It Is Two Weeks Since I Saw Eliane Radigue’s Naldjorlak Trilogy

Thursday 7 July 2011

Still thinking about it.

I’m pretty sure that everyone who’s familiar with Eliane Radigue and heard her recent music has remarked on the surprising change so late in her career. Unlike most late career changes, Radigue’s isn’t marked by a radically different sound. Her method of making music has undergone a radical transformation, abandoning her ARP 2500 synthesiser to write music for live performers on acoustic instruments. Incredibly, the sound-world of these new works is all of a piece with her earlier, purely electronic drones.

When I heard the premiere of Occam I a week earlier, I hoped I wouldn’t relegate it in my mind as warm-up for Naldjorlak. No such luck. The trilogy is going to remain one of the highlights of my year. This time, I was careful to sit in closer, the better to focus both on the performer(s) and the music they made. The intense, sustained quality of the music and the performance helped to shut out Spitalfields.

How much of this 3-hour trilogy is spectacle? The performance is so fraught, with its long, steady drones, that the slightest faltering by the musicians would mar the music’s immaculate surface. As far as I can remember, Charles Curtis on cello, then Carol Robinson and Bruno Martinez on basset horns, finally all three in the third, were flawless. There is also the audacity of the piece’s conception, particularly in the cello part, which ends with Curtis progressively bowing the instrument’s tailpiece, then its endpin, and finally the tailcord. The idea seems like an obvious gimmick from the grab-bag of “extended techniques” and free improvisation, and yet it all sounds perfectly consistent with the remainder of the piece.

The second part, with just two woodwinds, creates subtle but striking aural illusions. Are the two players needed simply to provide an hour’s worth of breath between them, in one unbroken tone? At first the natural overtones of the basset horns provide a direct harmonic contrast with those of the cello, but then things get more complex. New pitches slip into the sound as each player overlaps, either directly or through overtones – or perhaps because the listener’s mind is playing tricks.

At interval, I was a little concerned that the final part would be a let-down, by simply conflating the previous two. I was quickly relieved to find that, instead of being an indulgent melange of all that had gone before, Radigue alternated, combined and contrasted the tones produced by the three instruments. If you have any doubts about drones (I do) then Naldjorlak III is Radigue’s comprehensive refutation, displaying her skill not just in finding sounds, but in combining and sequencing them. This is real composition, to use Morton Feldman’s distinction, not just wallowing in timbre.

Also, it was good to hear basset horns play something besides Stockhausen for once.

  1. Didn’t realise you were there (didn’t know who to look for).

    Yes, very special. Extraordinary playing. And definitely more than wallowing in timbre too – a very subtle drama unfolds over the three panels, and it’s that sense of narrative/line that distinguishes it from Tenney, Lucier or whoever else comes to mind. But as I’ve thought more about it, and having listened to the early works the following night (which aren’t anything like as good, but do perhaps suggest something of ER’s aesthetic priorities) I have begun to worry that there’s something a little twee and precious about her music: that ‘line’ aspect points towards conventional needs to develop, resolve, etc. It just happens in much slower motion (like that Justin Bieber stretch, eg).

    I don’t want that to be true, but the thought has been nagging me.

  2. The only electronic gig I went to was Jetsun Mila, because it was a piece I hadn’t heard and I wanted something a bit later of hers, as a fairer comparison to the acoustic pieces. I’ve heard a few of those early pieces and they definitely suffer in comparison to her subsequent music.

    I haven’t had such nagging doubts with Radigue’s music as you mention, but it is one of my problems with drone music in general. Now you mention it I wonder if, when I listen to Radigue’s music, I hear what she hears in it.

  3. [...] an aside, I mentioned before that I have problems with drones. One thing that nagged at me during the Eliane Radigue gigs was the sense of time: this came back to me when I re-read Robert Ashley’s understanding of what [...]