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An Interview with Jim Fox of Cold Blue Music

In anticipation of the upcoming Tuesdays at Monk Space concert tomorrow night, I sat down with composer Jim Fox, founder of the Cold Blue Music record label. The concert will feature music by Fox, as well as John Luther Adams, Stephen Whittington, and Peter Garland, with performances by Eclipse Quartet, clarinetist Phil O’Connor, and percussionist Jonathan Hepfer.

You’re the founder and director of the Cold Blue Music record label — can you tell us about how it all got started? 

I started Cold Blue in the early 1980s. Why I started it is not clear anymore. Perhaps it wasn’t even clear at the time. (I’m not sure I’ve ever needed much in the way of particularly well-defined goals. In other words, I enjoy a certain amount of wandering.)

In the late 1960s I developed an awareness of record labels—particularly jazz- and classical-based new-music labels—as often possessing fascinating individual personalities. So, perhaps in view of that, starting a little new-music record company just seemed like the right thing for me to do. However, I had little money to throw at such a venture then—working in a bookstore for a little better than minimum wage, living in a $120-per-month Hollywood apartment, and enjoying a diet that relied heavily on 15-cent packets of ramen noodles.

Cold Blue in the 1980s was a frugal label. I started by releasing a series of 10-inch EPs (about 20 to 25 minutes per release)—a format that I felt allowed an inexpensive taste of a composer’s work—followed by a few LPs.

At its inception (and still today), my general vague intention was simple: put out some music that I particularly liked that wasn’t otherwise reaching a broad listenership. This was music by composers who were perhaps loosely united by a common interest in music’s basic sensuality and, as it just turned out, very often had strong links to the West Coast. Soon Cold Blue became known as an outlet for a certain stripe of West Coast music. Joan La Barbara, writing in High Fidelity/Musical America, deemed the label “an invaluable resource for what might be called the new ‘California School’ . . . a label with a particular viewpoint and consummate good taste.” And others also noticed the highly curated sound of the label—an LA Weeklycritic wrote at the time that “The label defines a certain ‘Southern California sound,’ uncluttered, evocative and unusual, with a wistful emotional edge.”

Composer Jim Fox

After just a few years of Cold Blue’s existence, its two primary distributors went out of business; and with the then-new and then-expensive CD technology (in which I didn’t have much interest at the time) starting to bloom, it seemed like a good moment for Cold Blue to close up shop as well. And that’s what I did.

Following 15 years of inactivity, I brought the label back to life in December 2000. (Don’t ask me why. Again, I don’t have a clear answer for that question.) As this reincarnated Cold Blue began to get CDs out into the world I was delighted to find out how many listeners and musicians and critics remembered the label fondly and cheered its rebirth. Since then, I’ve put out 54 discs, including a three-CD boxed set and, in homage to the old vinyl EPs, a number of CD EPs. And at the moment I have a half-dozen forthcoming releases in the works.

This music, while still heavily West Coast in its leanings, includes music from east of the Rockies as well as Australia and Europe. At the same time, some of the composers championed in the 1980s—such as Daniel Lentz, Peter Garland, Michael Jon Fink, and a few others—have continued to find a home at Cold Blue. And some who first appeared on the label in the early 2000s—such as John Luther Adams—have continued to consider it a home for current and future releases.

I tend to have a rather hands-on presence on most of the recordings, working closely with the composers to pick and sequence the works for each album and then actually producing or co-producing most of the music in the studio. I’ve even designed almost all of the CD packages. Without that sort of top-to-bottom hands-on intimacy, a little company like this would run the risk of turning into a dreary business. (So I wander on in that vein.)

How has Cold Blue Music evolved over time, and what do you envision for the future?

It has evolved. (Everything evolves, I suppose.) But I’d have a very hard time defining Cold Blue’s evolution in concrete musical or aesthetic terms. At the same time, people who’ve followed the label since day one often say that they sense something akin to a through-line that embraces all of the label’s offerings. And I, too, can sense a sort of through-line that seems to unconsciously unite the releases. That I suppose is the definition of a noticeably curated label that at the same time does not have an explicit agenda.

On Tuesday, your piece Between the Wheels will be featured as part of the program, performed by clarinetist Phil O’Conner and Eclipse Quartet. Can you tell us a little about this piece? 

It was written in 1992 for clarinetist Marty Walker and the Amelite Consortium, a chamber ensemble run by violinist/violist/composer Maria Newman. It’s a quiet—perhaps even fragile—piece in which simple bits of music tend to reappear and recombine in various ways.

I usually don’t program my own music on Cold Blue events, because it seems self-indulgent. But after I had hired the always wonderful Eclipse Quartet to play the Adams and Whittington works, I realized that I needed a bit more music to fill out one half of the concert. So I tossed in Between the Wheels—a piece that was already in the Eclipse’s repertoire (they had performed it with Marty Walker some years back).

Is there anything you’d like to share about the other works on the program?

I’ve enjoyed long friendships with composers Peter Garland (since the late ’70s) and John Luther Adams (since the mid ’80s), and I love the music that they each write. They’ve each had music on seven Cold Blue releases. I’ve known Stephen Whittington, an Australian composer whose music I also regard very highly, for perhaps a half-dozen years. His work appears on two Cold Blue CDs.

Adams’s eerily beautiful string quartet untouched (from which the final movement, “Falling,” will be performed at Monk Space) was written two years ago, and this concert will mark its LA premiere. It is one of the pieces that John has written for the JACK Quartet in which the players’ fingers never touch their fingerboards—all the notes are natural harmonics or open strings. A technically challenging piece, it will be recorded this summer for a Cold Blue release next winter.

Whittington’s entrancing string quartet Windmill is an unusual tone-painting—the music inspired by the sounds of old metal windmills (the sort commonly found on farms) listlessly turning and halting and turning again in the wind. As these sounds occur and pause and reoccur, one finds oneself drawn deeply into the piece’s hypnotic soundworld. Cold Blue released a recording of Windmill last year.

Written in the winter of 2016, Garland’s hushed, pensive six-movement Moon Viewing Music (Inscrutable Stillness Studies #1) is scored for a small grouping of low Thai-style gongs and a large tam-tam. Each of its movements is based on a short poem or haiku about the moon. As the composer notes about moon viewing, “If autumn is the moonlight of nostalgia, winter is the moonlight of . . . an inscrutable stillness.” Cold Blue released a recording of this piece, performed by new-music percussionist William Winant, in February of this year.

Check out Tuesdays at Monk Space for more information on the concert tomorrow night and to get tickets.

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