June 21, 2011 Christ Church, Spitalfields
Any attempt at describing the work of French composer Eliane Radigue is bound to be far inferior to the feeling of experiencing it. Her work cannot be explained in traditional musical terms. Here we find no conventional use of movement, rhythm or pitch. That said, her compositions are neither chaotic nor monotonous, and to note that they make extensive use of drones and feedback belies the way they convey beauty, serenity and energy.
Radigue’s music is like the sea: constantly changing, constantly in flux, yet never ennuyeuse. It has a similar captivating quality, too, which makes almost three hours of music seem like an instant. Radigue’s continuous sound waves imperceptibly mutate to create a sonic landscape that is both hypnotic and unpredictable.
Renowned for her electronic experimentations dating back to the 1960s, notably with the ARP 2500 synthesizer, Radigue, now 79, has, since 2004, turned her back on electronic composition and vowed to write solely for acoustic instruments. It is a very special treat to be able to hear Naldjorlak I, II and III, as these pieces have never been presented in the UK before, and no recording is yet available.
Composed specifically for and in collaboration with the musicians playing, there is no written score for Naldjorlak. Appropriately for a creator of pure sound fields, Radigue has decided that the transmission between the composer and her interpreters should be entirely oral. The complicity between the protagonists is evident as Radigue attentively watches over them while they play, and she comes to embrace each performer as they leave the stage.
Naldjorlak I is a solo cello piece beautifully played by Charles Curtis. It is difficult to imagine a more minimalist composition, and as Curtis first sways his bow, almost no sound can be heard. It gradually becomes a murmur, which evolves into a soft complaint, like that of a distant whale, before ending on a very high harmonic. Curtis plays every part of the cello, even the spike, which makes this piece an extremely visual one, too.
The second piece is a duet for basset horns, played with extreme grace by Carol Robinson and Bruno Martinez. The duo produces almost identical notes, which go inexorably in and out of phase, creating discreet dissonances and pulsations. The two ‘voices’ overlap in relay rather than in orthodox harmony, in a ballet of circular breathing. The music and its execution are totally mesmerizing.
Naldjorlak III sees all three musicians come together for a 55-minute-long finale. In many ways it is an amalgamation of parts I and II, the cello producing rasps, glides and drones which contrast with the softer timbre of the horns. More harmonic variety is introduced and creates what is the most dynamic and the most accessible piece of the evening.
At the conclusion, Radigue joins her musicians on stage and takes a modest bow. The audience is spellbound and claps in awe. It has been a very special night. It is difficult to step back into reality. Angèle David-Guillou