we scan between them aware of detail in the shadows. The Human Host around us is in full voice.
Unseen, but at least somewhere we feel he is here.
Visible & Invisible
Are we remembering, or not. Is this a memory, or a fantasy?
Never Been Here Before. Perhaps we saw it in a film…?
If it was a film, it would have to be one of those super 8mm tiny colour movies in that dusty American studio. That guy with all those reels. People waving. People we have never met.
The water is green, murky. It is hard to see her, swimming among the rusted automobiles…
For the first time since we stepped through that fallen iron gate, we are longing for this to be over and wish we had never come in. The way back is unclear, and do we have to swim? or fly? It would take years to walk, to retrace our steps, but we may suddenly step through a doorway and be there.
Here though, now there is more tension than tranquility.
A valediction. Affirmational and glorious.
It is significant that we do not quite know how we got here.
The voice has form, shape.
Words, of a kind, sung at the quickest pace we have been aware of for an hour.
Repeated phrases. Recognisable structure.
Pater, et Filius, et Spiritu Sanctus.
Every time we meet
There’s a Leaving…
CATHEDRAL OCEANS III
Exactly that. Sweeping and rising. Falling and breathing. Tidal and expansive. It’s breath fills this cavernous hall, immersive and calming. An endless looped of sea.
A gentle vocal comes in have way through as we near some kind of distant shore.
Through Gardens Overgrown
We have landed on an abandoned beach, unknown to time. Outdoors, and it feels like we are in a jungle. Every every seems uncertain. Until we stumble across fallen statuary, and recognise introduced plant species. Ghostly perfume, rose and hyacinth.
There is some complex palimpsestry going on here, complex layers of sound and a channel switching unique to this piece. Disorientating, but only half gathered. As if for a moment the composition staggered and tripped. Fragmented for a second.
Beautiful moths shimmer in the half-light and there is a moment of awkward silence.
Set in a ruined ampitheatre, a fallen hall open to the shifting sky. No vocal for 90 seconds or so, just quiet, delicate music floating above us. When the Latinesque, whispered voice returns, the definition seems to fade. It is insistent, urging, close and ethereally ‘present’ as if we should be able to see and almost touch the singer.
Scenes of mild discomfort follow, as if we are being asked to justify our presence here. Present our credentials to the spiritual guardian of the space.
Take my hand and let us watch the sky.
We move through a doorway into a long, empty corridor…
The Shadow Of A Woman’s Hand
still linger son the stairway. Dreaming and cool. She swept along here many years ago, but her presence still lingers in the air. The same Parisienne fragrance. The voice in the wall is clear, as if emanating from the moulding portraits. We can almost make out what they are trying to say. But not quite. It is as if we know there is a memory there, but we do not recognise it, and now is not the time. Perhaps it is a moment we have no wish to recollect. Haunting. Reminding…
The figure sings of longing times, of past and soft exchanges. As if things are being carefully, patiently explained in a language we do not yet understand
And then a strange, a sudden pause whereupon we turn a dark corner. Breathless for a moment we have come to a private antechamber that unsettles us further. Annex. Another time, another place.
Once I was walking alone, with a friend…
He sings of secrets in deeper tones, his voice an octave lower. Narrative, intense.
He turns away in light and sliver.
A unique moment of exquisite difference.
Lost in our meanderings, we have come again to that pool
A bath of motionless water, surrounded by marble and fringed with lillies.
Occasionally, bits of sound fall from overhead and land in the water.
She is sitting on the steps in a white dress, half submerged. The linen clings to her lower legs and her fingers hover gently above the surface. She cannot see us.
After such a sharp moment of clarity and focus, vocals merge once more with building music and all the edges become unclear again. Long delays. Nothing quite arrives, or ends. Moments past can linger through all our eternities. A melancholy drifts across a pane of scratched and tarnished glass. Thin, glistening streams of water have made a mossy course down some of the other windows.
Looking through, it becomes clear that this is not in fact stained glass as we first thought. Instead, through the glass, coloured lights are filtering in from a distant outside. A city. Neon and crisp, refracted into three. Four. Flickering, bright and luminous. Headlights, streetlights, advertising signs.
We think we know, and our fingers trace the balustrade, half-certain.
Forgotten names and blurred faces. Almost transparent. Photographs and leaf.
When we somehow return to the pool, a mist is forming above its surface. We can see shapes – buildings, horses. People dancing. Harmonics return off the stone wall and join the shapes. There are giant, graceful fish like underwater automobiles
A second drone piece, heavy texture and many indistinct layers. Thick, long and lingering.
Eventually there is again the half-remembered sound of a bell. Debussy’s drowned cathedral. Geometry? or Coincidence?
Affirmatory and splendid, recalling Golden Green from CO1. Familiar, like coming upon a face that we know in a crowd of strangers. But how so, when we have never been here before…?
In the mist, a large choir has gathered, dressed in white robes. They have parchment, with ancient words scribed upon, familiar words. Sanctus. Lumine. Joy to the world. There is music. Definable, organised music, played on an organ hidden somewhere behind one of the pillars. Out of sight. We are in some kind of coda…
Arms and voices are raised in praise and triumph. A kind of ‘worship’ of sorts. A hymn to the glory of wonder, perfectly placed at the close of this third album. There will be an encore of course, but this is presented here as an ending. The beginning of the end.
A point of departure.
City Of Endless Stairways
It is moonlight now. Late evening.
Someone, somewhere is playing a single violin andante, and the composer is conducting. An orchestra is revealed, and this becomes ‘something else’ – from cantanta to concerto. An interpretation of classical music from the spirit of electronica. An experimental fusion of liturgy and scored notation. Ancient and modern.
Samples. Phrases of Bach, of cello. There is a new direction here. Somewhere else to go.
An ocean of infinite possibilities
In Rising Light
And thus to early dawn. An atmosphere of calm descends, retrospective. Drawing us down and bidding us adieu.
I am still here
And I will wait for you
There is a hint of sadness and regret in his voice.
A last waltz in a dusty ballroom.
Move all you life to the rhythm of the pictures
And let regrets
Form a silhouette
Provocative and wistful. We are lost in ourselves and have become each other. Embracing and warm. Drifting.
Strange how moments last so long…
If Rising Light determines all that is Cathedral Oceans, drawing all the splendour together, then Metanym is the quintessential embodiment of all that is John Foxx.
A simply perfect instrumental that brings the circle just.
Soon it will be 1981, and birds will sing.
You were someone else then, in the glimmer and the glow.
The metadelic counterpoint of metal beat.
The Complete Complete Oceans (5-disc vinyl box with prints by John Foxx) is available from the official store